If one were to make a list of the world’s most formidable political foes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be a good place to start.
The ruthless suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the imprisonment and torture of Falun Gong members around the turn of the century and the ongoing detainment and intimidation of political and religious dissidents have demonstrated Chinese leaders’ willingness to use any means necessary to keep their people in line. Choosing to directly challenge the CCP is not for the faint of heart—nor, some might argue, for the sensible and realistic.
But that’s exactly what protesters in Hong Kong—mostly students, but also activists, workers and regular citizens—have been doing for the past two weeks, capturing the attention of Beijing and the world with their peaceful Umbrella Revolution. They are speaking out against the recent announcement that Hong Kong’s next top leader will be elected from a slate of Beijing-approved candidates, a move that threatens the civil liberties and autonomy promised when the United Kingdom returned the territory to China in 1997.
Xi Jinping, the current president of the People’s Republic of China, has a reputation as a strong, nationalistic leader who never backs down. Backed by an annual domestic security budget of more than $130 billion, Xi has made national “harmony” one of his top priorities. And while he himself has remained silent on the Hong Kong protests, his surrogates have not held back, calling the Hong Kong protests “illegal” and “doomed to fail.”
Such rhetoric is to be expected of Chinese authorities, who want nothing more than to see these protests disappear and the rest of the world move on, hopefully no wiser about the ongoing, systematic infringement of basic rights in the Middle Kingdom. But the vast majority of Hong Kong residents aren’t expecting much either. A recent survey of Hong Kongers found that only a tiny 17 percent believed the protests would improve the city’s situation. Even those who support the demands of the students anticipate their failure, and fear what will happen to all that idealism when China’s proposed political process is not reformed, let alone even dented.
As planned talks between pro-democracy leaders and Hong Kong government representatives were called off for the second time in a week, and a new wave of protests began, the general consensus among expert China watchers is that the activists are unlikely to gain any significant concessions from Beijing.They no doubt know this themselves, given how frequently they fend off questions about the hopelessness of their actions. Perhaps, then, Communist officials are right: the much-lauded Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong is doomed to fail.
Or perhaps not. In a country where the act of speaking alone could be considered a major subversion—where publishing a few lines of poetry or uploading an unpatriotic snapshot could lead to years-long prison sentences—the sight of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers braving thunderstorms and sweltering heat to demand their political rights sent a powerful message: there are still people in China willing to risk their freedoms in order to fight for them.
The most captivating aspect of the current events in Hong Kong, even more than the numbers or the dignified, disciplined way in which most protesters have conducted themselves, is their courage to ask for change despite the daunting odds. They are hoping for hope’s sake—and doing so before the entire world, regardless of the outcome. Their actions echo the Arab Spring of 2010-12, which surged on this outsized hope, this deep-seated desire for sweeping changes that those in power were not yet ready for. The Arab Spring, many would argue, fell far short of expectations, given that conflicts rage on, despots remain in power and new democracies flounder.
But surely this is not the end of the story—for the Middle East or for China. As followers of Jesus, our faith is predicated on hope. We hope in a God we have not seen in the flesh; we hope for a more peaceful, loving and reconciled world that seems far beyond our grasp; we hope for an eternity without tears or suffering so far from our reality that we can hardly imagine it. The Apostle Paul spoke to the power and nature of hope, as he pondered the mysterious process of redemption: “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Romans 8:24) As people of the resurrection, hoping in what we cannot see is part of our call, our very essence, as Christians. It is in hoping for goodness, for positive social change long before it is on the horizon that we discover our greatest sense of humanity.
Maybe those advocating for greater democracy in Hong Kong are naïve; maybe they are laughably idealistic. Or maybe they have a greater, longer vision than those of us who have grown weary with the world. Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, the CCP will no doubt remember the Umbrella Revolution whenever they want to propose further changes that challenge the voice and empowerment of the residents of Hong Kong. And even if the protest movement fails to change the minds of Chinese authorities, they have changed hearts, including that of a visiting mainland student, who in a remarkable open letter declared:
“I have to say to you that what you have now – your courage and hope, solidarity and discipline – are so precious. You have no idea how people in the dark corners of the world, me included, covet it. It is an honour and a blessing. Hold on to it, for your own hopes, and for ours too.
I stand by you tonight, till the dawn of democracy.”
Modern human history is full of movements that began long before anyone thought they had a chance—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, decolonization, civil rights, anti-apartheid. This is where all great social change begins: with a few people willing to speak up, and a few people willing to listen.
I’m standing with the people of Hong Kong, no matter their odds of success. Will you?