Since June 9, Hong Kong—one of the world’s most vibrant commercial and cultural centers—has been repeatedly paralyzed by mass demonstrations to defend that city’s dwindling freedoms. The protests quickly escalated, from hundreds of thousands of people in the streets to an estimated turnout of two million (over a quarter of the entire population), and they have evolved and persisted for over two fraught months.
The movement has drawn the free world’s admiration, and now its urgent concern for what may lie ahead. Leading members of Congress of both parties, from Senator Lindsay Graham to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats face critical 72 hours Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — 'Too late to evacuate' after wildfire debris Greene fined a third time for refusing to wear mask on House floor MORE, have offered eloquent support for the largely peaceful protests. So have British and other European leaders, and prominent members of President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE’s own government, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has never been mistaken for a bleeding heart on human rights. All have warned Beijing’s communist leaders of the consequences of using force to suppress the protests. But missing from this chorus has been the most consequential voice among the world’s democracies, that of President Trump himself.
The initial trigger for the movement was the Hong Kong government’s introduction of a bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. Since there is no rule of law in the People’s Republic of China, and no independent judiciary, that could mean arbitrary punishment—despite protestations to the contrary by Hong Kong’s supine authorities—of any political organization or advocacy that the Beijing authorities deem to be “anti-China.” That means Hong Kongers could be punished for criticizing the PRC’s grave and mounting human rights violations, revealing the rampant corruption of its communist officials, or insisting that Hong Kongers be granted their long-promised and long-suppressed right to choose their leaders through universal and democratic suffrage.
The movement became so large and powerful that even Hong Kong’s famously stubborn and arrogant chief executive, Carrie Lam, could not ignore it. First she suspended consideration of the bill, then on July 9 she declared it “dead.” But by then the protestors had a growing list of other grievances, including the failure to permanently withdraw the bill, the excessive use of force by the police against protestors and the tenacious refusal of the local and central government authorities to honor their obligations, since the 1997 handover, to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and allow it a measure of electoral democracy under “One Country Two Systems.” For that to happen, Hong Kong’s legislature needs to be fully democratically elected (currently little more than half the seats are filled through universal suffrage elections) and all of Hong Kong’s citizens, not a jerry-rigged, Beijing controlled body, need the right to vote for chief executive.
Beneath these issues are deeper ones. The people of Hong Kong are fed up with the relentless encroachments on their freedom—the forced disappearances of Hong Kong’s independent, muckraking booksellers; the disqualification of newly elected legtislators who refuse to swear allegiance to Beijing; the creeping eclipse of university autonomy and intellectual freedom; the stiff jail sentences for leaders of previous civic protests; and the narrowing vise of Beijing dictates and corporate pressure that is steadily squeezing Hong Kong’s media freedom. These steady erosions of liberty give the current situation its sense of urgency and even desperation. Many Hong Kongers feel they must take a stand now for their freedom, before it disappears altogether.
Fear and desperation are common reactions in the face of oppression, but they don’t make for smart politics. Research sponsored by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict shows that democracy movements are much more likely to succeed when they adhere to nonviolent methods of civil resistance. This requires strategic thinking and operational planning to deploy a varied set of tactics—which may range from street demontrations to strikes, boycotts and much more—that can unify the opposition, divide the establishment (including the security forces), widen the ranks of sympathizers and narrow the regime’s base of support.
If a movement can craft a smart strategy and periodically adapt its tactics, and if it can maintain nonviolent discipline—restraining angry retaliatory impulses and provocations—it has a good chance of succeeding. The more it turns to or condones violence, or fails to restrain or isolate the violent few, the weaker its prospects.
There are many compelling reasons why President Trump should continue to speak out forcefully in support of Hong Kong’s freedom’s demonstrators—and why he should endorse the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which provides for targeted sanctions against officials who suppress basic freedoms in Hong Kong. It would be the right thing to do. It would help to stem the ill winds blowing globally. But most of all, it could deter authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing from a tragic turn to force instead of negotiations. And it might also renew the hope of beleaguered democrats in Hong Kong, and thus their ability to bring leadership and organization to a movement that is sorely in need of it.
Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.