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'Battle for Hong Kong' on PBS' 'Frontline' is a Multi-Layered Portrait of a One-Sided Fight
February 11, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Out of China, always something new. It's a sign of the turbulent times we're living in that Tuesday's absorbing — and topical — PBS Frontline program, Battle for Hong Kong (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, check local listings), seems, well, no longer so topical all of a sudden. The democracy protests have been muted of late — they will be back — and the news is all about the coronavirus, or SARS 2.0 if you will. Hong Kong isn't under lockdown the way China's Hunan province is, where entire cities have been effectively quarantined against a virus that, as of writing, has killed 813 people, all but two of them in mainland China, but it is under close watch. Tourism, most of which — little known fact, at least it was to me — is from mainland China, has fallen off a cliff. The markets, represented by Asia's most active and prominent stock market, are down sharply, this after many months of a slowdown in the wake of the democracy protests.

Flu pandemics are serious, as anyone who knows their history will recall of the H1N1 virus Spanish flu in 1918, which in the end infected some 500 million people, 27% of the world population alive at the time. So far, the coronavirus has infected just 30,000 people, but some victims have already died. China is particularly at risk because so many people there live so close together, in big cities, in close proximity to animals.

The coronavirus does have a number of telling — and disturbing — connections to the Hong Kong democracy protests, though. At the outbreak's outset, authorities in China told the outside world that coronavirus had nothing on SARS, the last deadly outbreak out of China; it was a minor irritant in comparison. As of today, more people have died from coronavirus than died from 2003's SARS outbreak — more than 800 deaths vs. SARS's total of 774 deaths — over a considerably shorter period of time.

News out of China is carefully managed by the authorities there, but reports indicate those cities that have been affected are effectively under a kind of martial law, with assemblies of even small groups of people banned and any number of civil rights suspended.

This can only happen in an authoritarian state, and it is precisely what the democracy protesters in Hong Kong have been fighting against. The protesters have seen the future, and it looks a lot like Wuhan province after the coronavirus. And that is why they've dug in so deeply.

The democracy protests have fallen off the headlines for now, but as Frontline's Battle for Hong Kong shows, the war is still on. And while the outcome is preordained — college students and a jittery middle class in Hong Kong are no match for the power and might of the Chinese authoritarian state — the protestors are determined, much like that one lone man who faced down a tank in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests in Beijing, that their protests not go unnoticed.  When the inevitable end comes, they want it on the record that they did their best to defend the rights of the generations that follow — unlike Britain, which after the Hong Kong handover in 1997, has effectively walked away from anything to do with their former colony and, more importantly, the people who live there.

Not that China has given Britain much choice. As Battle for Hong Kong shows, there was one world power in that negotiation, and it wasn't Britain. Britain's government can object all it wants over the finer details today, but its objections are little more than a minor irritant for China. Britain can no longer claim to even be part of the EU, let alone a world power. China is not interested in anything Britain has to say about Hong Kong — not one thing.

And with the current U.S. administration showing a curious lack of engagement in support of democracy around the world — traditionally one of the pillars of the U.S.'s post-Second World War foreign policy — the Hong Kong demonstrators know they're on their own.

History comes alive when told through the eyes of individual people, and so it is with Battle for Hong Kong. The program follows five young protestors in a movement that started as a protest against new legislation that directed that, in the future, anyone charged with a crime in semi-autonomous Hong Kong would be sent to mainland China for trial. That protest quickly escalated into a protest against something much bigger: Hong Kong's right to make its own decisions about its own future in all aspects of public and personal life. Everything from who to vote in for city council to what books they are allowed to read and learn about in school.

Officially, according to the Hong Kong agreement signed in 1997, China is legally allowed to take complete control of Hong Kong in 2047, more than 25 years from now, but China is now saying, more-or-less, the heck with waiting. A 20-year-old, protesting today in Hong Kong, understands that a lot can happen in their life between now and when they turn 50, and they want to make sure the rights they enjoy now — to work for who they want, when they want, under existing Hong Kong laws and not Chinese rule — they will continue to enjoy for the next three decades of their lives.

China, which believes in tight controls — over everything — also believes that what's good for 2047 is good for 2020, and even if naysayers object, who cares? What are the naysayers going to do about it. 

Chinese authorities know, too, that the outside world is unlikely to intervene — even if they could — because most countries in the world, including western democracies, are terrified of a trade dispute.

Where others may see the protestors as college students standing up for their freedoms, the Chinese government has marked them as "separatists," "thugs" and "radicals," and the Chinese government is winning the information wars with its own citizens on the mainland, which, to their eyes, is all that matters.

It's the small, personal stories that often leave the deepest impression, though, and so Battle for Hong Kong follows protestors like Lomi, a young researcher disillusioned by months of seemingly pointless peaceful demonstrations and increasingly anxious about her future, telling Frontline, "Hong Kong-ers used to be regarded as rational, peaceful and non-violent, yet, have we had any breakthroughs? I don't think so."

Then there's Vincent, a high-schooler who grew up in mainland China before his family moved to Hong Kong when he was in his teens; he fears that, under China, Hong Kong will become a surveillance state to the extent that it hasn't already become one. "In mainland China, your daily life is watched by the authorities," he tells Frontline. "It's another prison outside prison."

Vincent knows he can no longer visit his family in China without fear of arrest and summary detention, or worse.

"When you pursue something you consider a just cause," he says philosophically, "it's inevitable there will be sacrifices."

Just causes can become hopeless causes, though, given the right set of circumstances and an authoritarian government that will stop at nothing to force its will.

The democracy protests are just the beginning, Lomi insists. "This movement is the beginning of opposition against this authoritarian regime," she says. "Not the final battle."

Her words are defiant, but there's a plaintive tone, too.

"Sorry, Mom and Dad," a protestor says, in the program's opening moments. "I couldn't be the obedient girl you wanted…. This is the truest thing I've ever done."

Battle for Hong Kong is an eye-opener, absorbing and gripping by turns and fascinating to watch, but also sad and poignant.

The Bachelor it ain't. But you'll remember it longer.

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