Standing With the Protesters in Hong Kong

My formative years saw David Hasselhoff singing “Looking for Freedom” atop the Berlin Wall (1989) and Scorpions singing “Winds of Change” (1991) as the Soviet Union prepared to fall.

It was an optimistic time filled with hope for the future of people around the world who would be able to write their own destinies as they saw fit, and a time when it seemed the U.S. itself might even be inspired by it.

Frank Fukuyama wrote about “The End of History” first as an article (1989) and then a book (1992) speculating that we had reached a point of victory for humanity where liberal democracy had triumphed for good.

1989 wasn’t entirely triumphant. It’s been 30 years since ‘Tank Man’ stood athwart the People’s Liberation Army of China, in what seemed like an historical moment for that nation. We’ve seen much economic liberalization yet personal liberty has remained restricted.

Looking back the hopefulness of this era seems so, and I feel so, naive. In both security policy and economics we’ve forgotten which direction traffic flowed over the Berlin Wall, and indeed we’re seeking to build new walls. We used to talk about the ‘peace dividend’ but militaries are larger than ever. Trade which has brought so much wealth to the world, and the world’s least advantaged, is derided as a destructive force. How is it that we came so far, yet have forgotten so much?

Maybe that’s why I find the protesters in Hong Kong so inspiring. I’ve been advising against travel there as a tourist since before protests made their way to the airport. That doesn’t mean I turn my back on their cause.

Hong Kong and Kowloon were ceded in perpetuity in the 19th century to Great Britain, and the New Territories were ceded until 1997 just before the turn of the century. In 1984 the U.K. and China agreed that the entire area would revert to mainland China in 1997, but Hong Kong’s market-oriented institutions would remain in place for 50 years – through 2047.

Now, 22 years in, China treats Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region. There’s passport control between Hong Kong and the mainland. But Beijing exercises increasing amounts of control.

Hong Kong has faced massive and escalating protests over mainland China’s control. The proximate cause was proposed legislation that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China at the request of Beijing, however protests have expanded to seek greater freedom and less intervention from mainland China.

No one knows for sure what happened to tank man. The quarter of the entire Hong Kong population that’s turned out in protests is well aware of what can happen to anyone defying the Chinese state.

And while they talk about ‘free elections’ what they don’t seek to be merely one vote in support of Beijing, they want freedom.

Tell me you can watch this without tearing up.

“Do You hear the people sing,” by the way, is banned in China.

Myself I can’t look at the images from the airport, and elsewhere, without crying. This may be the most ‘Hong Kong-ish’ photo ever:

Chinese troops, meanwhile, mass near Hong Kong.

The official U.S. position is “it’s none of our business” – such a departure from U.S. support for the Solidarity movement in Poland.

It’s not clear what the U.S. can do, or any of us can beyond paying attention, outside intervention could just as easily play into Chinese hands dismissing and minimizing the moment as some sort of external plot, delegitimizing the grassroots nature of the protests.

We may not be able to do very much, but we have our sympathy to offer and we can be inspired by what people will risk for freedom and not be so cavalier about giving away our own.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I have visited Hong Kong twice in the last two years for leisure and have extended family there. It’s probably one of my three favorite places in the world. Unfortunately I-and the- believe this will end badly.

  2. Cool, this is my last my last time visiting your page. Thanks for the ride but if you side with the violence, be it

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve also found it challenging to get through some of these videos without tearing up or just straight up breaking down. Most of those protestors are so young and carrying so much weight on their shoulders trying to fight Goliath on their own. They need all the support they can get from those of us in the west. The protests got out of control yesterday but you can just tell that the heart of the protests is good. They are fighting for the most worthy cause I can think of.

  4. Fine words and a such true observations.
    Hong Kong is such a great city – just hope that there is a way forward for the Hong Kongers.

  5. why not showing the violence and lies from the protestors? i think the article did not show the whole story.

  6. Agree!

    Stopped over in HK 5-days for New Year’s on way back to NYC from 2-weeks in Philippines for my partner’s family homecoming/reunion.

