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In August 2020, the New York Times asked me to write an op-ed for a special feature on authoritarianism and democracy. They declined to publish my submission, which I am sharing here instead.
When the George Floyd protests began to spread nationally in the summer of 2020, I noticed many people on social media asking Hong Kongers for advice on protest tactics–which apps to use, what equipment to wear, the best way to extinguish tear gas. Americans were preparing for a summer of protest the way they would for any new activity—by making sure they had the best gear.
As a witness to the Hong Kong protests, I shared this admiration for the protesters and their sense of flair. But the lessons I wished my fellow Americans would absorb from the protests were more strategic. In paticular, I wanted them to focus on what hadn’t happened in the territory during a long season of protest.
Why was there never a split between the “brave, valiant” group who advocated for confrontation with police, and the larger, “peaceful, rational” contingent who preferred larger marches? How did the protesters, who were mainly young people, retain the support of their middle and working class neighbors, whose lives the protests severely disrupted? And how did a leaderless movement hold back the nihilistic young hotheads who show up to any confrontation just wanting to break stuff?
Above all, how had Hong Kong protesters managed to win an election?
The protests started in March 2019, in reaction to a proposed extradition law that threatened freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong in a 1997 treaty between China and Great Britain. By summer, the initial wave of protests had grown into a mass movement against Chinese attempts to subvert the city’s autonomy. On June 16, Hong Kong saw the largest rally in its history, with an estimated two million people—nearly a third of the population—marching in the streets.
As summer turned to fall, the police response to these demonstrations became more violent, and the protests grew more confrontational. The District Council elections in November came two weeks after an apocalyptic showdown between police and university students that had led to the first mass arrests in the territory. Defying police intimidation, Hong Kongers queued up by the thousands—sometimes standing on sand where paving stones had been removed only days before in running street battles—to vote in a municipal election that everyone understood had become a referendum on the pro-democracy movement.
Preparations for the vote had started in 2017. Knowing that this might be the last genuinely free election in the territory, organizers spent months laying a foundation for victory. Even as protests convulsed the city, Hong Kongers registered 392,000 new voters (out of a population of 7 million). They made sure to contest all 452 seats, and held informal primaries—a novelty in Hong Kong politics—to avoid any risk of splitting the vote.
The pro-Beijing incumbents had the advantage of patronage, name recognition, and money. As election day approached, several opposition candidates were physically attacked in broad daylight, while others were disqualified by the election board (organizers, anticipating this eventuality, had backup candidates in place).
Despite the attempts at interference, the pro-democracy camp won the biggest landslide in the territory’s history, capturing 17 of 18 districts and an overwhelming majority of seats. Crucially, the election ratified months of protest, giving the lie to Chinese claims that the protests had been the work of a small violent cadre terrorizing the population.
Electoral success did not mean a happy ending for Hong Kong’s protesters, who understood the limits of their symbolic victory. In subsequent months, Beijing would take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to tighten its hold, culminating in a repressive national security law that ended freedom of expression in Hong Kong. The struggle for freedom continues there today.
But the elections showed the world that the Hong Kong government had lost its legitimacy, and that people would not surrender to totalitarian Chinese rule without a fight.
Early in Trump’s term, it looked like a similarly vibrant pro-democracy movement could take root in the United States. The Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, was the biggest single-day demonstration in American history to date. A thousand new organizations seemed to spring up overnight, each more eager than the last to fight the authoritarian turn in American politics.
But while Trump’s first term saw the five biggest protests in American history, only one of them—significantly, a march in Puerto Rico—achieved any concrete political objective.
The Women’s March lasted less than two years before imploding in acrimony and mutual recrimination. A similar feeling of disappointed hope followed later mass protests—the March for Our Lives protests against gun violence in 2018, or the worldwide climate strike in 2019—neither of which was able to convert overwhelming popular support into any kind of political gain.
Unaccustomed to mass protest, Americans expected that the sheer moral force of such giant demonstrations would lead to political change.
Like a surfer bobbing in the water, we kept waiting for the perfect wave that would come and carry us all the way to shore. If one protest didn’t do it, maybe the next, bigger protest might.
And so we spent four years treading water when we should have been swimming, building strength in unfamiliar muscles, and using any momentum we could gather from each passing wave to bring us closer to our goal.
Feeling stuck, people turned to fantasies of rescue. Maybe it would be the Mueller report that finally discredited the Trump Administration, or the impeachment hearings, or the latest tell-all book.
The problem with pinning our hopes on these climactic battles is that they left us with no idea what to do next, even if we won.
An early example of how even victories could be self-defeating came in 2017, when President Trump issued an executive order popularly known as the Muslim ban, prohibiting citizens of seven countries from entering the United States. Spontaneous protests sprang up at airports nationwide, with immigration lawyers camping out at international terminals to free stranded travelers. Giant tech companies, including Google and Facebook, held the first political rallies in their history.
Given time, this movement could have formed a nucleus of organized opposition to one of the Trump Administration’s most hated policies. But a temporary restraining order issued by the District Court in Hawaii short-circuited the process. The battle having been won, the army went home.
By the time the travel ban finally reached and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018, there was no group waiting to take up the fight. The same immigrants and refugees whose lives had been a cause celebre the year before were now left to cope on their own.
Four years of this kind of reactive, intermittent protest have left the pro-democracy movement in the United States at a crossroads. We’ve just experienced another wave of mass demonstrations—once again, the largest in American history—and it is up to us to decide whether they will be used as a weapon to divide us, or as an engine to bring us to power.
So far, despite much higher stakes, we have not treated our highly consequential election with the same seriousness as Hong Kongers approached their symbolic one. There has not been an all-hands-on-deck national effort to register voters, sign up election monitors, or turn out heavily Democratic voting blocs, like college students, who routinely underperform in national elections.
Few people even noticed when the FEC, the regulatory body that oversees American election spending, lost its quorum in July. Congress—the sole branch of government where pro-democracy forces hold political power—even sent itself home on summer recess, as if this were an ordinary political year.
Instead of approaching the upcoming election as the culminating event in a four-year project to reclaim democracy, we’re treating it as more political weather, keeping a nervous eye on the forecasts, hunkering down, and hoping for the best.
While Hong Kongers took the threat to their freedom seriously and organized a vigorous political response, Americans remain suspended between feelings of anxiety and a hope that transformative change can come on its own, without the hard work of harnessing protest to electoral gain.
It’s not too late to change this dynamic. The same energy that has repeatedly brought Americans into the streets in record numbers can be used to bring them out on Election Day. But with real power at stake in our election, we must decide whether we will fight for our own democracy with the same seriousness that Hong Kongers have fought for theirs.
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