Over the last weeks, people from all around the world have observed through social media the power of millions of people uniting in the streets, in the usually peaceful Hong Kong. On the 9th of June, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the city’s biggest demonstration since the ’90s and, just a week later, organisers claimed that almost two million protesters joined a second march. Considering that Hong Kong‘s population doesn’t even reach eight million people, this number is astonishing.
This huge mobilization of people has been sparked following the proposal of a controversial ‘extradition bill’ which would allow suspected criminals to be transferred from Hong Kong to China — meaning they would face trial through Chinese courts. Protesters fear that the bill will allow China to persecute political and religious opponents that seek refuge in Hong Kong and also greatly reduce the region’s independence. Indeed, even though the city is formally part of China since 1997 — when the UK renounced its control over the region — Hong Kong has retained a very special status. It is regulated by different laws, it has its own judicial system, and, generally, it is subjected to a milder form of state control compared to mainland China.
Hong Kong residents enjoy more freedoms, especially concerning political and religious orientation. They are therefore particularly susceptible to any attempts from China in gaining more control over the city. That’s why this proposed extradition bill is causing so much outrage: it is a direct danger to the freedom and independence of Hongkongers, allowing China to firmly extend its judicial control over the city. These last few weeks, the people have been marching for Hong Kong’s identity, freedom, and independence.
However, these protests are significant not only for Hong Kong; they are likely to have a worldwide impact — especially in terms of people’s attitudes to mass demonstrations. Indeed, these last few decades, people’s confidence and participation in protests has been steadily declining. I remember a few years ago, when the Italian government announced a series of cuts to the schools budget, many unions and students’ associations called for protests and marches. However, the majority of my peers didn’t believe that taking to the streets was the right solution. ‘It is an outdated practice’, they said. ‘It simply doesn’t bring anything good’.
One of the causes behind this feeling of demotivation is the failure of major mass movements in the early 2000s, such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’, the ‘World Social Forum’, or the ‘Anti-Globalization Movement’. All these campaigns advocated for broad changes in the global system and managed to organise marches and assemblies attended by thousands of people. Nevertheless, they couldn’t ultimately achieve concrete results, and their demonstrations were often overshadowed by clashes provoked by groups of violent protesters. As a consequence, people increasingly came to see such protests as ‘useless’ events which only rarely bring success and are likely to escalate into dangerous situations.
However, in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of mass demonstrations: the ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Me Too‘ and especially the ‘Fridays for Future‘ movements have persuaded millions of people, and notably many youngsters, to march for their rights. Compared to past campaigns for an anti-capitalistic, egalitarian, and fairer global system, the modern movements’ demands are more specific — and arguably more realistic and urgent. Indeed, the latest mobilizations have definitely contributed in raising awareness on issues such as police brutality, sexual assault and environmental devastation, both within the social and political spheres.
At the same time, unfortunately, all these movements have yet to achieve concrete results. Even the young participants of Fridays for Future, who were hailed as the ‘new world advancing’, are struggling to keep the movement alive against the power of governments, industries, and multinationals. People are regaining confidence in their own power, but they need a real victory to reconsider the value of grassroots campaigns and mass demonstrations.
And so, we are at a crossroads: between a future of confidence in the effectiveness of protests, and one in which people will delegate pressing necessities to the formal sphere of politics — instead of directly campaigning for their rights. The outcome of Hong Kong’s protests could be that one crucial event to tip the balance.
The movement has all the right characteristics to succeed. Besides having mobilized huge numbers of people, its aim is very specific and clear. Moreover, it has conquered the support of many international organizations, such as Amnesty International, and has gone viral, with people all over the world waiting for what’s next. The movement has already succeeded in blocking debate regarding the bill, and it pressured Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, towards issuing a formal apology. There is optimism that it will go all the way and win the fight, thereby inspiring people all over the world to join marches and demonstrations and to campaign for their rights.
But, the flip side is that precisely because the movement has so many positive points, its failure could be catastrophic. China may, after all, refuse to budge and exercise its full political power — de facto obliging Hong Kong to pass the bill. It would be an extremely unpopular move, but it cannot be ruled out. In this case, the message would be that no matter how many people unite to protest, and how valid their claims are, political and military power will always trump people power. We may come to believe, that since the Hong Kong movement failed, no other mass demonstration will be effective. We may, lose confidence in the effectiveness of protests.
Therefore, we should all pay great attention to the developments in Hong Kong’s protests. Victorious or not, they are likely to have a huge impact on people’s faith in mass demonstrations. These next few weeks will determine how people will make their voices heard in politics, and how they will react to injustices and prevarications.