The freedom fighters who dared to take on a communist superpower

Published by The Spectator (6th January, 2024)

Among the Braves: Hope, Struggle and Exile in the Battle for Hong Kong and the Future of Global Democracy by Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin

In May 2020, as the planet grappled with the pandemic, China’s state media declared that there were ‘obvious deficiencies’ in Hong Kong law enforcement needing to be addressed. Any delusions this might have referred to intensifying police brutality in response to massive pro-democracy protests, let alone the unleashing of Triad thugs to attack participants, were dashed rapidly. Details emerged days later of a draconian new security law that criminalised any form of dissent, whether at home or abroad, with threat of life imprisonment. ‘When the world is not watching, they are killing Hong Kong,’ said Dennis Kwok, a lawyer and pro-democracy legislator.

He was right. This was the moment that a brutal dictatorship, rattled by the size of protests and infuriated by the failure of its stooges in the territory’s legal, political and security systems to stifle them, took matters into its own hands. In a carefully choreographed move, Beijing strangled the freedoms and spirit that made Hong Kong such a special place, a historic bridge between China and the West. The National People’s Congress announced that the new measure would be in place by 1 July – the 23rd anniversary of that rain-sodden day when Britain handed sovereignty to China under a ‘one country, two nations’ deal supposed to preserve its unique status for half a century.

The impact was instant as people wiped photographs from phones and shut down social media. Less than a year later, another legislator who fled the crackdown told me that 100 of his friends were behind bars, including a prominent media tycoon, journalists and youthful leaders of the protests. This excellent book by Shibani Mahtani, a Washington Post journalist, and Timothy McLaughlin, a writer at the Atlantic, details these sad events through the lives of four activists, weaving their tales into a narrative about the city and those freedom fighters who dared take on a communist superpower with almost inevitable consequences. ‘What alternative do we have?’ one teenage activist asked when I reported on the protests at their peak.

The ‘braves’ of the title were the hard-liners who adopted a confrontational strategy, in contrast to those pushing for a more peaceful approach, a division that ultimately undermined their cause as clashes with police spiralled. The militants included Tommy, an artistic student who went from nervously throwing a couple of eggs to helping storm the legislature, before fleeing arrest in a daring escape by speedboat to Taiwan. This echoed the flight of his grandmother, who paddled to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution. He ends up as a rather lost figure in exile in the United States, dismayed to find former comrades resuming their old lives of shopping trips, sharing hotpot and gossiping about pop stars.

But at least he has his freedom. The quartet includes Gwyneth Ho, a journalist held behind bars on charges of subverting state power as one of 47 citizens who participated in an unofficial election run by the pro-democracy movement. She went into politics after live-streaming her own beating when Triad gangsters, armed with bamboo staves in a metro station, beat up people suspected of joining a protest, while police ignored pleas to help. Ho comes across as a curious figure, bold and indisputably brave yet slightly childish, frantically playing a computer game in her last moments of freedom. Perhaps this sums up that extraordinary movement, with its heady mix of courage and youthful idealism, optimism and bleak fatalism.

The long-running trial of the ‘Hong Kong 47’ includes Claudia Mo, a likeable woman who, before becoming a legislator, reported as a journalist on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 – an event rightly placed at the heart of this narrative about the only part of China able to mark the massacre until the clampdown three years ago. And Joshua Wong, the earnest teenage leader of the 2014 Umbrella protests, whose desperate attempts to find sanctuary in the United States as the net closed around him were, the authors disclose, dashed by Washington’s concerns over provoking Beijing’s retaliation. So much for all the bellicose rhetoric of Donald Trump’s team.

Carrie Lam, the pathetic chief executive who repeatedly missed chances to avert catastrophe, is deservedly skewered as the leader who killed her city after protests erupted against her extradition law. Mahtani and McLaughlin remind readers that it was a British officer – one of scores serving in Hong Kong – who led ‘the first display of how police were willing to abandon their guidelines, morality and humanity to stand as Beijing’s soldiers’ with tear gas and pepper spray. Senator Ted Cruz, who dressed in black with the protestors in 2019, killed a bill the following year to assist asylum for Hong Kongers. And Lord Sumption still pontificates on freedom despite lending credibility to Beijing’s actions by sitting as a part-time judge in Hong Kong even after the security law was imposed.

So it is no surprise to find that, by the final pages, each of the main characters seems crushed, like their beloved city state. Finn Lau, who fuelled protests from London as co-founder of ‘Stand with Hong Kong’, devotes so much time to his online activism that he becomes depressed, gets divorced and then suffers a suspicious beating beside the Thames. The token older figure is Chu Yiu-ming, a pastor who once helped rescue survivors of the Tiananmen slaughter, then assisted those fleeing the more recent crackdown. He lives in lonely exile with his wife in Taiwan. Even Lam, the self-righteous Beijing lackey, ends up ostracised by Beijing for her ineptitude.

As this book correctly argues, the speed of events, the fragility of institutions and the involvement of ‘willing collaborators eager to brutally enforce the demands of authoritarians’ hold lessons for the global confrontation between democracy and autocracy seen in places such as Ukraine and Taiwan. This is a gripping and well-paced narrative about people who sacrificed much for the cause of democracy. But, as with Hong Kong, it has tragically grim ending.

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