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Aim Sinpeng ’05 shares her expertise on political uprisings and sheds light on Hong Kong’s unrest.
By Doug Daniels
laming arrows and Molotov cocktails rained down on riot police from one of Hong Kong’s most prominent universities. And with that, the five-month-old resistance movement, raging since June, had finally taken the violent turn it had mostly resisted throughout the summer.
For months, the widespread protests, predominantly led by students, had been largely defined by nonviolence. But by November, a movement initially sparked by the Hong Kong government’s controversial extradition bill and frustrations over police brutality had transformed into a far broader call for expanded freedoms and democratic reforms in the semi-autonomous city that has lived in the shadow of mainland China for nearly a quarter century.
Critics of the extradition bill, which would have allowed the government to extradite so-called criminals to governments outside Hong Kong, insisted it empowered Chinese officials to arrest political dissenters in Hong Kong, encroaching on the civil liberties of Hong Kong’s citizens and casting them into the murky waters of mainland China’s severe judicial system.
Aim Sinpeng ’05, who studied international relations and was a CISLA scholar at Conn before moving on to pursue her doctorate in political science, sorts out the complexities of the fast-moving developments in Hong Kong. Sinpeng serves as an assistant professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, specializing in democracy and social change in Asia and the role digital media plays in political protests and participation.
Doug Daniels: Hong Kong has experienced two other notable instances of mass protests over the past decade and a half, but this one seems more transformational. What are the overarching motives of the protesters as you see them today?
Aim Sinpeng: As with most large-scale protests, there are multiple issues at play and not just one explanation. There are political and nationalistic elements unique to Hong Kong and its complicated relationship with mainland China. But there are also issues surrounding economic insecurity that young people in Europe and the United States are experiencing. They feel they don’t have the resources and opportunities for social and economic mobility. This has created resentment and anxiety about the future.
DD: How stark is the generational divide within Hong Kong? Are older residents more tolerant of mainland China’s control?
AS: Older people in Hong Kong remember what it was like living under colonial rule, and they recognize that they enjoy more freedom than people in mainland China do, so I think there’s partly a reluctance to antagonize Beijing and risk losing what freedoms they currently have. For the younger generation, they are angry over not having their own identity as Hong Kongers recognized. They don’t identify as Chinese, and ever since the Chinese takeover in 1997, that Hong Kong identity has constantly been challenged and eroded by Chinese superiority.
DD:After several months of protests, the extradition bill that initially sparked them was pulled by Hong Kong’s government, but by then the movement had taken on a life of its own and sought much broader democratic reforms. Looking back, do you think the moment the bill was pulled might have been a missed opportunity for the protesters to try and achieve some sort of compromise with the government if they’d had a clear leader?
AS: I think that decision to pull the bill simply came too late and didn’t address the bigger issue of police violence, not to mention the movement’s other concerns. I have studied protests in the past and found that there are always moments when some kind of compromise probably could have happened, but it’s fallen through because of a lack of leadership, bad timing or something else. When you’re an outsider, it’s easier to second-guess the decisions and strategies of different movements, but on the ground in real time, the situations are very complex.
DD: What do you think the conditions of a compromise or resolution will look like? Are you optimistic that issues such as police brutality will be addressed in substantive ways?
AS: It’s going to take a lot, because the trust deficit when it comes to the police is massive. The people and even many Hong Kong courts don’t trust the police anymore. So in that environment, where there is such a profound lack of trust and feelings of insecurity and injustice and suppression and violence, it’s going to take some time for trust to be rebuilt before proper negotiations can take place, and I think things will get worse before they get better. But the elections [which were held on Nov. 24] are an important step.
DD: What role is social media playing in Hong Kong and how has the way political protest movements use it changed over the past few years?
AS: Since the last major protests in Hong Kong five years ago, I think one major shift in how digital and social media are used relates to the structure of the networks and how decentralized the online efforts are. Whereas a few years ago protesters may have just used Twitter to mobilize, as governments have become more sophisticated in monitoring social media activity, the protesters have had to operate with far more anonymity and use different encrypted apps to communicate and organize. This has really changed the nature of social media mobilization in ways that have actually brought new people into the fold who previously may not have had any interest in social media or online activism but are now using these tools solely to participate in the protest movement. The layers of encryption help protect people from being arrested or persecuted.
DD: You grew up in Bangkok and witnessed firsthand political unrest that ranged from major protests to military coups. How does that personal experience influence your perspective and the lens through which you look at other similar movements around the globe?
AS: It defines me. I lived through three military coups and decades of mass protests, and I grew up largely under authoritarian rule. I think that shapes how I ask questions such as “What does it mean to lose freedom? What does it mean to live under a dictatorship? What does it mean to join a protest when it’s actually illegal?” All those rights, I think, when you live in liberal democracies like the United States, you might take for granted. And that experience of living through political turmoil and suppression genuinely raises the stakes and significance of politics and political participation. It affects every facet of your life, regardless of whether you support a protest or don’t support a protest, or support a dictatorship or don’t support a dictatorship. Everything matters. Politics is something you just live and breathe. It affects your daily life.