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 guess it was wrong, then, for the French to “intervene” in an “internal” matter when a bunch of ex-Brits in the American colonies decided to form their own country to protect THEIR freedoms.

    Also, since this is still (nominally) a travel blog:

    One of the benefits of off-piste private travel (as opposed to group tours) is that you get to speak to (in my case) the Chinese one-on-one. What you discover is that the mainland Chinese are well aware of the limits on their freedom, but are prepared to put up with those limits as long as their (and their children’s) lives are better than the horrors that their parents and grandparents experienced: Mao’s revolution, the Cultural Revolution, etc. Once Xi stops delivering the “bourgeois” comforts, he’ll have a hard time keeping the lid on. Hong Kongers know all too well the controls and limitations that mainlanders have to put up with.

  2. @L3 Independence by occupying the airport and beating innocent people from China mainland? Independence by letting others quit class and the leaders go abroad for further study? The protesters are just trying to earn money by doing that. The request of freedom is just the protesters’ excuse. I hope the protesters carrying out violence will be sentenced in the end. By the way, the young lady who claimed to be hit by the police’s bullet dared not sue the police and dared not to be triaged. And she was also caught distributing money to other protesters. Why did she do it? Where was the injury coming from indeed?

  3. @Eddie There were also a lot of travelers who complained. It is just a matter of comparing which side had more people. Do the travelers really care about or even know what is really happening in Hong Kong?

  4. @Gary One mistake in your article is that “do you hear the people sing” is NOT banned in China mainland. I just saw it from QQ video. But please confirm before you mislead other blog readers.


    Musical censorship
    Do you hear the people sing? Not in China
    Chinese streaming services block a tune from “Les Misérables” that has been a popular protest song in Hong Kong

    BEFORE THE tear gas and the rubber bullets, there was music. At the protests in Hong Kong over the past week, people have regularly broken into song. For those gathered outside government headquarters, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, a popular Christian hymn, has been a favourite. “Do You Hear The People Sing?”, a tune from “Les Misérables” and the unofficial anthem of protests in Hong Kong in 2014, has also made a reappearance. The songs are powerful, as protest music has been for centuries, channelling voices together into something moving, even beautiful. On occasion, priests have led the crowds, giving them the appearance more of a giant church choir than an angry rabble.

    But the surest sign of the music’s power has not been the singing in Hong Kong but its absence in mainland China. “Do You Hear The People Sing?” has been censored on QQ Music, one of the country’s most popular music streaming services. Search for the song, and three results pop up, all saying that it cannot be played for copyright reasons. Search for the full “Les Misérables” album, and there are more than ten versions of it, minus that one song. On NetEase Music, another popular streaming service, censors appear to have been a little less zealous. Individual searches for “Do You Hear The People Sing?” yield no hits, but it still appears as a track on its various “Les Misérables” albums.

    The protesters in Hong Kong in 2014 were not the first to call on the song. It has featured in a series of demonstrations, including the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which kicked off in late 2013, and union marches in Wisconsin in 2011. The appeal is obvious, given its rousing tune and lyrics: “Do you hear the people sing?/Singing the songs of angry men?/It is the music of the people/Who will not be slaves again!” That said, aficionados of “Les Misérables”, a musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo, know that the story is rather less cheering: the students who lead an anti-monarchist rebellion (a depiction of the Paris Uprising in 1832) almost all end up dead.

    Exactly when censors started scrubbing out the song in China is unclear. Before the Hong Kong protests, they had little reason to worry about it. A musical film of “Les Misérables” was a hit in the West in 2012 but a flop in China. The main controversy about the song back then was whether the official translation was good enough. As recently as last year, authorities permitted a performance of “Les Misérables” in Shanghai. That may well have been the event that caught the censors’ attention: at the end of the show, audience members rose to their feet and belted out “Do You Hear The People Sing?” in unison. Perhaps they were just fans of the musical, but the song evidently had the ability to stir emotions in China.

    Censorship is rarely water-tight, and that is certainly the case for music. The Chinese government has taken a hard line against Hong Kong singers such as Denise Ho who supported the pro-democracy movement in 2014: their music is no longer available on streaming services and their concerts in the mainland have been cancelled. But on smaller streaming services such as Xiami, which is estimated to have a roughly 2% market share in China, “Do You Hear The People Sing?” is still available. What’s more, censors do not appear to have cottoned onto the fact that “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” was the protest song of choice on the streets of Hong Kong during the past week. QQ Music offers 11 different versions of it. Chinese fans of contemporary Christian pop should listen while they can.

  6. @Gary. Your comment about singing and Hong Kong is very interesting. However, it should be a separate post so everyone can read and comment on it, not at the end of 105 other comments. I might comment that it is vaguely related to travel since it is about the power of song in different countries.

