In Hong Kong, what began as a peaceful demonstration against a contentious extradition law has descended into a violent police crackdown and engulfed the former British colony in a symbolic fight against China’s authoritarian rule.
Protesters show no sign of backing down after more than 12 consecutive weeks of marches, sit-ins and disruptions. And China — which refers to the protesters as “terrorists” — has reportedly mobilized forces along its southern border in what many speculate is preparation for military intervention.
With no end in sight, a bloody climax seems to be looming on the horizon.
But while Western countries have been forthright in their opposition — both toward the controversial bill that sparked the first wave of protests in June and the way Beijing is handling the situation — Japan’s response has been “characteristically low-key,” said Toru Kurata, a political science professor at Rikkyo University.
“Compared with Western countries, Japan has never been outspoken against human rights issues,” Kurata said. “At the moment there’s no compelling reason for Japan to respond.”
More than 1.7 million people took part in a pro-democracy march on Aug. 18 to speak out against the Hong Kong police’s use of force in recent protests, according to organizers. That brought the number of participants in the roughly 60 demonstrations to an estimated 7.5 million over 12 weeks.
In Tokyo, however, turnout for similar demonstrations remains low.
“The concern that Japanese people have for problems in foreign countries is despairingly weak,” said Suzuko Hirano, 25, who has been organizing weekly demonstrations in Tokyo since June to show solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong. “I’m not sure if it’s because Japan is an island country or because of our education, but Japanese people don’t pay much attention to things happening beyond our borders.”
About 40 people — most of them Hong Kongers in their 20s — have shown up at each of the protests, she said.
Political participation, much less activism, is a rare sight among Japanese youth, but Hirano took it upon herself to do what she can to support the protesters. She said her concern for issues abroad was influenced by the mass genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2015 and, more recently, the internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China. She has been donating ¥5,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees every month for about two years.
Hirano had already organized four demonstrations in Tokyo by the time of this interview, and said more are in the works. She said many of the Hong Kongers who showed up were afraid to show their faces for fear of persecution.
To Hirano, the Japanese public seems unaware or unconcerned with what’s happening in Hong Kong. In other cases they can be hesitant to speak out publicly, said Mandy Tang, 19, an exchange student from Hong Kong studying in Tokyo.
Rather than tell her in person or in front of other classmates, Japanese students who are otherwise quiet have sent her online messages to voice their support, Tang said. Others, when they find out she’s from Hong Kong, make comments about “how difficult it must be back home” or how they would love to travel to the city.
“I have to tell them that it’s too dangerous because they just don’t know,” Tang said.
Her Taiwanese classmates, she said, are mostly sympathetic toward the protesters, while many of her Chinese classmates oppose them or remain uninterested.
The contentious bill, which would provide ways for authorities to extradite Hong Kongers to mainland China, was proposed in March then temporarily shelved after more than a million people took to the streets in June to protest. Although Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in July that the amendment process has been halted and “the bill is dead,” it has not been formally withdrawn.
The protests have expanded and intensified since the initial demonstration, but Lam remains steadfast in her condemnation of the protests and refuses to comply with demands to resign, hold a direct election, pardon protesters who were arrested, or launch an investigation into police tactics, among other items.
At a news conference in August, Lam defended the Hong Kong police against accusations they used excessive force by firing teargas and rubber bullets in subway stations and streets crowded with civilians during a weekend protest.
“We shouldn’t break the law but the police broke the law. Why didn’t they have to be punished?” Tang asked. “The police are doing the wrong thing. They have the power but they are using it wrong.”
In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to China under the stipulation that the city would govern itself for 50 years according to the “one country, two systems” rule. As it stands, Hong Kong will fall back under Beijing’s control in 2047.
“I don’t think Hong Kong people will stop, because if they stop, it means that we won’t have the chance to speak for ourselves in the future,” Tang said. “It will get worse if we don’t stop, but if we stop, it will get worse, too. So at least we will fight for it.”
At first the protests were only about extradition, but now they’re about more than that, said Jianne Soriano, a 23-year-old born in Hong Kong who now lives in Tokyo.
“Ultimately they want universal suffrage for Hong Kong, to be able to vote for the chief executive,” she said.
Both in size and scope, the protests happening now exceed those of the Umbrella Movement, the string of Hong Kong democracy protests in 2014 during which umbrellas were used to block pepper spray.
In 2015, the staff of a bookstore in Hong Kong disappeared mysteriously after traveling to the mainland to sell books that were considered critical of certain Chinese politicians. Months later, Guangdong provincial authorities confirmed they had taken them into custody.
These separate events, Soriano said, on top of the increased censorship in newsrooms and classrooms, and the construction of several bridges and railways linking Hong Kong to mainland China, prove Beijing’s grip on the city is “becoming tighter.”
“If the government responds to the demands, it will at least make (the protesters) happy this time,” Soriano said.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently warned China that any violent crackdown on the level of the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 would harm business between the countries.
In comparison, during a bilateral meeting a day before the G20 Osaka summit in June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to maintain the “one country, two systems” philosophy. This, along with brief statements by Foreign Minister Taro Kono at news conferences and a tweet in which he said he was “heartbroken” for the many people injured at the protests, represent the bulk of Japan’s response to the volatile situation in Hong Kong.
With a state visit by Xi eyed next spring, Tokyo most likely wants to avoid jeopardizing the favorable relationship the two countries are enjoying at present. But if the situation worsens in Hong Kong, Japan may no longer be able to turn a blind eye, experts say.
“If a large-scale bloody event were to happen in Hong Kong — like the Tiananmen Square incident, for example — Western countries would likely respond by imposing sanctions on China,” Kurata said, adding that “if the situation escalates to that point, Japan will be forced to reconsider its position.”
Japan’s muted response to the Tiananmen Square massacre, he explained, was most likely influenced by its attempts to foster stronger economic ties with China, which was caught up in turbulent economic and social changes as it sought to transition into a market economy.
In 1989, Japan bowed to international pressure and reluctantly suspended a five-year, $5.4 billion aid package of loans to protest the Beijing’s crackdown on the student protesters. But the aid payments resumed just over a year later.
In 1991, in the wake of the bubble economy’s collapse, then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu became one of the first leaders of a major industrialized nation to enter China after the incident when he made an official visit to Beijing. Experts believe this was an attempt to normalize relations and bring China back into the international fold so Japan could reignite trade and investment.
“Perhaps the same is happening with Hong Kong,” Kurata said, adding that the police crackdown is bound to continue for several more weeks, at least, until Xi or another official in the upper levels of government expresses how Beijing intends to deal with the situation.
Hirano, who plans to organize demonstrations and take action as long as the protests in Hong Kong continue, urged Japanese people to raise their voices, speak out and participate in politics at home and abroad.
“I want the protesters in Hong Kong to know that we are with them until the very end,” she said. “I just wish more Japanese people would show up.”