HONG KONG/PARIS – Billy has been the butt of criticism from friends for taking part in Hong Kong’s protests. Undeterred, he sees his marching days as just beginning.
“We have to continue to protest until our demands are met,” said the 28-year-old accountant, whom Bloomberg chose not to identify. “There is no end in sight.”
That sense of a long road ahead is one of the parallels between Hong Kong’s mass rallies and France’s Yellow Vests movement. Both are hard to pin down, determined and prone to evolve — a recipe for all sorts of trouble for their governments.
As Hong Kong protests continue, the dilemma for the city’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam is whether she’s willing and indeed able to make concessions as French President Emmanuel Macron did to take the wind out of the protests. For one lesson of the Yellow Vests is that without an adequate response, the demonstrations can quickly overwhelm government to the exclusion of all other policymaking, and drag on indefinitely.
“We find them very inspiring,” Hong Kong opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo said of the French protest movement. “The most direct similarity is the continuation of actions. The most dissimilar is the looting. I just cannot imagine anyone looting shops, cracking cars or burning taxis to make a point — that’s not Hong Kong.”
Demonstrating is very Hong Kong, however. The latest protests began in March in response to plans by the government of the former British colony to bring in legislation enabling extradition to China. Taken aback as the protest wave built, Lam shelved the bill, but the rallies have since expanded to encompass grievances from calls for an independent inquiry into police violence to greater democratic freedoms.
France too is no stranger to street protests. The student demonstrations that rocked Paris in 1968 defined an era, and the Yellow Vest protests that erupted across France 50 years later drew comparisons with their intensity.
What began in late 2018 with groups of the disaffected congregating at roundabouts to chew over their anger at fuel prices quickly morphed into a dramatic attack on the heart of the French state. At its peak, the movement — organized by social media groups — mobilized hundreds of thousands each Saturday. On Dec. 1, as they marched on central Paris railing against the cost of living and Macron’s governing style, fringe elements burned cars, looted and torched shops, and even vandalized the Arc de Triomphe while fighting running battles with riot police.
Hong Kong also witnessed violence that shocked. Two weeks ago, agitators targeted the liaison office of China’s central government in the center of the city, and stick-wielding assailants attacked protesters in a train station.
Kenneth Yeung, a doctoral student from Hong Kong with a focus on social movements at the Universite Paris Diderot, straddles both worlds: While interviewing Yellow Vest protesters for his academic research, he’s also part of a group of Hong Kongers living in France that organized some 10 rallies against the extradition bill back home.
“It’s about the pent-up anger that’s accumulated in the five years since Occupy,” he said, referring to the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement protests which were also related to China’s greater influence on the city. “Today, even those who have never participated in any movements are thinking they must do their part.”
One common thread is the lack of a unified leadership. Yeung notes that the co-existence of several leaders during Hong Kong’s protests five years ago led to infighting. Tung, the accountant, also referenced 2014, saying the fact the leaders were subsequently thrown in jail shows the benefit of the absence of a figurehead. Leaderless movements, organizing via encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, adapt and evolve.
“The lack of a leader is the reason the movement is still continuing,” he said of Hong Kong.
The nature and motivation of the two groups are still very different. In France, the Yellow Vests — named after the warning jackets that French motorists must keep in their cars in the event of breakdown — was an anti-globalization movement that saw in Macron a symbol of an out-of-touch elite that had let them down. Hong Kong’s protests are directed at an altogether different and more formidable foe: an encroaching China and the territory’s China-picked leader, Lam. And China has many more levers at its disposal than Macron.
In France, the protests fizzled after Macron heeded the protesters’ pleas, addressed the nation and initiated a platform to allow citizens to vent their frustrations. After initially ignoring the movement, on Dec. 10 Macron announced €10 billion ($11.1 billion) of tax cuts and increased welfare and pension spending. He organized a national debate that involved 10,500 town-hall meetings and 15,000 “grievance registers.” His response helped take the air out of the movement and sapped its once overwhelming popular support.
For opposition lawmaker Mo, that’s a crucial contrast with Hong Kong. France’s ability to respond democratically merely exposes Lam’s limited room to maneuver, since her administration somehow needs to balance its citizens’ aspirations for greater democracy against relations with Beijing, and its instinct to exercise control.
As protests continue in Hong Kong, France too is likely to see weekend protests, but turnout is now down in the hundreds. All attempts to federate the movement failed. That doesn’t mean the sentiment behind it has disappeared, according to James Shields, professor of French politics at the University of Warwick.
“Most of those people now stay home,” he said. “But their yellow vests are still in their cars, ready to be worn again if Macron presses on with a reform agenda that hits ordinary French citizens in their pockets.”
In Hong Kong, the amorphous pro-democracy push has come to dominate the city’s political landscape, and the lives of its people. That may make it increasingly difficult for authorities to roll back.
C.L., a 28-year-old protester, said he was hoping the demonstrators who stormed into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council earlier this month would stay and occupy the place, like the Sunflower protesters of Taiwan five years earlier, who were also demonstrating against Beijing’s encroaching influence.
“I think Hong Kongers should be more aggressive,” he said. “Like in Venezuela, its people can’t turn back. Everyone’s risked everything.”