On July 1 2019, several hundred activists stormed Hong Kong’s legislative council complex. It was a group that had broken off from an earlier peaceful protest, one of the many that had been taking place over the months prior.
Pictures started flooding out of graffiti and damage done to the government building, of banners being hung in the building, of smashed glass.
Yesterday, when rioters stormed the US Capitol building, pictures from both events started to be posted online, drawing simplistic comparisons between them. But the differences between the two events couldn’t be more stark.
Sure, both events come down to democracy, but the two groups lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. In Hong Kong the protesters were fighting to hold on to the democracy that was being torn away from them, while in America the rioters were fighting against democracy — they didn’t like how their election turned out, so they threw a violent and deadly tantrum.
The comparison is made all the more offensive given the fact that in the past 12 months Hong Kong has rapidly had its freedoms stripped away by Beijing. The world has watched, and offered some words, but taken little action.
A National Security Law has been brought in that criminalises the vaguely defined ideas of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion. The protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” has been banned — apparently it’s “subversive”.
Elections were postponed, supposedly because of COVID-19. Beijing passed a resolution forcing the removal of four pro-democracy lawmakers — a move that prompted their remaining colleagues to resign in solidarity.
Then on Wednesday, the day before the Capitol Hill siege, 53 pro-democracy officials and activists in Hong Kong were arrested under the national security law for their involvement in unofficial primaries for the election that never happened.
As things currently stand, democracy in Hong Kong appears broken. There are no elections to vote in, and even those who have already been elected aren’t safe.
The months leading up to the storming of the legislative council had been marked with protests both in Hong Kong and worldwide, triggered by the proposal of a controversial extradition bill. The protesters saw the bill for what it was: the beginning of the erosion of rights and democracy in Hong Kong that we’ve since seen play out.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters were regularly met with police violence. In the US, the Capitol rioters took selfies with cops. In the storming of the legislative council, the graffiti was targeted and specific, including the removal of the word “China” from the territory’s emblem, and the spraying of the phrase “It was you who taught me peaceful marches did not work” on a column. In the US, rioters scrawled “murder the media” on a door.
Graffiti. Damage. Chaos. Just because two things look the same in a frozen image doesn’t mean they are.