• Mark Lu

The Red Priests of Power, Part 1: Hong Kong in the Greater Power Conflict


I was in my last day of contemporary U.S. history class a couple weeks ago, engaging in a discussion on the future of American foreign policy following over 150 years of clodhopping foreign relations in the Middle East, Central America, and South Asia. The topic naturally came to Russia and China in the 21st century: the U.S.’s two most powerful competitors on the modern stage. We drifted over George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, a nuclear escalation that dramatically moved us closer to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. We then arrived at the People’s Republic of China, a financial giant now using its influence to shower free money on developing countries with no strings attached in an effort to develop the strength of its currency, as well as steal soft power points from the West in its most vulnerable vicinities: Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. During this discussion, an overconfident white classmate—I understand there are at least two of these guys in every class at American University—ended a comment with a dicey remark out of nowhere that everyone in the class, Republican or Democrat, would probably agree with: “Hashtag Free Hong Kong,” a phrase borne out of a movement that has finally brought the reality of the U.S.-China struggle into the mainstream political colloquy.

I have written this article, and the series of articles to follow, under a byline I don’t usually use. This byline displays my legal name, my Chinese name, my real name. I was born in China. I grew up Chinese. And now, I sit halfway around the world, watching people who look like me and speak like me inflict horrifying atrocities upon individuals who don’t. When I first began thinking up this series of articles on China, I had a layout of topics all sprouting from this modern-day peninsula reckoning, from the mass detention of Uigher Muslims in the northwestern Xinjiang region to the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and the self-immolation protests of the 2010s. I thought Hong Kong would be an exemplary to all these issues pertaining to the Chinese one-party surveillance state that is now eager to extend its values overseas in its assumption of a world leadership position.

With that being said, because every Western news outlet and government agency has written the Hong Kong protesters as “pro-freedom” “freedom fighters,” it’s easy to think of the movement as patently progressive. My purpose in publishing this piece and this series is to critically examine the Chinese condition, as I see a debilitating flaw in the way we think about the East and confront these issues in an economic and political capacity. My hope is that as you read, you find yourself saying, “Wait. NowThis never published a video about THAT.”

Let me make the following clear before I say anything further. Yes, I was born on the mainland. No, I do not speak Cantonese. Yes, I was raised for a large portion of my life in the U.S. Yes, I go to a private liberal arts college.

Anti-mainland resistance in Hong Kong had brewed for two decades now since its 1998 handover from the British, but never on the scale this year has seen. It’s jarring but inspiring to Westerners: watching vehement, collectivized opposition to a government with a reputation of being ruthless in quashing dissent. As I’m writing this, the unrest has been going on for about seven months in the vigor for which it has garnered international support. Police recently stormed Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which had been occupied by student protesters. In mid-August, demonstrators marched on Hong Kong International Airport’s main terminal, grounding all flights. Videos of protesters jump-kicking police and images of police shooting protesters at point-blank range populate and propagate on Twitter.

Something that has been made very clear is that an extradition bill alone did not incite this violence. The withdrawal process was completed in late October, but war cries have shifted to the larger issue exemplified by the bill: the authoritarian nature of the Communist Party of China (C.P.C.) its crimes against humanity, and its crusade against freedom of expression. Hong Kong is perhaps a uniquely perfect arena for this battle: federal extractions of political dissidents and opponents based out of the peninsula and its surrounding islands have been occurring for years. The detention of a Hongkongese book publisher, the arrest of a billionaire in the middle of his lunch at the Four Seasons, and President Xi Jinping’s placement of all print media under the direction of the Party's Central Propaganda Department, as the New York Times calls it. (China calls it the Publicity Department.) The Hong Kong issue is a four-way intersection of Great Power Conflict katzenjammers, from Xi’s economic prospectives to the soft power struggle in the south Pacific to the conduct and identity of the protesters themselves, and where their rhetoric in its current form sits relative to their case.

Xi’s Great Bluff

In terms of its political strength, something that was heavily put to the test in 2019, the Communist Chinese government’s greatest source of fear is the beckoning appeal of American social and economic freedom, a by-definition departure from the socialist values that Xi strictly maintains on the mainland. This is why it must participate in censorship, political groupthink, and the use of anti-corruption narratives as a means to lock up political dissidents within the government: to disrupt the forces that compelled Libyans to drag their exiled leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, out of a hole in the ground to collectively dismember the staunch image he had long maintained as a dictator.

