Police using water cannons in Hong Kong, 2019. Photo: Del via Flickr Police using water cannons in Hong Kong, 2019. Photo: Del via Flickr

Caught between threats from China and support from the US, the protestors face some difficult decisions, writes Dragan Plavšić

The crisis in Hong Kong deepened this week. On Tuesday, Beijing imposed a new security law on the territory, increasing its powers of repression and signalling its clear intention to clamp down on the mass protests against the extension of its rule there. 

The timing of all this is not at all accidental. It reflects ever-worsening tensions between the US and China as Trump seeks to shift the focus of US foreign policy away from Russia to the far greater threat China increasingly poses to US global power on the key economic, political and military levels.

China’s response has been to step up its efforts to secure its position in Hong Kong, otherwise a weak point which it has always known the US would exploit should the need arise. Its last attempt to gain more control – by getting the local authorities headed by the pro-Beijing Carrie Lam to pass an extradition law – was decisively rebuffed by mass protests. Now it has opted for directly imposing a more extensive security law. As the ever-compliant Lam put it, ‘The legislation aims to prevent, curb and punish acts of cessation, subversion of state power, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security.’

In turn, on Wednesday, the US imposed sanctions on any groups which it considers are working to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson offered refuge to Hong Kong citizens, knowing full well that it will be the richest of the 3 million potentially eligible who are most likely to make it to these shores. The point is not that sanctions or offers of refuge will mean much to most Hong Kongers, but rather the supportive Western message they convey.

There is a battle going on, then, for the political soul of Hong Kongers. China is stirring nationalist passions against the threat of foreign US interference, while the US and the UK are posing as the defenders of liberties they never bothered with when the UK ruled Hong Kong as a colony or when they struck business deals with Beijing.

The key question for the left is what these wider pressures will do to the protestors and their movement. They could fall away under the threat of repression and the tug of nationalism of course. Or they could turn into little more than cheerleaders for the US and the UK; indeed, this is precisely where the counterproductive calls for independence for Hong Kong are leading.

There is no easy answer for the movement in what is an increasingly tense and dangerous situation. But this doesn’t mean that there is no political alternative. A real alternative means steering clear of Western support while urging on the protests against Beijing and its local satraps not just to defend existing democratic rights but to extend them. It entails understanding that the more the movement looks for saviours in Washington and London, the less will it be able to muster its own domestic forces to bring about real democratic change. A left able to put these arguments to the movement may well be able to sow some valuable seeds for the future.


Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).