  7. @Gary If you REALLY REALLY want to discuss this, you’d better find someone who knows both China and HK. I know some song were banned in China which you cannot find audio and video. But not this one unfortunately. If QQ music did not purchase the copyright in China mainland, how is it suppose to show it?

  8. @Gary For some reason, I tried at least 3 times to post the link to the video of this song I found in QQ video, but the link failed to show. Maybe because I am using a phone. Do you think economist is unbiased?

  9. @Gary FYI, the initial cause of the protest was recorded by NY times a while back. In short, it is like this. A young HK man killed his girl friend in Taiwan. His girl friend was pregnant for 4 months. There’s a logjam in law, so the man cannot be charged to kill the girl. So the HK government wanted to close the loophole so that they can send the suspect back to Taiwan or China. The protesters started to gather and they refused to go away even after the HK government said that they would suspend the proposal for ever. The protesters’ demand for democracy is still highly debatable. Not to mention the money distributed during the protest. You can search for this article from NY times.

  10. The suspect needed to be returned to Taiwan. Had the proposed law allowed that there would not have been an issue. However, the government insisted to add mainland china, which has no rule of law nor fair judiciary. That sparked the protests. The main demand is not for democracy, only a few are seeking independence from China; what the majority of the protesters seek is the ability to elect their legislators (called Legco here) and the Chief Executive (the mayor). This was already promised by China when the Basic Law (our mini-constitution) was put in place and agreed by China.

    There has been no money distributed to protesters. That is a false claim maid by the pro-government media that has never been supported (similar to the claim that the US is behind all this)

  11. @Mike1957 Basic law Section 1 article 45. Please read it. If you insist US is not behind this, it is fine. But please search for the following article and think again. “US Government, NGOs Fuel and Fund Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Protests” If you think the Canadian media is pro-government, I have nothing else to say. BTW, why would a law include Taiwan and exclude China mainland? The loophole should be closed as early and wide as possible. I am not from Hong Kong. But if I am from Hong Kong and someone kills my relative in China mainland and the killer cannot be charged in Hong Kong, I will ask for such a law to include China mainland for sure. If someone you think should not be sent to the mainland because of the law, you can protest to support the person. Now, the killer suspect cannot be charged. Is this the result Hong Kong people want? If possible, please read the Hong Kong basic law again in both Chinese and English. Or let me know which article in the basic law approved the election method wanted by the protesters. Hopefully, the protest won’t hurt badly.

  12. @Mike1957 – Taiwan itself opposed the law, Taiwan was being used as a fig leaf for the legislation the Lam government thought would please mainland bosses

  13. Taiwan was willing to take back the suspect extradited from Hong Kong. It opposed the law because the law classified Taiwan as part of PRC and they refused to be recognized as that. Which is why people are skeptical of Lam’s intent: she claimed she did this because of her inability to extradite the suspect to Taiwan and then wrote a bill that she should have known Taiwan would not accept. So what was her real intention?

  14. KK, as requested, section 1, article 45: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”. What was proposed previously was not a broadly representative nominating committee, it was a committee composed mostly of Beijing friendly members (same as current committee that got us CY and Ms.Lam) nor were there any democratic procedures in the way most countries understand them.

    As to your “source” that proves US funding, “Globalresearch is an “anti-Western” website that can’t distinguish between serious analysis and discreditable junk — and so publishes both. It’s basically the moonbat equivalent to Infowars or WND.”

    What is not proven, but suspected and supported by some facts, is that the white shirts that terrorized a Hong Kong suburb were triad members operating with in collusion with the government and police. Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing legco member was pictured just before the attacks consorting with the white shirts.

    Why include Taiwan and exclude the PRC? Because Taiwan has rule of law and independent courts, the PRC does not. As specified in the Chinese constitution, the government, including the courts, are subservient to the Party. Therefore any representation made by a court or government official is suspect, as they must answer to the Party and cannot therefore be independent.

    These are not fringe ideas. The hundreds of thousands of marchers today indicate widespread support. Can you hear the people sing?

  15. @Michael1957 If you think the English translation was modified, why not protesting at the beginning and keep on? Why protesting when the result is hurting the dead woman’s family? The law of justice may be long gone for the dead woman and her unborn baby and Hong Kong people is always proud of their society ruled by law, isn’t it? In 2018 alone, NED spent over $400000 alone in Hong Kong.
    Expanding Worker Rights and Democracy
    Solidarity Center (SC)
    To expand worker rights and democracy and promote the development of civil society in Hong Kong. The center will support partners to strengthen the capacity of trade unions, including migrant and domestic worker unions, to organize, bargain and advocate for better protections for workers, and to raise public awareness and promote participation in worker rights issues.
    Promoting Engagement of Fundamental Rights
    National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI)
    To facilitate engagement on Hong Kong’s growing threats to guaranteed rights. The institute will organize a seminar series in Hong Kong on how national security can be protected while safeguarding fundamental rights and will facilitate international advocacy for Hong Kong scholars, legal practitioners, and civil society leaders to raise awareness of recent developments among influential international stakeholders.
    Strengthening Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Protection
    Hong Kong Justice Center
    To strengthen democratic institutions and human rights protections. The program will work with civil society networks and political leaders to improve compliance with international standards for human rights, and will seek to increase the international community’s awareness of human rights abuses in Hong Kong through advocacy and as part of the Universal Periodic Review process.