Xi himself is a de facto dictator produced over decades by the dictatorship that has groomed over 1.3 billion heads below a cloud of unchecked pollution and security cameras. He is a vile lizard bleeding of middle-aged contentment, blind to the type of ideology he has subscribed himself to as a result of his soundproof conscription of China’s core values and ethnic principles, a brand of thinking labeled “Xi Jinping Thought,” recruiting ideas as soldiers to maintain the backward, majority-sustaining, and minority-oppressing dystopia of Mao Zedong’s perverted vision of what a free China should be. George Orwell was not writing about China when he wrote 1984, but still, China has unknowingly inhibited a substantial volume of every facet of the book—the use of censorship and groupthink to effect political goals, the manipulation of language to distort historical implications, the bulky surveillance state, and the absolute, all-seeing, and popular autocratic figure at the head of the snake: a Big Brother that is a warm, grinning, round-nosed, puffy-eyed, chubby uncle instead of a steel-eyed, tight-lipped, high-cheeked military man. “Xi Jinping Thought” is more like “Xi Jinping Groupthought.”

When I was ten years old, I mistakenly came across news footage of Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire in protest of Chinese occupation and restriction on Buddhist practices. I could not look away then and have not forgotten a single shaven face. Self-immolation protests continue to this day. Yoga is hardly the first thing that comes to my mind when I see the Dalai Lama on my news feed. Weeks ago, I watched hidden camera footage filmed by Uigher parents, of meetings with national police who brought news of their children’s deaths to their door, without the body on hand but a cash envelope in exchange for silence. I’ve been watching secret footage of morning routines in the concentration camps in the Northwest, where thousands of Muslims are being forced to renounce their beliefs and practices as China fights Islamic extremism by rewriting the Qu’ran and placing anyone who has ever traveled to a Muslim-majority country in indefinite detention. But what a lot of people don’t understand is why mainland Chinese folks are largely okay with all this. Many would suggest it is because they themselves are not the victims, that they are taught to practice the brand of apathy that is universal in territorial disputes and racial or religious intolerance. Others might say it’s the result of newspeak and strict information control. Some, including myself, would point to the widespread conservatism that hounds the mainland Chinese mindset. Some others, including myself, would suggest Chinese people really are that ruthlessly indifferent about a group they have been taught to hate by filtered history and tribalism. Resting solely on the dual-nation environment I know, all of the above are true in some sense, made possible by uniquely Chinese values disseminated through what exists today as ideological grooming by a ruling Party grasping for ways to hold on to its political crutches.

Understanding this is crucial to understanding why the Hong Kong protests are a worldwide phenomenon. Folks on the mainland are widely disincentivized to participate in politics, mostly because newspapers act as free language arts textbooks for children because nobody reads them; nothing negative is ever in the headline. If you want a taste, visit the front page of the Global Times, the main state media body. Hong Kong enjoys the opposite of this. The “one country, two systems” policy has allowed for a much more fervent political identity on the peninsula. Compare the Global Times’ front page to that of the South China Morning Post’s. The field of economics has this thing called a “natural experiment” in which a scenario develops alongside a control outside an experimental setting. Because facts flow freely in Hong Kong but not on the mainland, there can only be one region that is politically emboldened to speak up. It’s difficult to actively dissent when crucial information is kept under tabs by an extremely popular ruling party, which itself feeds that disinformation.

However, the doctrine that holds up this political construct is economic. India has used the U.S.’s desire to tackle climate change as a way of finding unsanctioned methods of human rights abuses in Kashmir’s Assam region, but China seems to see a financial avenue to reinforcing the value system it is clutching on to. This brings us to the issue of soft power, a term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. that refers to the nonmilitary installation of favorable relations with a strategically important foreign nation. The postwar conception of the soft power concept is frequently put forth hand in hand with the self-edifying argument embodied by folks like neoliberal sweetheart Pete Buttigieg that “if you want peace and prosperity, you want American primacy and capitalism,” as described by Yale historian Michael Brenes. However, the way I use the term in this article is to refer to any sort of Chinese investment in positive public attitudes abroad as ideological buttresses in its global strategy. The Trump administration still exudes considerable muscle in the South Asian region in terms of soft power. China’s broad foreign investments abroad as well as its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, however, are leveling the playing field. China spends $10 billion annually on soft power initiatives, but the U.S. still scores more favorably in global surveys. As it stands, Hong Kong is still the U.S.’s most significant ideological outpost in the region, as China hasn’t made much of an effort to reclaim it fully from Western influence following British abdication under a “one country, two systems” policy.