    Had heavy cold since day after Xmas (had to wait until onset of “Walking Pneumonia” before doctors consulted in Manila & in NYC finally prescribed medication), so certainly was NOT feeling my best during the entire stay, and even had to cut back a few things on our “to see or do” list, too.

    And yet, it was LOVE at 1st sight and ever since for this incredible city that I can’t wait to have a chance to get back to.

    So, it’s with great fear & trepidation that I read/watch the news of ongoing events as it does appear that the extradition bill will not be withdrawn, tensions will escalate, and well…even more political repression & further reduction (elimination?) of free speech will be imposed instead.

    Here’s hoping that’s NOT the outcome for this amazing city – but right now, it doesn’t appear like Hong Kong as we now know it is the Hong Kong that will be in the not too distant future.

    Not as long as an attempt to stealthily impose a backdoor extradition treaty that will kill free speech & political dissent in Hong Kong is “suspended” instead of completely withdrawn.

    And if that hasn’t happened by now, it’s hard to imagine that backdoor extradition treaty ever being withdrawn as it must be to begin defusing this political crisis.


    Here’s hoping that’s NOT the outcome for this amazing city – but right now, it doesn’t appear like Hong Kong as we now know it to be is the Hong Kong that it WILL BE in the not too distant future.

  8. This is your BEST post in the over 5 years I have been reading your blog. To all my friends and the other protesters In Hong Kong please be safe and know when to leave the protest are for your safety. You are dealing with a pure evil government that has already killed 100million+ people since it took over in 1949.

  9. My sincere THANK YOU to you Gary.

    The latest rhetoric from Beijing to the HKSAR government is, “dont give up an inch. quash the protests with police force. we are 100% behind you.”

    With the 70th anniversary of the PRC coming on Oct 1st, and the Chinese leader wants everything is quieted by then, it would not surprise anyone that blood shed would come. Yet the Hong Kongers continue their quests, knowing full well what is waiting for them. There is some Heroism in this.

  10. I do not understand this post. Why are we supporting protestors that caused an entire airport to shut down for two days and inconvenienced thousands of travelers?

    In my experience, people in Hong Kong are very elitist. While they treat white people very nicely, they despite people from mainland China with the utmost annoyance. As an American borned Chinese, I experience this first handed countless times.

    The same is true when flying Cathay Pacific. It is an open secret that when flying Cathay, you need to speak English. Flight attendants become very rude and are downright hostile when you speak Chinese. On the other hand, when speaking English, the flight attendants suddenly transform into ANA flight attendants and provide very attentive service. As such, many people in China want to see the demise of CX, including me, and in particular their flight attendants who Always have two different standards.

    I hope Cathay will go out of business in the near future, and I am sure millions of Chinese people will celebrate with me when that happens.

  11. Funny, I have never been treated rudely when I speak to the CX staff in Chinese, onboard their flights or on the ground. I wouldn’t want them to go out of business.

  12. Good commentary and an American View! Democracy for everyone. Bye bye Bin. The violence has only been from authorities or in self defense. Is Bin a Chinese bit?

    Just like here in USA. We must #KeepResisting fascism and racism

  13. I know there’s nothing we can do, but I appreciate the post and agree.

    My fear is a repeat of the 1989 massacre of thousands of protesters. I’m reminded, sadly, of the lyrics in a Sick Puppies song. You stand in front of tanks, the tanks are gonna win…

  14. Way to work in three completely irrelevant digs on Trump. How is pushing back against the trade abuses of the same regime looking to put the screws to HK equivalent to deriding trade as a destructive force? You do understand that the tariffs are a negotiating plow, not a desired end state, don’t you?

    How is demanding that we as a nation should be allowed to control our borders, as every other country in the world does, somehow the equivalent of the Berlin Wall? You mention the flow of ppl the Berlin Wall was attempting to stop… don’t you see a big difference between keeping your own ppl from leaving and stopping the illegal unchecked flow of ppl in, something that no other country in the world tolerates?

