Two protests and false parallels

While democracy was under siege in the U.S. last week, autocracy was under siege in Hong Kong in 2019

January 14, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 01:30 am IST

Former Democratic Party legislators Andrew Wan, left, Lam Cheuk-ting, second from left, and Helena Wong, right, attend a press conference after their released on bail in Hong Kong on January 8, 2021.

Former Democratic Party legislators Andrew Wan, left, Lam Cheuk-ting, second from left, and Helena Wong, right, attend a press conference after their released on bail in Hong Kong on January 8, 2021.

As a pro-Trump mob swarmed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the comparisons drawn to the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) complex on July 1, 2019 were immediate. The two historic moments marked days when protest movements breached the hearts of their respective governments. But that is where the similarities ended. Beyond this superficial level, the differences between the two were numerous.

Stark differences

While those besieging the Capitol sought to overturn the results of an election to cement their strongman leader’s rule, those in Hong Kong sought to secure their right to elect their leader and govern themselves, as promised in their own constitutional document. While hordes supporting U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol as Congress was in session, intending to hold their elected representatives hostage, LegCo was occupied late at night when it was empty. The target of the Hong Kong protesters was not any individual but a symbol: a building that, far from a centuries-old temple of democracy, was a barely eight-year-old steel-and-glass dolmen for a government they had never voted for, and which continued to ignore them even when two million Hong Kongers marched peacefully through the streets to demand the withdrawal of a bill allowing criminal suspects to be sent to Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.

Also read | Comparing U.S. Capitol to Hong Kong, China slams ‘stark contrast’ in U.S. reaction

But not all comparisons between Washington and Hong Kong are unwarranted. Days after the LegCo siege, another watershed event took place that bears far more of a resemblance to the events on Capitol Hill: the infamous attack at Yuen Long station, launched by pro-government thugs viciously and indiscriminately targeting returning protesters, journalists and everyday commuters. The venue — a metro station far from the city centre in the northwest New Territories — was different, but the motivations and actions of the Yuen Long mob share far more in common with the one on Capitol Hill: manipulated by establishment figures to exact revenge against those desperately seeking to make their voices heard, and the “fake news” media deemed complicit in helping to project these voices. Like the pro-Trump mob — and unlike the LegCo protesters — they were largely unmasked, confident in their impunity as defenders of the existing order.

When they struck, the police patrolling the station at the time walked away. Citizens ran to the nearest police station to report what was happening only to find its doors shuttered. When a sizeable number of anti-riot officers finally arrived 40 minutes later, they were filmed gently escorting the armed men away from their bloodied victims — a far cry from the tear gas and rubber bullets fired at pro-democracy protesters earlier in the day. No arrests were made on the scene, and it later emerged that police had received warnings about the impending attack and had observed the throng of men wielding wooden sticks, poles, rattan canes, steel rods, and even knives as they amassed outside the station.

Not unlike Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Hong Kong pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho turned up to show his support for the armed mob, hailing them as “heroes.”

Misrepresentative equivalence

It can be tempting to draw parallels between two events that present similar images: the surging crowd, the makeshift battering rams, the shattered glass, and a legislative chamber briefly occupied by an uninvited crowd. But before making those comparisons one ought to consider what motivated that crowd, what led the protesters there, and what that legislative body and its composition tell us about its significance and the political climate surrounding it. One should also ask whether it is responsible to make an equivalence between an incident in which democracy was under siege and one in which autocracy was under siege. By all means, draw parallels between the events in Washington and those in Hong Kong in 2019, but be sure that you are making the right one.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a journalist from Hong Kong

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