China imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong (HK) in July (2020), after months of (at times violent) pro-democracy protests. But why did the protests fail? There are 4 major "miscalculations" and 3 serious "underestimations" of China to "learn" from, as a "historical lesson."
But whether the National Security Law is really good or bad (or, conversely, whether the HK protests are really good or bad) is a "normative" question which depends on one's "political ideology" to answer, be it on the "Left" or on the "Right" (and is therefore beyond the scope of this essay). Instead, the central point here is simply that this "historical lesson," if not learned, can become a "repeated mistake" in the future.
The first miscalculation is that many (not all) HK protesters adopted the "Anonymous" tactic from the beginning. To the protesters, this tactic was "effective" to avoid arrests and prosecution, by having no unified leadership and hiding themselves behind different (at times leaderless) networks. But this tactic turned out to be "ineffective" in 3 ways. First, there was no "unified front" to negotiate with the government. Second, different groups made "competing" demands while "agreeing" on others. And third, some hided themselves behind "Anonymous" face masks, which gave them the psychological illusion of impunity and thus indulged themselves in irresponsible (mob) violence (as explained below).
The second miscalculation is that many HK protesters urged former "colonial" powers to intervene (so as to force Beijing to kneel). To the protesters, this collusion was a "brilliant maneuver." But to many in mainland China, it was an "unforgivable betrayal or treason," as outside powers took advantage of the political naivety of these protesters (for their own "geopolitical gains" in the global Sino-U.S. rivalry, while practicing widespread racism against Asians, especially ethnic Chinese, in those Western countries). And this external intervention also revived the painful memory of what is now called in Chinese history the "100 Years of Humiliation" under Western "colonial" aggression against China in the 19th and 20th centuries (like the British colonization of HK in the first place) and the Western maltreatment of the Chinese people (as exemplified by the park sign "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" in Shanghai in those colonial days). HK did not enjoy "autonomy" under British "colonial" occupation but started having this "privilege" only under the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement with mainland China. In the United States, any American who solicits foreign powers to "sanction" the U.S. government can be arrested and charged for "treason" and prosecuted as a "traitor."
The third miscalculation is that many HK protesters made "unreasonable" demands from the government, with the slogan "Five Demands, Not One Less." To the protesters, this showed their "strong determination." But to the government, their demands were "not within reason." For instance, they demanded the unconditional resignation of the HK chief executive (to make way for a "universal suffrage"), but this could violate the "Basic Law" in HK. The protesters also asked for the unconditional "amnesty for arrested protesters," after "militant" protesters had committed violent crimes on the streets (e.g., vandalizing offices, looting stores, assaulting anti-protesters, disrupting traffics, smashing public transports, harassing businesses not supportive of their causes, fighting with police officers, etc.). They thus "tyrannically" acted "above the law," while expecting everyone else ("except themselves") to respect the "rule of law." The French Revolution of 1789 degenerated into "tyranny" when the revolutionaries thought they were entitled to smash anything and attack anyone, beyond reproach or prosecution.
And the fourth miscalculation is that the "peaceful" and "militant" wings of the HK protest movement implicitly "accepted" and "recognized" each other's role for the first time. To the protesters, militancy put "extra pressure" on the government to yield. But to the government, this was a form of "terrorism," which had turned HK into a ("Be Water") war zone for months. These "militant" protesters ran, dispersed, and hided after they attacked and destroyed, truthful to the "Be Water" spirit of asymmetric warfare. In those areas, people were afraid to go out, workers could not go to work, businesses suffered from financial losses, certain stores were looted and burned, affordable folks fled the city, etc. In this way, "militancy" inflicted multiple "un-freedoms" on ordinary folks. At some points, this HK "war zone" looked like unrest-torn "Venezuela," "Yemen," "Syria," "Iraq," "Libya," etc.
These 4 miscalculations show that many HK protesters greatly underestimated China in 3 main ways.
First, many HK protesters greatly underestimated the "power" of China. If China were like a tiny "banana republic," these HK protesters could have easily forced the government out of power in no time. But China is one of the only 2 superpowers (together with the U.S.) in our time, and they are the 2 dominant power centers in the world. HK is tiny, but mainland China is colossal.
Second, many HK protesters greatly underestimated the "determination" of China. To collude with former "colonial" powers and urge them to pass legislations so as to impose sanctions on China as a way to force it to kneel really underestimated the "nationalistic" spirit of many Chinese in the mainland since the modern era (to return China to its former "greatness" after more than "100 Years of Humiliation" by Western aggression).
And third, many HK protesters greatly underestimated the "uniqueness" of China. China is a unique "civilizational center" by itself, just as the Western world has its different (unique) "civilizational center" (but there are "only a few" unique centers like this in the world), and each has its "unique" achievements and shortcomings. Like "yin" and "yang," each does not conform to the other. Thus, to expect China (with the use of sanctions, or not) to act like the "West" is as much "unrealistic" as to expect the West (with the use of sanctions, or not) to act like "China." Globalization or global integration in our time does not mean "Westernization" (or, conversely, "Sinicization"). Surely, different civilizational centers can "learn" from each other and "agree" on certain issues, but on the whole, they are simply "different" (and "imperfect") and do not behave the same at this time of human history (though things may change in distant future).
This then is to reveal the "diversity" of life on our planet Earth, and to ignore this can lead to "miscalculations" and "underestimations," which, in the context of the HK protests, resulted in the imposition of the National Security Law on HK in July. If not learned, this "historical lesson" from the past (and the present) can be a "repeated mistake" in the future.
About the author: Dr. Peter Baofu is an American author of 165 scholarly books (as of August 2020) to provide 131 visions (theories) of the human future in relation to the mind, nature, society, and culture.