A year ago this month, Hong Kong citizens began demonstrations against their government’s proposed extradition law. On June 9, an estimated 1 million people turned out to protest. Until the coronavirus epidemic forced people to stay home in late January, widespread demonstrations continued, even after the extradition bill was withdrawn.
Protesters demanded electoral reforms, investigations of police conduct during the protests, and the preservation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, under which Beijing had promised to maintain “one country, two systems” after Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997.
The protests have continued online — including anti-government slogans in a popular video game. While Western media outlets depict Hong Kong’s protests as a “pro-democracy” movement, they’re more like an anti-colonial resistance movement where the form of political rule is not the only source of grievances. When Hong Kong was a British possession, the People’s Republic of China criticized Britain’s colonial rule as illegitimate. Now, ironically, many Hong Kong citizens effectively view China as a colonial power.
Hong Kong’s protests are like Shanghai’s protests a century ago
Hong Kong citizens increasingly see themselves as part of a besieged city-state with its own civic nationalism and sense of existential threat. In 2047, under the terms of the Basic Law, the city loses its special status, but many residents fear that the process of incorporation into China is already underway. Last year’s protests are only the most recent in a string of large-scale protests dating back to 2003, all arising from efforts by Beijing to assert influence over the city’s legal, political and educational spheres.
In this sense, the Hong Kong protests are less like the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing and other cities in China, and more like a protracted series of protests that took place a century ago in Shanghai, a city closely connected with Hong Kong through finance, trade and the influence of British colonial governance.
As I discuss in my recent book, Shanghai was a hotbed of popular protest beginning in 1919 and throughout the 1920s. The targets were the imperial powers — both the nascent Japanese empire and the British and French who controlled the main commercial and residential zones of the city where nearly 1 million Chinese lived. The British-led International Settlement and the French Concession originated in Shanghai’s designation as a treaty port after the Opium War (1839-1842), which also resulted in Hong Kong becoming a British colony.
The foreign powers in Shanghai operated separate city administrations, including police forces and courts. Protesters also took out their wrath against Chinese warlord governments, whom they accused of collaborating with Japan and the Western powers.
Students and civic activists took advantage of Shanghai’s fragmented sovereignty. Newspapers prohibited in the Chinese districts were permitted in the International Settlement. Rallies were prohibited in the foreign concessions, so civic organizations held rallies in Chinese areas. Student-led teams of “lecture squads” ventured in the main thoroughfares to pass out bulletins carrying the latest news or rumors and delivered impassioned speeches urging merchants to keep their shops closed to enforce commercial boycotts.
These lecture squads often drew fierce repression from the British-led police force. Nonetheless, “Citizens’ Assemblies” of merchants, students, and labor unions took place throughout the 1920s and beyond, followed by large-scale marches. In 1925, police under a British commander opened fire on students trying to release jailed activists at a police station on Nanjing Road, resulting in 13 deaths and more wounded. The massacre provoked a two-month general strike that drew worldwide attention.
The following year, a Communist Party-led general strike and militia takeover of the Chinese districts greatly alarmed the foreign powers in Shanghai. In an infamous betrayal of his putative Communist allies in the United Front, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party, crushed the Communist Party unions and militias in April 1927. His government later established the “Special Municipality of Shanghai” but did not compel the British and French to relinquish their zones. It was only when Shanghai came under Japanese military occupation in 1943 that the French Concession and the International Settlement finally ceased to exist.
Now Hong Kong is protesting against imperialism
Of course, Hong Kong today is different in many important ways from Shanghai a century ago. Protesters in Shanghai wanted to push out Western imperial powers, who had lost their legitimacy after World War I. They also were furious that successive Chinese military rulers in Beijing made repeated concessions to Japan in 1915 and 1919 — and later in the 1930s under Chiang’s Nationalist government.
The Hong Kong protests of the past year, taking place along with a global wave of urban protests, arise from fear and opposition to an extremely powerful Beijing government, whose encroachments continue to undermine the city’s autonomy.
However, in both cities, anti-colonial sentiments drove the protesters’ grievances. The actions of an encroaching imperial government, especially the use of police violence against protesters, gave the protests broad support from across social sectors. Memorials for victims, anniversaries marking protest events, boycotts of companies aligned with the imperial power — all gave momentum to a sustained protest cycle in Shanghai and will continue to do so in Hong Kong.
Local authorities blamed the protests on foreign instigators — a response typically found under imperialism. In 1920s Shanghai, local authorities were convinced that “Bolsheviks” sent from Moscow were behind every act of civic mobilization. Today, Beijing and the Hong Kong government accuse “hostile foreign forces” — U.S. or Western agents — of directing the movement behind the scenes.
Political compromise also remains very unlikely, and the Hong Kong government has continued to crack down on the opposition. Divisions between reformers and radicals (some of whom adopt a nativist position and reject any ties with China) mean that reformers can be accused of selling out the “nation” to the 21st-century imperial power — China. It’s highly unlikely that government concessions in the form of affordable housing measures or even electoral reforms will dampen the anti-colonial sentiment or thwart large-scale protests that are sure to revive this summer.
Mark W. Frazier is co-director of the India China Institute and professor of politics at the New School for Social Research and author of “The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth Century Shanghai and Bombay” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).