    Finally, you criticize the Trump admin for not meddling, yet the left is constantly critical of USA meddling in foreign affairs (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess. Obviously aggressive action against the superpower that previous lax administrations helped create would be very risky, so what exactly would you propose? Or are you just another TDS afflicted lefty who will criticize Trump as being racist and un-American for taking the exact same positions as Obama did?

    I’m pulling for the people of HK, but this post misses the mark badly.

  15. you call protesters inspiring? I hope you ban from going to hong kong or in transit. They destroying hong kong, and hong kong is part of China’s land no matter what.

  16. Oh boy, I hope you don’t have any upcoming trips to the mainland! You may never be heard from again …

  17. Great post, Gary. I have very little confidence for the future there, but admire the brave people trying to be free.

  18. I visited China once, in 1993. The people on the streets seemed exhausted and resigned. What a depressing place. I sent a postcard saying “Greetings from the world’s largest prison.”

    Plus ca change…

  19. Almost think these are a bunch of western born Chinese thinking that there won’t be any pushback from their actions. Now the mainland is going to crack down even harder on hk.

  20. As a frequent visitor to Hong Kong since colonial times, I have a deep affection for the place and its people. But the reality is that we, as outsiders, cannot do much of anything to help them here. They will have to help themselves. They did not help themselves yesterday. They need to be smarter. They need to have good leaders. They need to earn the sympathy and respect of the Chinese people. It will not be an easy struggle.

  21. Thank you for your post Gary!

    After the Chinese communists did a bit of ethnic genocide on millions of Uyghurs, they turned to Hong Kong.

    I encourage people to search on the “Confucius Society” to learn how the PLA is undermining colleges and media in the USA. And trolls posting on travel blogs.

    HK is a real life drill for how China will deal with Taiwan.

    Re: US foreign policy, it was disgusting how the Obama admin and Kerry didn’t help the Green Revolution in Iran. Instead, they gifted the Mullahs and the IRG billions of $ and the terrible JCOPA; aka Iran deal.

  22. Very timely and on-point post! I can only hope for the best for the Hong Kong people knowing that China is taking a hard line on all dissent. At least Taiwan is seeing what potential integration into China would be like for them and any military action would only strengthen their resolve to stay independent.

    On a humorous note, it’s entertaining to read some of the obvious China posters trying to keep the Chinese propaganda machine going.

  23. Of course we should stand with the people of Hong Kong who have a right to self determination just like every group whether Catalonia, the conservative states in America who want nothing to do with Washington or the liberal coastal cities, or the British wanting to be free of the EU.

    Please don’t conflate building walls designed to keep people who bring violent crime, poverty, oversupply of labor, poor standards and a desire for more taxation of productive people to pay for their benefits, with walls like the Berlin Wall or in North Korea designed to keep people in at gun point. Defending borders is defending freedom and self determination.

  24. @John Smith
    Agree on your comment on Cathay Pacific. China has been offer countless benefit to CX in order to maintain HK as international aviation hub. Air China owns share of CX. In the meantime Air China owns Shenzhen airlines. For so many years, Air China has been in favor of CX and prevents Shenzhen airline to buy big planes(A333, B777) to operate long-haul routes. The downturn of HK would finally make Shenzhen to grow as international hub, which is long overdue.

  25. Thank you for your post and your support to Hong Kong people.
    There are a few points I want to make:
    1.the violence of protesters is relatively low level and it is in respond to the increasing police brutality and abusive arresting behaviors. No car is burnt or flipped and no store is robbed during the whole movement. The actions of the protesters are no where near the definition of “riot” but as defined as one by the government.
    2. For the closure of the airport, all the protesters were just sitting in the departure and arriving areas. It was the government’s decision to shut down the airport to make the protester look bad and win the public opinion over the world.
    One last thing, Hong Kong people are not even seeking “greater freedom”. They are just trying to protect the eroding and limited freedom that is left after 22 years of being a “Special Administrative Region”.

  26. Thank you Gary.

    I was raised in HK. Now living in USA and still go back every year. I was just in HK 2 weeks ago, attended some protests. It’s an unbelievable experience for me, a Hong Konger, to witness the (mainly) peaceful protests and then saw the police brutality on TV at night. There are a lot of truthiness out there (just like Fox news vs CNN…etc). It’s increasingly hard to get the facts. My home is no longer recognizable.

