By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
With a backpack and a matching sweat suit, the Chinese man in his late 20s or early 30s did not act like a student.
Outside Kane Hall 110, where Hong Kong students and two professors had just given a talk on the future of the protest movement in Hong Kong, he flitted around, never stopping, until cornered by a stranger.
Uneasily, his eyes shifted this way and that. He spoke Mandarin, unlike the rest of the throngs of attendees. He said he had gone to Hong Kong several times, between June and August and then September and November, “to check on the future of the movement.”
But the rest of his story was contradictory. And he refused to give his name or any other details about himself.
Just such hazy, indistinct threats—such as potential undercover agents—have riddled the protest movement in Hong Kong, now into its seventh month.
And the presence of this uncertain individual at a University of Washington (UW) forum—whether harmful or not—seemed to characterize a sense of doom facing the movement as it seeks to define itself and move forward.
At the panel discussion, held on Jan. 18 in a packed auditorium of roughly 140 people, the speakers shared views on varying threats that faced the movement, with UW Professor David Bachman offering a grim view of its challenges.
Still, after the event, some audience members said they were pleased with the diversity and size of the crowd. But others said they wished the panelists had engaged in a dialogue with each other.
One of the panelists, Kai Ping (Brian) Leung, a protester who had stormed the Legislative Council (LegCo) in Hong Kong and tore off his mask, said that fragmentation was one of the threats that could undermine the movement.
Leung, a doctoral student at the UW, said that a core strength of the protest movement, which has mustered millions at times, has been its non-hierarchical character. He called this its “flatness.”
He said that after storming LegCo, he and other leaders were not prepared with a statement, but found one online written by a supporter.
“Everyone can share his or her strengths, even if they don’t go to the front line,” he said.
But he cautioned that earlier movements had split between those advocating more peaceful means and those advocating violence.
Anna Yeung-Cheung, a professor of Biology at Manhattanville College and the founder of New Yorkers Supporting Hong Kong (NY4HK), an advocacy group, was cautionary, but for different reasons.
She said that her work began after the Tiananmen Square incident. She cautioned that after the 1989 student-led protest in Beijing was crushed by the Chinese government, there were roughly 7,000 students and Chinese groups formed overseas to carry on the work of the movement.
Almost all of them disbanded.
She said groups supporting the Hong Kong protesters would need to ask themselves where would they get financial support, and how would they maintain enrollment?
Bachman seemed even more uncertain about the future of the movement.
He said that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had recently suffered a series of defeats, including an overwhelming electoral show of support for the protests in Hong Kong, the election of a president in Taiwan that generally opposes closer ties with China, and the recent trade war with the White House.
He characterized Xi Jinping as “hard” and said he would choose political stability over any economic considerations.
He also said neither the United States nor Europe seemed ready to offer any support.
Responding to a question at the end of the presentation, about what a democratic Hong Kong might look like, Bachmann ruled out the territory achieving any kind of independence.
“You would have to have the government of the PRC change,” he said.
“But if we imagined a different Chinese regime,” he added, “it would be a nationalistic regime, it wouldn’t want to see China divided up.”
Clovis Wong, a grassroots organizer, sought to define the movement as part of a growing global movement against authoritarianism. He drew a connection with such movements as Black Lives Matter. He said Hong Kong protesters had provided inspiration for protesters in other countries, such as Chile. Wong is a member of the Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (Parisol) and is pursuing a master’s in teaching at the UW.
But Wong said for the movement to continue, it must ally with workers’ and labor movements in mainland China.
He did not say how this might happen.
Bachman later said that most protest movements in democratic societies around the world are about economic inequality.
While Hong Kong protesters have complained of lack of affordable housing and jobs, these are not part of their five demands, which are political.
“In most democratic political systems, the issue is inequality, but that is not the driving force in Hong Kong,” said Bachman.
The groups that organized the panel, Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Association of UW and Seattle Hong Kong Students Association, in announcing the panel said they had brought together “varied perspectives” to “explore possible paths forward.”
But it was not clear what framework the organizers were using to analyze the movement, or even pose questions.
After the panelists had spoken, a moderator asked, “What are the structural contradictions” that keep the protest movement going?
Several panelists talked about a Hong Kong identity.
Wong wondered if the Hong Kong identity could be extended so that mainland Chinese could feel a part of it.
“Hong Kong has always been the city of refugees, of diaspora, of people settling down trying to make a living,” he said.
But during a question and answer session, a student, who said he was from Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, said that he had witnessed “many years of conflicts” between Hong Kong and mainland people.
“They call us locusts,” he said.
In responding to his question, Leung said the Chinese government had arbitrarily set immigration and educational policies, which increased “anxiety” among Hong Kong people.
“I can’t apologize for everyone,” he said.
Still, several audience members came away buoyed. They said it was a step forward that a mainland student was willing to share his views.
And they were pleased with the size and diversity of the gathering.
“A few months ago at another forum, there were only people from Hong Kong, but today, we saw a lot of diversity,” said Darren Hon, 36, a software engineer.
Sallie Lau, a UW master’s student whose family is from Hong Kong, said she wished the speakers had engaged in dialogue.
But she was not concerned about the sense of uncertainty lying over the future of the movement.
“The burning question is how to sustain the movement,” she said. “But to be honest, no one knows how to sustain it, this is the first time we’ve been going through a movement quite like this, and it’s ok to say we don’t know.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.