Hong Kong protesters in­spired by Ukraine’s Euro­Maidan Rev­o­lu­tion


A pair of pop­u­lar up­ris­ings with sim­i­lar, in­de­pen­dence-ori­ented goals.

Two so­ci­eties long­ing to break away from their au­thor­i­tar­ian su­per­power neigh­bors Rus­sia and China.

Two move­ments both started — merely weeks apart in 2014 — by Western-minded stu­dent ac­tivists, dream­ing of free­dom and democ­racy.

Two protests that con­cluded, how­ever, quite dif­fer­ently.

The Euro­Maidan Rev­o­lu­tion in Ukraine suc­ceeded in oust­ing its cor­rupt, Rus­sia-backed ad­min­is­tra­tion from power, and be­gan a process of demo­cratic re­forms to move the coun­try away from Moscow to­wards Europe and the West.

The pro-democ­racy Um­brella Move­ment in Hong Kong, mean­while, largely failed in its first at­tempt to se­cure ad­di­tional free­doms and univer­sal suf­frage for peo­ple of the semi-au­ton­o­mous re­gion, a for­mer Bri­tish colony with a free-spir­ited and lib­eral iden­tity.

In Ukraine, a group of Maidan ac­tivists rode the post-rev­o­lu­tion elec­toral wave into a newly-elected, largely pro-Western par­lia­ment. In Hong Kong, the leg­isla­tive coun­cil re­mained dom­i­nated by com­mu­nist of­fi­cials cho­sen by Bei­jing, led by a chief ex­ec­u­tive ap­pointed by China. A group of school-aged stu­dent ac­tivists with po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions who trig­gered the protests were not elected — in­stead, they were rounded up and sent to prison.

But to­day, pro-democ­racy protests in Hong Kong have been reignited with a vengeance.

Some ac­tivists and law­mak­ers there say they are in­spired and in­structed by the suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion in Ukraine. They see sim­i­lar­i­ties in the two strug­gles and feel con­nected.

“We are strongly aware of, and in­spired by, a doc­u­men­tary named Win­ter on Fire… and by how the peo­ple in Ukraine started a strike to fight for their free­dom,” says Joshua Wong, the 22-year-old pro-democ­racy ac­tivist from Hong Kong who ef­fec­tively be­gan lead­ing the Um­brella Move­ment while still a high school stu­dent.

Wong says that he, like many young Hongkonger­s, watched the Os­car-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary about the Ukrainian rev­o­lu­tion af­ter the 2014 protests in his city. Ukraini­ans have in­spired ac­tivists in Hong Kong to con­tinue and im­prove their fight for free­dom, he says.

For protest­ing, Wong has spent more than 100 days in jail. He has also been the tar­get of vi­o­lent at­tacks from Bei­jing-backed thugs that have put him in the hos­pi­tal. In 2018, Wong was nom­i­nated for the No­bel Peace Prize and named a Per­son of the Year by Time, For­tune and Forbes.

He has words of sol­i­dar­ity and re­spect for Ukraine: “Even though we come from dif­fer­ent cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal con­texts… No mat­ter the dif­fer­ences be­tween Ukraine and Hong Kong, our fights for free­dom and democ­racy are the same,” Wong said, adding that Ukraine’s strug­gle to free it­self from the grip of Rus­sia is mir­rored in Hong Kong’s re­sis­tance against com­mu­nist China.

Maidan in­spi­ra­tion

Protesters on the streets of Hong Kong to­day are older, an­grier and more or­ga­nized than in 2014. They are also well-equipped, bet­ter-pro­tected and un­afraid of get­ting their hands dirty.

Weeks of strike ac­tion and protests since the spring have brought parts of Hong Kong to a stand­still. Ac­tivists are on the of­fen­sive this time around, ral­ly­ing out­side po­lice sta­tions and fight­ing run­ning bat­tles with the Bei­jing-backed au­thor­i­ties.

The po­lice re­ac­tion has been harsher this time around. In re­cent weeks, at least 568 ac­tivists have been ar­rested while 1,800 rounds of tear gas and 300 rub­ber bul­lets have been fired, ac­cord­ing to po­lice. Protesters have re­sponded to po­lice bru­tal­ity with vi­o­lence of their own.

Mean­while, plain- clothed thugs — al­legedly Triad gang­sters paid by Bei­jing, rem­i­nis­cent of so-called “ti­tushki” in Ukraine — have been at­tack­ing protesters and by­standers. Videos show mass brawls break­ing out on streets and in the Hong Kong metro.

“Life-threat­en­ing force is be­ing used,” Wong says, adding that the au­thor­i­ties are de­ploy­ing snipers to the tops of tow­ers and fir­ing tear gas can­is­ters down onto the heads of protesters.

Many ac­tivists have al­ready been hos­pi­tal­ized, al­though Wong rec­og­nizes the vi­o­lence is so far noth­ing “com­pared to the price paid by young­sters and ac­tivists in Ukraine.”