Trade and foreign investment is how China will disseminate its socialist values. But what has not quite been defined yet in the international appeal of China’s system is the efficiency of that system itself, a flaw that gapes when confronted with the extraordinarily unique situation in Hong Kong. Xi’s international economic aspirations represent a brunt departure from the days of Deng Xiaoping when the implications of China’s authoritarian structure were largely confined within its borders underneath a low-key brand of foreign policy, a strategy that paid off very fruitfully for China’s interior development following decades of disastrous leadership under dotard-mode Mao Zedong. The modern-day Great Power Conflict, a mutation of the growth under President Hu Jintao (Hu’s foreign growth initiatives came somewhat at the expense of the domestic condition), is a play between broad economic interests, in which China has set its global stake in the long term, prepared to afford small losses in the short run toward this grand vision of a world fortified by not just Chinese yuan, but also Chinese values.

If we evaluate China’s financial hand from this year, however, we find that 2019 offered plenty of hiccups for Beijing. There was the Huawei controversy that garnered international chide against Chinese communications technology. There was the costly fallout from the trade war with the Trump administration. But most significantly for Xi, there was a skyrocketing of government debt at the local level. Concerning the rising debt, Xi only has himself to blame, as his centralizing of power has lowered efficiency at the local levels of government, according to an assessment by Elizabeth C. Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a specialized issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that examined the global decline of democracy.

With respect to domestic reactions to Xi’s expansive initiatives, taking into account the aforementioned economic hiccups, the Chinese government’s stringent information control network has made it difficult to gauge the popularity and efficacy of his ideas. This means that the West’s conception of Chinese mainlanders as a politically and ideologically homogeneous body could likely be of an image of formidability and absolution conceived through U.S. insecurity surrounding its own hegemony, in addition to withering appeal of the American system abroad thanks to the chaos of the Trump administration.

Xi’s proposed solutions to the aforementioned economic hiccups, in addition to Hong Kong, suggest this conception’s contrary. He proposed a) tighter control over the Internet, and b) yet another slew of indoctrination techniques to keep Chinese youth thinking on the same wavelength. Back in 2012, during the final days of the Hu presidency, following years of capital and brain drain as the wealthiest mainlanders fled to Hong Kong and a series of protests among the agricultural and working classes, the state media group Global Times conducted a poll that found “more than 70 percent of the respondents said they believed that the government should further accept public supervision from the public and the media.” Nothing in political fundamentalist Xi’s candidacy back then suggested he’d carry out these forms instead of just effecting more state-enforced thought control and happier newspaper headlines.

Chinese officials themselves are reportedly mixed in their reactions to Xi’s dialogue on 2019’s economic battles. They fear the constant efforts for strength and stability may lead in the opposite direction it’s meant, according to Chris Buckley of the New York Times in his analysis of the C.P.C.'s assemblies from earlier this year. “As Xi begins his second five-year term as C.C.P. general secretary and (soon) president, there are signs that the new model’s very successes are becoming liabilities,” writes Elizabeth C. Economy in another article for Foreign Affairs. “He has driven the Chinese Communist Party more deeply into Chinese political, social, and economic life, while constraining the influence of foreign ideas and economic competition. And he has abandoned Deng’s low-profile foreign policy in favor of one that is ambitious and expansive.” There is clear evidence that the iron-clad red dragon is quite naked underneath.

But if you don’t want to believe me, believe China’s affluent and skilled citizens, who, due to concerns regarding Xi’s heavy domestic and international hand, have moved their money and their family members out of China—and, in a surprising capacity, to Hong Kong. The 2016 Panama Papers revealed that several relatives of Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the most influential premier in the history of the People’s Republic after Mao Zedong, hold Hong Kong permanent residency cards. The unrest triggered in May and June by the passing of an extradition bill serves perhaps the greatest popular challenge to the Xi regime of his presidency, mostly because large volumes of people on the mainland actually know about it.

