Hong Kong's revolutionary moment interrupted by coronavirus fears

The protest movement in Hong Kong has evolved into three distinct revolutionary moments, according to sociologist Ching Kwan Lee. It has led to the reimagining of community, the re-evaluation of violence, and Hong Kong's emergence as a global city, able to leverage its financial role to stand against China's absolutist authority.

The epidemic has hindered street protests, but anger intensifies says researcher

Since June 2019, Hong Kong citizens have flooded the streets opposing a new extradition law. Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee believes this uprising against the regime is a pivotal moment for Hong Kong, and has been on the front lines of the protests. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

For seven months Ching Kwan Lee was immersed in the Hong Kong protest movement, visiting the front lines in full protest gear, and listening to the stories of students, seniors and white collar workers who risk injury and arrest to voice opposition to China's growing influence.

The Los Angeles-based sociology professor arrived in early June 2019 to begin a job at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, just as hundreds of thousands took to the streets. The unexpected ferocity of the movement became her research project.

"It is a wonderful opportunity for me to study this kind of political uprising in my hometown," Lee told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. 

Building on 25 years of research into China's labour practices and global aspirations, Lee looks at the protest movement through the perspective of both China and the people of Hong Kong. She believes the battles that occurred from June to early January constitute a revolution against China over its incursions into the city's independence. 

When the government is not accountable to the people everything is political.- Ching Kwan Lee

Lee brought her findings to Toronto, and presented them in a lecture at Ryerson University on Jan. 23. The same day, authorities in China suspended air and rail departures from the city of Wuhan, the first in an escalating series of developments in the outbreak of a novel coronavirus.

By the time Lee returned to Hong Kong, public institutions and businesses were closed, and the streets had emptied.

Response to coronavirus raises level of anger

The uprising began on June 9, 2019 over an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong residents to be sent to China to face criminal trials. But the brutality of the police response quickly became the focus, even after Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam agreed to abandon the contentious bill.

Lam, already a target of the angry protests, also came under criticism over her handling of coronavirus. The protesters claim she responded too slowly to curtail travel from China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the Central Government Complex on Feb. 3 in Hong Kong. The government has announced it will shut down all but two of the border crossing stations with mainland China. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

She is under fire for a controversial effort to ban people from wearing face masks. The move intended to help police identify protesters created confusion as coronavirus fears spread and the use of masks was seen as one way of preventing it.

"I think this epidemic has illustrated once again that when the government is not democratic, when the government is not accountable to the people, everything is political," Lee explained in an interview from Hong Kong.

She believes the Hong Kong government's handling of the coronavirus will only strengthen the pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong's leverage

Lee's preliminary research suggests Hong Hong has coalesced as a community in its opposition to China's attempts to assert more control over the territory. 

Ching Kwan Lee is a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and studies the power dynamics between the people of Hong Kong and the leaders of China. (Submitted by Ching Kwan Lee)

She has identified three revolutionary moments that arose from the 2019 protest movement:

  • People within the movement have forged new friendships and alliances and see themselves in a revolutionary role.

  • Many have accepted so-called "just" violence in response to the harsh actions of police.

  • Current and former residents of Hong Kong have created unofficial diplomatic channels, bypassing China in international relations.

Hong Kong's unique status as a global economic powerhouse will prevent China from imposing a Tiananmen Square style crackdown on the protests, Lee says. She cites Hong Kong's customs status which allows the importation of sensitive electronic and surveillance technology as one factor that keeps China from being seen as pushing too hard against the territory's autonomy.

In short, she says, the Communist state needs the capitalist territory to bolster its domestic economy.

"Hong Kong becomes the frontier for global China," she explained in her lecture.

Like many in Hong Kong she is hoping for a pragmatic solution where China respects the one country two systems principle which was enacted when Britain handed over control of the territory in 1997.

Police detain an anti-government protester during a demonstration inside a mall in Hong Kong in December 2019. Despite the coronvirus epidemic, Lee calls on democracy activists to continue to fight 'to protect ourselves, and our children, and our future.' (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

But Lee isn't making any predictions. She says no one could have anticipated the size and scope of the street protests which began in June. Nor could anyone foresee the coronavirus crisis which has paralyzed much of China, and cleared Hong Kong streets of protesters.

"I think it's very difficult for me to predict what the future would hold."

Ching Kwan Lee's lecture entitled, The Improbable Revolution: Hong Kong versus China, was delivered at Ryerson University in Toronto.

* This episode was produced by Terry Reith.