    Consider the fact the the Chinese reporter was heavily beaten at Hong Kong airport, is it publicly reported in the main media? In my opinion, the young people are just trying to be against China in every way. I believe there are a lot of reasons. But can that be the excuse for violence? Reporter or not, the protesters should bow down and ask for excuse like the pictures @Gary posted. Right?

  16. @Gary Why would the Hong Kong government please the mainland and exclude economical and political criminals from the law? Don’t you think a murderer should be charged properly? I understand a lot of Hong Kong people do not admit that Taiwan is not part of China. But Hong Kong as part of China cannot admit it. Even Taiwan’s constitution is using the one China policy. By law, it is nothing wrong to include Taiwan in the forever postponed law.

  17. Hong Kong is one of my most favorite cities in the world. And HKG is one of my most favorite airports in the world (and Cathay Pacific is a superb, classy airline). But their “Chinese masters” are so bent on total mind control of everything and everyone that they will ruin Hong Kong, too. A pity. A real pity. Oh, FYI, I flew through there about 10 days ago. My DFW to HKG was on time – good flight. But when I landed, everything from HKG to MNL was already canceled. A bit of a mess. But I learned a long time ago with international travel to always have a back-up plan.

  18. Hi, Gary, please don’t be fooled by the western media and be fooled by your own imagination and illusion. If you want to be unbiased, you should at least try to hear the story from another side, I suggest you to watch some videos on YouTube that “Nathan Rich” posted. Sometimes the scene people fight for “freedom” is very touching, but it will become a joke if these people don’t really understand what “freedom” means, don’t consider the results it may bring, don’t have a plan what they gonna do after they get the “freedom” they want.

  19. “don’t be fooled by western media” ” don’t be fooled by Hong Kong media” “don’t watch Japan, or Korea, or Taiwan news.”
    In the end, these people are suggesting you should not read or trust any news but the state-owned Chinese news media. And please, do not spread lies here about the girl who got shot in the eye. She IS a medic, for crying out loud. These people lied by using a picture of another girl collecting money as “proof” that she deserved the treatment. Look at the recent banning of hundred of state-run accounts by twitter and facebook and you will begin to see the kind of propaganda machine Chinese government is mobilizing. It’s not so hard to tell which side is the high wall and which side are eggs. If it’s still hard to tell right from wrong, just go by how many Hong Kong people went on the street, A QUARTER of Hong Kong’s population. The state run rally does not even fill out a football field, for crying out loud.

  20. Hi, Kenneth, I think you are replying to me, I do read the article you shared above, and I don’t think that’s against what I said on my comment, the original reason is for “anti-extradition bill “, and this bill was dead back in July 25, so what’s the chaos right now? I hope there is some leaders in this protest can give some solid reasons for their ask, I do read news from both sides to remove bias, but until now, I don’t get convinced.

  21. Great post Gary, I’m sorry I missed it until now. But on Aug. 14 I was supposed to be flying through HKG back to the US. I took a later flight Cathay Pacific was offering on 8/17. It cost me 42,500 AA miles when I had to rebook a 12,500 mile AA award ticket and it cost 55,000 for first (economy was 50,000) one way. Absurd. I probably would have been OK to fly on the 14th as it turned out.

    In spite of the costs of extending my stay for three days, I made sure to tell the CX personnel at The Pier and in flight that I supported CX and Hong Kong’s fight for independence and freedom. (I don’t know if others mentioned it but Tank Man and anything about the Tienanmen protests are banned in China.) Dissidents have some clever ways of using other images to getting ar

    I agree with Beijing about one thing. America is responsible for the Hong Kong protests, along with other successful western democracies. Not through some CIA-inspired Mission Impossible scenario, but merely through the example provided by the freedoms we enjoy and take for granted everyday. That is in spite of our President who praises dictators who would love to see our democracy fail, disparages allies with whom we share democratic values, and longs for the power to dictate legal outcomes, silence the free press, politicize the military, and decide who can vote or be a U.S. citizen. Many who support the guy think they are being patriotic. If there’s any patriotism there, it not to the United States of America and the principles and values the nation was founded on.

    @Ann, Please, Freedom is not something new to Hong Kong. The people want to hold on to the freedoms they have now that made Hong Kong a free and prosperous city/state.

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