    And to the other poster. Yes, it’s an inconvenience to block airport and affect tourists. But remember, HKers had protests 10 weeks in a roll. We tried and the government ignored. You may not know, HK is on the brink of extinction. If we don’t speak out now, we may never have a chance again. 1 country 2 system is already dead.

  27. It is sad to see a number of Chinese commenters have clearly bought their government’s propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Although, I suppose a certain degree of mental gymnastics is needed to see these images and yet continue to happily live under tyranny.

    This is a stark reminder that none of the freedoms we enjoy should be taken lightly. Great post, Gary!

  28. @WR2 I think you misread me if you saw my post as “criticiz[ing] the Trump admin for not meddling”

    I wrote, “It’s not clear what the U.S. can do, or any of us can beyond paying attention, outside intervention could just as easily play into Chinese hands dismissing and minimizing the moment as some sort of external plot, delegitimizing the grassroots nature of the protests.”

    I think too you miss the point of the free flow of goods and people, i.e. freedom.

  29. So many Chinese commenters are out today of course pushing the gov agenda. Of course we should stand with the HKers. I just hope it doesn’t end badly, HK might not be the same my next visit and that will be sad.

  30. I disagree with you on a lot of things Gary, but this is not one of them.

    Superb post…..thank you.

  31. If you want to see how to do a crackdown on protest movements that make the moves against Hong Kong protesters look mild and highly ineffective in comparison, see what the Chinese are doing in Xinjiang province and what the Indians have done in the Indian part of Kashmir this month.

  32. Unfortunately, the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong will end up being squashed by the PRC.

    Democracies also squash the democratic aspirations of people under their control. The government of India in Kashmir, India is an example of that, and there are others too.

    Liberal democratic systems are under siege from within and from beyond in too many parts of the world. And a large part of why these strains are what they are is attributable to the ways of Internet use and to the TV/cable/visual/internet media needing to grab attention and keeping an audience hooked to coming back/staying.

    While I wish the peaceful aspirations of the HK protesters don’t end up run over by the PRC, we live in an era where strong and wrong tend to beat weak and right. And in this regard the PRC is strong, as so it’s only a matter of time until China tries to pull in Hong Kong what India just pulled off in Kashmir.

  33. Thank you, Gary.
    To add another data point, a lot of “disruptions and violence” by the protestors are fake. Undercover HK cops, mainland China cops, and mainland China military are planted among the protestors to initiate the disruptions and violence. Quite a few aggressive “protestors” have been matched with pictures as cops. That’s why when the guy who dressed as a protestor, caught later at the airport as a Shenzhen (neighboring mainland China city) cop was found by protestors, they were furious. He was also seen in a picture taken with the gangsters who attacked anyone passing-by a few days ago in Tsuen Wan. Then the one that threw the China flag into the Victoria Harbor has also been identified as a Hong Kong cop with pictures.
    Hong Kongers are ready to lose everything, but we are not going to give up without a fight. The protests started months ago and the government ignored them. There was another major one in 2014 that the government again ignored. It has been 22 years since the turnover. Things are just going DOWN. Once again, Hong Kongers won’t give up without a fight, and we need all the help and support we can get.

  34. LOL. UA-NYC (aka Manhattan Waterbug) shows his face. Everyone knows that Waterbugs come out at night. And yuck-a-doodle, they fly.

  35. Amazing ignorance from some commenters. One group sucks up to the Chinese the other group sucks even more to Trump.

    If the PRC brings in military forces, then this will turn into the world’s problem. Because, you see, the PRC made an agreement. There are still 28 years left for that agreement. If Hong Kong turns into a war zone, life as we know in Hong Kong, ends. But, China will never be trusted again!

    I don’t really blame Hong Kongese for protesting. This is their last chance to prevent their territory turning into a full blown province of the PRC!

  36. Rather than stay away from Hong Kong and punish them for protesting, which furthers China’s new goal of punishing them economically, the thing to do is go to Hong Kong in solidarity and stay away from mainland China.

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