This July 1 was not only the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, but in a subtle way, it was much more. It was also a quiet show of force. Other countries, even China’s strategic partners like Russia, like to mark important events with military jets flying overhead and processions of tanks on the streets. Despite having the moral high ground to do so because of the protests of 2019, on this July 1, China saw no need for it.
The 2019 protests sought to culturally rip Hong Kong away from China by polarizing Hong Kong people to such a degree that Hong Kong’s police had to shoot someone for the first time since a police officer shot a knife-wielding attacker in Sham Shui Po in November 2018. That the police have fired only one shot during the yearlong riot sharply contradicts the rhetoric of “HK cops gone wild” in 2019 and was likely an invention by whoever also foisted upon Hong Kong residents the choice between being a “blue” or “yellow”.
The three years since the protests has seen the rhetoric largely disappear, thanks in large part to the National Security Law for Hong Kong against sedition. A law that every Western nation has a version of and that logic demands; if allowed for them but not China, a glaring display of military power on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with the Chinese mainland and the formation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region would have been the best way for China to project its sovereignty over Hong Kong. Nothing would have pleased Western media pundits more than if China had flown military aircraft across Victoria Harbour and marched tanks down Des Voeux Road. Instead, it chose to show poise instead of power.
China chose a quiet and tasteful display of national unity. Which, to me, was not only a sign of quiet strength, figuratively and literally, but also, perhaps exactly what Hong Kong needed: a projection of calmness in a storm.
A storm because an actual typhoon hung over the city that day, and also because anti-China rhetoric, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, is still pushed by the legacy Western media complex, and increasingly, new-media YouTube news channels that pre-June 2019 were often oases of real objectivity. Channels that have, over the last three years, almost all developed sudden Sinophobic stances. Lastly, a storm because the “yellow vs blue” sentiment is still out there in the minds of Hong Kong residents.
As a scholar of Western geopolitics and an objective observer of Hong Kong’s local culture, from the beginning of the protests, I, and others unswayed by rhetoric or imposed binaries, saw another “color revolution”. As had happened in Ukraine in 2014, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, in Latin America all through the ’70s and ’80s; and now these professional foreign agitators had aimed their society-polarization apparatus at our home, Hong Kong.
A commonality of “color revolutions” is that they need young, malleable minds with bodies capable of violent ferocity. They also need older, seasoned local leaders so the true agitators can remain hidden. The Generation X, Y and Z “yellows” of 2019 were perfect targets. But one thing the agitators didn’t count on about Hong Kong was that while the average, local Gen Zers had yet to form a life that required stability and so might happily face a reputation-crushing jail sentence for throwing Molotov cocktails at police stations, the Gen Yers and Gen Xers had mortgages, marriages, children, and most importantly, the passive wisdom that couldn’t morally approve the violence that came to define being a “yellow”.
These Gen Yers and Xers had no choice but to join the folks who had kept the context of “color revolutions” in their minds; or simply remembered the Iraq War being started over a now-proven lie, and reject the “yellow vs blue” binary on the basis of its origin alone. They backed away from leadership, forcing the agitators to expose themselves by filling the gap.
I have met many such former “yellows”, but I have yet to meet a clearly defined “blue”. However the pervasive polarization it created still persists in the minds of some Hong Kong residents. I have been in taxis where the driver and I are in conversation, and I can tell by their questions that they’re trying to decipher with which color my loyalties lay.
But as per the script of polarizing a population, romanticizing the rhetoric, allows the very human inclination of wanting to be viewed as noble and your enemies as less than human does most of the work for the agitator. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this sort of engineered and lasting polarization comes to us from not that far in the past.
During the French Revolution, on July 22, 1789, an incident that would come to be known as “The Great Fear” took place across towns and villages all over France. On that day and almost at the same time, manufactured panic was created by “agitators” who announced in public squares that armed brigands were approaching from the connecting roads. These agitators had only recently moved into these villages and towns, and yet had gained the confidence of the villages in the same way modern “influencers” do so, and did so with the Hong Kong protests.
The villagers of 18th-century France took to the roads to meet the approaching armed brigands, meeting each other on the connecting roads and fighting over the same lie they had all just mistakenly confirmed as being true. The fighting that day would see many needlessly die and would create lasting vendettas and retaliations that would endure for years afterward. The agitators had achieved their objective of turning a populace against the very concept of law and order itself. Mathematician and social commentator Eric Weinstein has said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” To those who remember the rhetoric of 2019, The Great Fear of the French Revolution definitely rhymes with some moments of the Hong Kong protests.
The author is a writer, columnist and historian based in Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.