Regardless of the seemingly weakening structure of China’s political bravado, and the opportunity that serves to today’s Hong Kong protesters, the West remains steadfast in its approach to China, unabashedly pushing its image the way Xi would like it to: a cold, totalitarian dragon who is infringing on America’s hegemony of democratic capitalist values. It’s not difficult to see where this fear comes from; Uncle Sam fears being replaced by Wáng Jiù Jiu, and Uncle Sam’s citizens fear mass surveillance and threats to its treasured civil rights and liberties, most importantly freedom of expression. They will happily support their government in this effort.

China’s interests on the world stage are best served if it rejects the idea that the red dragon seeks to replace the bald eagle and to purport that it merely wants to do its own thing in its own hemisphere. But alas, a country must appear strong and stable. A little over a year ago, Beijing top diplomat Wang Yi stood before the Council on Foreign Relations and told the world that China was not on a mission to claim the global value-based leadership very clearly inhibited by the U.S., bolstered by the might of a sprawling American military-industrial complex and the influence of some several dozen developed Western democracies. “China will not become, will not challenge, will not take the place of the United States,” Wang said. He also told the Council that by suggesting the opposite, Uncle Sam was making a “serious strategic misjudgment that would bring exceptional harm to the future and the interests of the U.S.” To the West, that sounded like a threat. At the very least, a middle finger. Or perhaps a challenge to ramp up the economic and material armaments of modern-day soft conflict, which the U.S. and China have been engaged in for several decades now. Either way, Wang’s words certainly did not evoke calls for compromise. The West’s only hope is Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Identity Crisis

In July, shortly after premier Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill, protesters stormed the Legislative Council Building and hoisted the British colonial flag. Western media outlets branded the movement “pro-democracy” in perhaps the most ironic move of this whole schting, as if the liberties afforded to Chinese workers in the former half of the 20th century equated to the liberties enjoyed by the middle class of South London. In suggesting it was better to be involuntarily stoned by the opium of white conquerors than live under Western-level leniency, today’s Hongkongers rejected their forefathers of the 1960s that led mass protests condemning oppressive state-sanctioned tactics like public punishment and labor exploitation. Furthermore, the event pointed a finger toward an essential question that everybody believed had already been answered: what is the purpose of these protests?

I don’t believe the raising of the colonial flag was done so in the “take me back to the opium days” spirit, but that it was meant as a historically infused thesis in pursuit of Hong Kong independence based on the Western political system. Masked bannermen have held up the flags of the U.K. and the U.S., singing patriotic tunes like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Stars & Stripes Forever.” In perhaps a more dramatic exercise of this narrative, during the storming of Hong Kong International Airport, protesters tied up a state media reporter they accused of being a Beijing spy and beat him with an American flag as he was being wheeled out on a stretcher. This points to the core rhetoric circled by all these civil uprisings, police riots, and vandalizing, framing the conflict along U.S. vs. China lines: that Hongkongers are not Chinese, and that those who are Chinese are the enemy. This constitutes an incisive effort to redefine the Chinese identity.

Contrary to what Americans believe, this disposition isn’t spurred by political rebellion. It originates from a difference in political values but is most invigorated by generational conflict. Older Chinese people that have fallen victim to government-instilled identity politics as a means to divide and conquer over the years—with Taiwan, Nepal, and the islands in the South China Sea—are now the target, representing those on the mainland who, regardless of age, have been groomed by the authoritarian government to believe that they have always been on the right side of history. The rejection of the protesters’ own Chinese identity out of discontent with the government and the popular historical justifications for its crimes against humanity is a rallying cry for young Hongkongers specifically, and it can almost be thought of as a variation of “Ok, boomer”—instead, something more like “Ok, Red Guard.”

The broader target of this rhetoric is the one-third of Hong Kong residents who were born on the mainland but moved to the peninsula to enjoy freedoms of expression and contract. Individuals whose influence is indispensable in the larger struggle against centralized human rights abuses. “I have grown alarmed and disillusioned by the anti-Chinese rhetoric some locals have taken up as they battle for greater democratic freedoms. Many of us moved here precisely so we could enjoy similar liberties. The hate infecting the city threatens to alienate even those of us who should be the protesters’ strongest allies,” writes a Hong Kong journalist who was born on the mainland and schooled in the U.S. in an op-ed called “Losing the Hong Kong I Love.” “We keep quiet and have adopted low profiles," she continues. "Shop owners in my neighborhood have warned me to be careful because I look distinctly different than local Cantonese—I am about half a head taller. I’ve stopped speaking Mandarin in public.”

