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Update: Pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and Beyond

Source: Unsplash

Sarah Knight

For months the world has been anxiously preoccupied with the US election. But what if we direct our attention elsewhere, to another region with a tenuous grasp on democracy? Recently in Hong Kong, a series of pro-democracy activists were arrested, suggesting Beijing’s patience for the anti-government movement is diminishing. The movement has lost momentum in recent months due to COVID-19 related restrictions on public gatherings and the introduction of a draconian national security law. However, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has recently found allies in Thailand and Taiwan, describing themselves as the Milk Tea Alliance. Despite, or perhaps because of its own democratic anxieties, the pro-democracy movement still had its gaze directed at the outcome of the American election, with a surprising proportion of activists hoping for Donald Trump’s second term.

Hong Kong’s Status

Last year’s pro-democracy protests attracted significant international attention to Hong Kong. This year, protests have been curtailed and the movement weakened. Despite this, on October 10, nine Hong Kong citizens were arrested on suspicion of helping twelve anti-government activists escape by boat to Taiwan. The escape attempt in August was unsuccessful, with the activists intercepted by Chinese officials and held in Shenzhen, on mainland China. Their arrests were tied to last summer’s protests.

Similarly on November 1 this year, eight pro-democracy legislators were arrested over an argument in the Legislative Council which occurred in May. Amongst the arrested were Kwok Wing-kin, the chairman of Hong Kong’s Labour Party, and Ray Chan, who was dragged to the ground by a pro-Beijing legislator during the meeting and carried out by security. Chan filed a private prosecution case against the assailant after receiving no support from the police, which he claims is due to the accused’s nationalist allegiances. The eight legislators were arrested for acts of contempt and interference in the Legislative Council’s process.

On November 3, TV journalist Choy Yuk-ling was arrested for her part in a documentary about the 2019 protests. The documentary investigated the Yuen Long attack, which led to 45 hospitalisations. The police were heavily criticised for their inaction during the attack.

The arrests of leading pro-democracy activists, politicians, legislators and journalists do not bode well for the health of Hong Kong’s democracy. Freedom of assembly and the right to protest have also been hindered, with COVID-19 restrictions allowing a maximum of four people in a gathering. Whilst team sport and local tourism groups have been exempt from these restrictions, the protests remain illegal. Pro-democracy advocates have declared this a strategic political move.

These symptoms of authoritarianism correlate with the new national security law Beijing introduced in Hong Kong. The law criminalises anti-mainland secessionist movements, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces and has been cited in the recent series of arrests. On November 6, the police established a hotline for citizens to anonymously inform on one another to aid the efficacy of the national security law. Furthermore, the Legislative Council election, which was scheduled for September, was postponed for a year. The official explanation is that an election is too risky in the context of a pandemic, but pro-democracy activists say it is a delay tactic and that Beijing is “in fear of the people and of their voices”.

The Milk Tea Alliance

It may seem that a crackdown, like Beijing’s in Hong Kong, spells the end for the pro-democracy movement. However, history shows that where there is oppression, there is revolt. This is true for the youth-led anti-government movement in Thailand, which calls for a new election and for curbs on the Thai monarchy’s influence. In Taiwan, democracy is more robust than in Hong Kong, however pro-democracy advocates can sympathise with the threat of a looming, forceful Chinese takeover. Each of these movements are anti-authoritarian. This common goal has brought them together as the Milk Tea Alliance - a reference to the drinks popular in each place.

The Milk Tea Alliance is an anti-authoritarian network of young people, which started as a meme online and quickly manifested into reality. The movements cross promote each other, share tactics for safely demonstrating, avoiding police and even demonstrate in support of one another. Thai protesters, inspired by Hong Kong demonstrators, can show anti-government solidarity safely out of reach of the national security law that threatens Hong Kong citizens. Similarly, Hong Kong activists have criticised Thailand’s military government and monarchy without fearing the lèse majesté laws, which criminalise any criticism of the royal family. The alliance has gone viral online allowing for greater visibility and solidarity, with Taiwan’s Vice President even tweeting the hashtag in October. The movement has since evolved from an anti-Beijing focussed sentiment to transnational anti-authoritarianism.

Democratic Processes from Washington to Hong Kong

The Milk Tea Alliance makes sense, in that it is a network of people with similar values and objectives. However, what is surprising is the proportion of pro-democracy activists that hoped Trump would win the 2020 presidential election. Despite Trump’s undemocratic tendencies, ambiguous comments about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and his racist anti-Chinese rhetoric in the wake of Covid-19, pro-democracy advocates found hope in his leadership. Trump’s sanctions against China over Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and his blatant antagonism of Beijing inspired some pro-democracy activists to unite with him against their common enemy. They believe his administration has been and will continue to be more likely to act decisively against China than Joe Biden’s.

However, Biden’s administration is unlikely to repair ties with Beijing. Biden called Xi Jinping a “thug” during a campaign speech and bilateral relations between the two superpowers are poor. Biden has also declared his intention to coordinate a multilateral approach to restrain China.

The surprising support for Trump, from some of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, indicates that they are desperate for any assistance in halting Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Despite the significant demonstrations last year and ongoing protests, Beijing is successfully winding back democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. These policies appear to be moving towards Beijing’s goal of reunification. However, despite the severe national security law and its authoritarian implications, the pro-democracy movement persists across Asia. In transforming from a specific anti-Beijing movement to more broadly opposing authoritarianism in the region, the pro-democracy movement has become more resilient to government oppression.


Sarah Knight is a third year undergraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her interests include international security, geopolitics and strategy, and ethnic conflict.