Photograph by Peter Chuang
China / Politics

Finding Hong Kong in the American Revolution

In April of 2019, following the introduction of an extradition bill by the Hong Kong government, determined demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest. The extradition bill allowed fugitives in Hong Kong to be transferred and trialed in mainland China so that the city would not “become a haven for suspected criminals.” However, many Hong Kong citizens found the bill deeply problematic, since the bill loosely defined “fugitives” and potentially allowed the Chinese government to arrest political dissidents in Hong Kong. This has been interpreted as a serious infringement of the rights and liberties of Hong Kong citizens, leading to massive demonstrations against the bill.

These demonstrations, conducted in the name of freedom and democracy, have been central in world news since their eruption and show few signs of slowing. Hong Kong, previously a British colony, returned to China in 1997, and the two regions have been operating under the “one country, two systems” arrangement ever since. This system is a constitutional principle created by Chinese President Deng Xiaoping in an effort to ensure Hong Kong’s seamless reintegration back into the country. Despite these efforts, this system has sown the seeds for current unrest against the Chinese government’s increasing intervention. 

For the past two decades, Hong Kong citizens have enjoyed extended rights and freedoms under this system. In contrast, mainland citizens under the direct rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC) possess fewer rights and more constricted liberties, thus exacerbating differences between the two regions. For example, Hong Kong citizens live under a laissez-faire capitalist economy, whereas Chinese citizens possess a socialist economy that is heavily regulated by the state. Additionally, the political structures of the two regions remain distinct. While Hong Kong uses an electoral college system modeled roughly after Britain, China’s political representatives are determined exclusively by the Communist Party. However, the rights enjoyed by Hong Kong citizens under the “one country, two systems” arrangement are set to expire in 2047, and it is hard to imagine that Hong Kong will easily renounce the freedom it has enjoyed thus far when the date comes around. The extradition bill ignited the tension behind Hong Kong’s fear of returning to the absolute rule of China, which radicalized the protest into an independence movement.

The nature of the Hong Kong protests, which have been raging on with escalated energy for over six months, demonstrates the will of the population and the strength of the resistance as a democratic movement under a problematic political system. The roots of modern democratic movements can be traced back to the American Revolution, a feat that inspired generations of global patriots to strive for a new type of self-governance that ensured life, liberty, equality, and democracy. The Hong Kong protests, representative of the newest wave of human rights movements, possess subtle parallels to many characteristics of the American Revolution. Certain social and cultural elements that inspired the American Revolution have resurfaced in the Hong Kong protests. This article will examine these historical commonalities and consider how they can serve as valuable tools in comprehending and potentially predicting the events unfolding in Hong Kong.

First of all, the Hong Kong population is peculiar in that, due to a long period of rule under the British government and its geographic separation from the mainland, the region has developed its own unique culture and history that marks it apart from its two former rulers. Similarly, the American colonies had enjoyed a prolonged period of political autonomy under Great Britain’s salutary neglect. This, in turn, led to the development of a distinct culture and identity among the colonists that ultimately alienated them from the British citizens who are placed under the direct rule of the monarch. The citizens of Hong Kong and the American colonist were thus irrevocably estranged from the cultures they were directly tied to. Why is this cultural development important to our understanding of the two political uprisings? Because, as Hong Kong and the American colonies developed their respective cultures and became gradually withdrawn from their host nations, it became more important to preserve their autonomy. The governments in each respective case, once distant and non-meddling, began to tighten control. This is perceived as a threat to the newfound autonomy and sense of distinct identity for Hong Kong and the American colonies. Both cultures regard representation, freedom of speech, and democratic practice as essential and self-evident rights, thus heightening tensions and propelling each movement forward.

A second parallel between the two movements lies in the nature and timeframe of each conflict. Both movements, which originated from protests against unjust policies, have escalated significantly beyond their original intent. Despite relinquishing certain liberties back to protesters, both governments continued to face pressure in the name of more radical demands, a sign of continued resistance. For Hong Kong, the demonstration is a direct reaction to the extradition bill that had since been suspended and later completely withdrawn in September in the hope of pacifying the protest. However, the Hong Kong protest has since shifted courses, now focused on achieving complete independence from China. Similarly, the American Revolution began as an effort to resist the heavy taxes imposed by Great Britain, leading to organized boycotts. When the British Parliament conceded and repealed the much-resented taxes in 1766, the colonists were far from pacified. Rather, the initial demonstration had transformed quickly into a full-on revolution for independence.

A third parallel can be drawn between the rights enjoyed by citizens in both the American colonies and Hong Kong. Comparatively, Chinese and British citizens lived under more severe constrictions and faced harsh crackdowns following rebellious actions. While the Hong Kong citizens were aggrieved at the implication of the extradition bill, the idea of free speech is almost non-existent in mainland China under the surveillance of the CPC. While the colonists complained about the taxation enacted to pay for their war debt, the people back in England actually bore a much heavier tax burden that they nevertheless endured without grievance. Yet, in both cases, protestors were able to find more reasons and passion to speak out against oppressive government policies than those who are more directly influenced by them.

After examining the connections between the American Revolution and the protests in Hong Kong, it is only natural to ask whether we can use America’s historical comparison to make predictions on Hong Kong’s future. The answer is probably not. This is because the disparities between 21st century Hong Kong and 18th century America are larger than their similarities for the following reasons. First, the demographics of protesters in Hong Kong are mostly comprised of the young and idealistic. For an independence movement to succeed, Hong Kong lacks the powerful politicians, intellectuals, and businessmen that backed the American Revolution. So far, it appears that these influential figures care more about restoring peace and reviving the economy in Hong Kong than supporting the cause for democracy. Further, without foreign support, the movement against a powerful regime such as CPC or the British Empire is almost impossible to succeed. While 18th century-France could help the Americans due to its long-standing rivalry with England, diplomatic relations of the 21st century are much too complicated for support like that to happen to Hong Kong, especially with the prospect of antagonizing China. Finally, the increasing radicalization of the protest is accompanied by the destruction of private and public property in the city, as well as frequent instances of mob violence against civilians. These occurrences are fast to alienate the majority of the population who could have been potential additions to the movement. The internal strife between disturbed civilians and radical protestors is no doubt counterproductive to the objective of establishing a unified and independent government that also promotes peace and democracy.

Overall, the prospect for Hong Kong’s cause is looking grim. Despite protestors’ idealistic vision and advocacy for humanitarian rights, rebelling against a regime as assertive and uncompromising as the CPC is certainly a long shot. For China, giving up Hong Kong would be considered a sign of weakness that greatly undermines the spirit of nationalism and unity it has been trying so hard to establish. Maybe for the present, a continuation of “one country, two systems” is the best that Hong Kong can hope for.