The Hong Kong peninsula has served as a haven for mainlanders to outwardly reject the principles of the autocratic mainland government, and yet they are discarded from the political arsenal as impediments merely by way of their origin. What clause in this narrative implicates an autocratic government’s oppression of its people, when the preamble shamelessly divides those people? Not only has this hostility divided Hongkongers, ultimately weakening the cause and its capacity to elicit empathy, it has also turned violent for protesters’ own neighbors. When a 57-year-old man verbally lambasted a group of masked protesters after they had vandalized a train station, he was doused in gas and set on fire, suffering burns to a third of his body. He reportedly told them, “You are not Chinese.” They reportedly responded, “You’re right—we are Hongkongers,” before lighting him up.

Xi’s fear of ideological undermining by the U.S. is why the Hong Kong people’s rejection of traditional Han thought serves perhaps the greatest threat to his presidency he has ever seen, especially after that landslide victory for democratic parties in local elections late November in the face of Beijing’s enmity. But this is also why the protesters and their incisive practice of violence and division may result in ideological self-sabotage.

I sympathize with the Hong Kong protests for the sole reason that these students have lent their voice and their energy to a mass rejection of the C.P.C.’s disregard for civil freedoms, which has actively furthered horrifying government-sanctioned crimes against humanity throughout its history, in Nepal, in Tibet, and most emphatically today, in Xinjiang. But where that rhetoric falls short is the separatist aura that surrounds it, and the hostile, nativist tone through which it has been conceived. The tone alone pokes several holes in the practice of the movement, specifically without altering the central narrative governing its spirit. In order to understand this discrepancy, one must first understand the ways international sentiment can influence the thinking within the structure of this sort of mass movement. In cases where the U.S. is concerned, a structure of Western democracy is offered as a standard, prequeled by the British Empire’s political legacy. Nowhere is this standard more evident than in the raising of the British colonial flag, and the singing of patriotic American tunes.

A Working Class Revolution?

There’s a reason why real socialists don’t find the supposedly pro-democratic rhetoric of the protesters convincing. You would think socialists would support a movement that brands itself as fighting on behalf of popular sovereignty, but they don’t. And you would be lucky to find one that does. The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, the group that led the late-century anti-colonial independence movements alongside the brewing of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland, has come out against the protests. When the protesters cite labor groups’ support, they are usually referencing the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (tricky, huh?), which is much smaller and mostly consists of white-collar workers.

This is when it’s interesting to bring up the composition of the protesting body relative to the class makeup of this dispute. A local university polling of 6,600 protesters at 12 demonstrations spaced over several months found that over half of the protesters were middle class, and about three-quarters were college-educated. The protesters are relatively young, with 60 percent under the age of 30. This doesn’t look like a working-class revolution against the confines of an oppressive totalitarian government. This looks like Elizabeth Warren’s support base. “Hong Kong’s working class has nothing to gain from worse relations with mainland China, much less from ‘independence,’” writes socialist publication Fight Back News in a class analysis of the protests. “In actuality, the protests in Hong Kong serve the interests of finance capital, both in the city itself and around the world.”

Following decolonization into the later years of the 1990s, Hong Kong remained capitalist, which meant that it would serve as the financial turnpike between the international market and the mainland, just as it had in the days of British rule. Today, the peninsula enjoys low tax rates, a flimsy legal system, and Western-level state regulation, which make it a hotspot for all sorts of trafficking and money laundering conspiracies. After a new era of independence began at the beginning of the 21st century, Western financiers and investors familiar with this system saw the commercial and legal safe zone it provided, and subsequently thrived in Hong Kong. Because of the circumstances that enable such rampant corruption, the protesters’ actions may be more hinderent on the peninsula’s economic condition than it may seem at first to Western eyes and ears.

Hong Kong is cronyism heaven. The umbrella organization that leads the protests, the Civil Human Rights Front, draws its funding from local billionaires and interest groups, but most substantially from the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.), which has been described by Jacobin magazine staff writer Branko Marcetic as “a vehicle for Putin-style foreign meddling.” The Endowment, or N.E.D., is an organization with a nice name that was originally brought into existence by the Ronald Reagan administration, tasked with carrying out the overt duties that the C.I.A. had been conducting covertly for decades, most significantly the upheaval of popular communist governments in Central America in the 1980s and 90s.

Unlike the dirty and shadowy C.I.A., the N.E.D. is all rainbows and sunshine. Its call to action is predicated on the philosophy that capitalism equates to democracy, real democracy. Vocally anti-imperialist historian William Blum wrote that “virtually every penny of [the N.E.D.’s] funding comes from the federal government, as is clearly indicated in the financial statement in each issue of its annual report. N.E.D. likes to refer to itself as an N.G.O. because this helps to maintain a certain credibility abroad that an official U.S; government agency might not have. N.G.O. is the wrong category. N.E.D. is a G.O.” Blum writes extensively on this; you can read all about the U.S. meddling front here. President Donald Trump slashed State Department funding to the N.E.D. in 2018, much to the dismay of pro-Iraq War pundits like Charles Krauthammer and Kanan Makiya, but what dollars the organization still has to work with continues to flow to these patently “pro-democracy” efforts around the globe.

Political investments in Hong Kong from the N.E.D. and U.S. State Department have been ongoing for decades, with hopes that dissent spreads to the mainland. But it never has, and never really had the potential to do so. Xi has been putting every effort to insulate the values he believes are at the core of the culture he has been tasked with stewarding. Protesters had a unique opportunity posed by the extradition bill to appeal to mainland Chinese people. It’s doubtful whether that opportunity was substantial—information control and majority-ethnicity serving policies have reinforced an already immovable ideological garrison—but it was an opportunity nonetheless.

What’s not doubtful is that that opportunity has now been inexplicably forfeited by divisive rhetoric that seeks not to undermine the core base of the C.P.C., but rather to abandon it in favor of a unique Hong Kong identity. But if it was the goal of the N.E.D. to ideologically undermine the People’s Republic, and the protesters are functioning off of overtly divisive and unproductive rhetoric, perhaps it wasn’t the goal of the N.E.D. in the first place—it appears the real goal is to give the U.S. its little sphere of influence on China’s shore. But does Hong Kong know it’s simply being used as a tool? If so, is it happy to lend itself in that way?

And it’s not just the local billionaires and Western syndicates who have something to gain. The shadow sector that serves as a dark link between the mainland and the international market also profits from Hong Kong’s rebellion against the mainland. Mossack Fonseca—the Panamanian firm at the center of the Panama Papers leak of 2016, which detailed a massive network for the rich and powerful to hide their money in offshore accounts—had operated nearly a third of its business in Hong Kong, making the peninsula and neighboring islands its biggest market. Over three decades, Mossack made billions through Hong Kong funneling money via shell organizations and straight-up fake companies that existed solely to hold on to cash in tax evasion schemes. Lee Shing-put, the son in law of Zhang Gaoli, the top-ranking Vice Premier in the C.P.C., was reportedly named in the Papers as the director of 17 companies based out of Hong Kong. Not even Elon Musk can run 17 companies. The region’s secretarial firms represent an entire business sector devoted to fronting false headquarters for those ranging from your run-of-the-mill tax-dodging billionaires to criminally nefarious organizations.

According to an investigation published in the October 20 edition of the New York Times Magazine, the 20th floor of a run-down business tower in Wan Chai on Hong Kong’s north shore is registered to dozens of different companies, including Zaron Biotech, a drug company actually based in the city of Qingdao in Shandong Province on the mainland. For years, Zaron smuggled fentanyl—the narcotic at the center of America’s festering opioid crisis—into the U.S. on the largest documented scale the astonishingly cheap, incredibly profitable, and dangerously lethal substance had ever seen. Its operations were interrupted only when the death of a North Dakota teenager and an associated D.E.A. investigation resulted in the federal indictments of four Chinese nationals and several American distributors in October of 2017. It’s not just Zaron; a network of Chinese drug manufacturers ripe with the ingredients for pharmaceutical conglomerates abroad thrives on the peninsula. And it’s not just fentanyl; China serves a ventricular role in the international markets of cocaine and methamphetamine as well, supplying money laundering avenues for black-market syndicates like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Richard Paxton, a financial crimes expert, details a number of these threads in a Medium article called “5 Things Drug Cartels Love About Hong Kong.” All of these operations are facilitated by the loose legal structure that governs the region.

The correct and reasonable response to all this is: “How is this related to the mainland’s government of abuses of power and silencing of free speech?” My answer is this. I believe the protesters when they say they wish to live in a country free of mass surveillance that does not prosecute dissent. In fact, my whole aim at writing this article rests on that ideal. However, once you peel your eyes away from Twitter and look at where the money is coming from, the conduct of the protesters regarding their neighbors, the demographics of the protesters themselves, and who benefits from an isolated Hong Kong, an interesting question arises about the movement itself separate from its self-proclaimed pro-democracy narrative. It's a question that must be asked for all mass movements.

Although these protests may appear to constitute a liberating grassroots revolution, the result of its success is grim for Hongkongers and hugely beneficial to the region’s ruling class, as well as the ruling classes of a vast network of countries that exploit it for its thin regulations. China has been branded the greatest opponent of the U.S. in the modern era, even greater than Russia, and thus, it’s easy to lend your support to a movement that gives Uncle Xi the greatest thorn he has ever had in his side. But a mass movement that does not serve its own interests lies beneath that surface. Of course, it’s difficult to see; U.S. media outlets report on violence against protesters, but never on vandals setting their elderly neighbors on fire over a political debate. When you look at any movement in any country, you must examine whether the ground troops involved in such a movement themselves gain as much as the interests funding them. I think Westerners should be hypercritical of mass movements whose ultimate goal serves the ruling class more so than the protesters themselves or the working class.

Nevertheless, above all this economic assessment, a certain narrative must be supported. That narrative is highlighted by #FreeHongKong, a narrative that is best described by Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, an outspoken critic of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter and his family have experienced persecution in this arena on a jarring level. The N.B.A. has been engaged in a treasured commercial relationship with China for decades, but the friction that now threatens that relationship is indicative of how powerful the Hong Kong issue has become in the West. Kanter did not specifically name Hong Kong in an op-ed he wrote for the Boston Globe shortly after that, but the prompt was evident. In a flashy rebuke of LeBron James’s admittedly misconstrued preference for protecting the N.B.A.’s commercial interest instead of expressing solidarity for the protesters, Kanter starlit his Turkish identity in a blanket condemnation of state persecution of freedom of expression.

“There are tens of thousands of people—including teachers, doctors, members of the judiciary and military, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, and activists—in prisons for years just because they’re not die-hard followers of [Tayyip] Erdogan,” Kanter writes. “Hundreds of babies are growing up in small prison cells with their mothers. Democracy today is on life support, if not dead, and anyone who speaks up faces prison time.” This is the heartbeat of the Hong Kong protests. Take out all the jump-kicking, fire-lighting, identity crises, flag beating, and mask-wearing. Take out the cronies, billionaires, foreign meddling organizations, shell companies, and money laundering fronts. You’ll find this at the center. It’s crucial we remember that as we critically evaluate the state of this unrest and how “pro-democratic” it really is.

Hong Kong is one of the most livid events I will ever witness: when political differences between the West and a tightly guarded Eastern ideology finally come to a head on the doorstep of Xi Jinping, who has doubled down on protecting what he believes is in China’s greatest interest. It’s obvious he underestimated Hong Kong in this endeavor. As China seeks to expand its role on the world stage and to disseminate its cultural and political values, its ongoing success in that venture plays a key role in perpetuating the fear among the U.S. and the rest of the West that democracy is in danger. And it is. The U.S. is somewhat losing as the world experiences a widespread reactionary response to issues related to immigration, climate change, the prospect of socialism, free trade, and progressive policy initiatives, a dynamic reflected by the increased number of democratically elected right-wing leaders across the world. Heightened division among Western democracies, in particular, amplifies the strength of these rising authoritarian nations bolstered by vigorous, burgeoning economies.

The Hong Kong protests are less of a reaction than they are a boiling over, more of a rebellion than a revolution. It is the first movement to be significant enough to really expose a core weakness in the Chinese machine. The protesters themselves are somewhat both problematic and unproductive, but they stand for something that cannot be forsaken in this global, multilateral struggle between authoritarianism and constitutional democracies.

Artwork by Sameera Rajwade

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