“Hong Kong is far away from be­com­ing like the (Euro­maidan Rev­o­lu­tion)… But gov­ern­ment forces have hired gangs and mobs to at­tack or­di­nary cit­i­zens and protesters, that is also one of the things that we are fac­ing,” Wong says.

“We will con­tinue our fight… but we have to learn from Ukraini­ans… and show sol­i­dar­ity. Ukraine con­fronted the force of Rus­sia — we are fac­ing the force of Bei­jing.”

An­other up­ris­ing

De­spite hy­brid ef­forts by Bei­jing to con­sol­i­date its in­flu­ence and ex­ert full con­trol over Hong Kong — handed back to China by Bri­tain in 1997 on the con­di­tion of eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and ju­di­cial free­doms for the re­gion — a spirit of in­de­pen­dence and anti-Bei­jing re­sis­tance is flour­ish­ing.

The pop­u­la­tion of Hong Kong largely speak Can­tonese, in­stead of the Man­darin spo­ken in China. Most cit­i­zens th­ese days re­gard them­selves as Hongkonger­s, in­stead of Chi­nese. Foot­ball fans boo the Chi­nese na­tional an­them. Protesters

and demo­cratic law­mak­ers in­creas­ingly de­mand full in­de­pen­dence from Bei­jing, as well as the univer­sal suf­frage that was promised to them in the 1997 Han­dover agree­ment.

There is more than a whiff of re­bel­lion in the air: “One of the most chanted slo­gans is ‘Free Hong Kong. The Rev­o­lu­tion of Our Times’. A rev­o­lu­tion would mean some fun­da­men­tal changes in the sys­tem or struc­ture, and that is what we are hop­ing to see,” says Chris, a spokesper­son for Fight For Free­dom: Stand With Hong Kong, an ad­vo­cacy group.

He also sees a con­nec­tion to Maidan: “I would highlight a few of the most ob­vi­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties (be­tween Ukraine and Hong Kong) — the de­sire to be free and the courage to defy au­thor­i­tar­i­ans.”

“It is al­ways a rev­o­lu­tion when it comes to stand­ing up against the Com­mu­nist Party of China,” says Pop­pie, one Hong Kong pro­tester who cau­tiously spoke with the Kyiv Post, not giv­ing her full name.

Bei­jing mon­i­tors so­cial me­dia users and reg­u­larly blocks web­sites. Hongkonger­s have been “dis­ap­peared” or bru­tally beaten for far less than openly speak­ing out against China.

“I see some sim­i­lar­i­ties (to Maidan), in terms of the po­lice bru­tal­ity here, and the gov­ern­ment’s ten­der­ness to­ward tyranny,” she says, adding that Ukraine and Hong Kong them­selves, how­ever, are dif­fer­ent. Ukraine is al­ready a sov­er­eign coun­try, while Hong Kong is not, she points out.

“Hong Kong in­de­pen­dence is the only an­swer now,” says Pop­pie, who notes that the protests this year are more or­ga­nized and co­or­di­nated. In 2014, ac­tivists weren’t assertive enough, she says: “It achieved ab­so­lutely noth­ing, just some nice pho­tos.”

“The protesters are now am­bush­ing dif­fer­ent dis­tricts, by ap­pear­ing at the place in a group — they build road­blocks,” she says. “They fo­cus on con­ceal­ing their iden­tity… cov­er­ing not just their face but also their ears and limbs. They have made their own shields out of any­thing they can get: rub­bish bin lids, road signs. They also take down rail­ings to build block­ades.”

Euro­Maidan films

In re­cent weeks, videos from the Euro­Maidan Rev­o­lu­tion have been cir­cu­lat­ing on Hong Kong so­cial me­dia net­works and in closed groups, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple protesters and demo­cratic law­mak­ers there who spoke with the Kyiv Post.

Ukrainian ac­tivists have also been shar­ing mes­sages of sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port with Hong Kong protesters, as well as stag­ing a num­ber of protests out­side the Chi­nese em­bassy in Kyiv.

The doc­u­men­tary film, Win­ter on Fire, which is avail­able on the Net­flix stream­ing ser­vice and fo­cuses on the Euro­maidan Rev­o­lu­tion, has been par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar on­line and be­come a talk­ing point among many Hong Kong ac­tivists.

Hongkonger­s are also adapt­ing and im­prov­ing on Euro­maidan tac­tics. They use lasers to in­ter­fere with fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy in CCTV cam­eras. To avoid the au­thor­i­ties, ral­lies are in­creas­ingly or­ga­nized through dat­ing ap­pli­ca­tions like Tin­der, or in games like Poke­mon Go. En­crypted mes­sen­ger apps like Tele­gram have be­come more pop­u­lar.

Back in 2014, there was less aware­ness about the revo­lu­tion­ary events tak­ing place in Ukraine, but that is chang­ing now.

“I didn’t feel that a lot of peo­ple re­lated Hong Kong’s protests in those days to the Ukrainian Rev­o­lu­tion very much,” says Lo Kin-hei, a re­formist law­maker in the Hong Kong City Ad­min­is­tra­tive Coun­cil, and Vice-Chair­per­son of The Demo­cratic Party of Hong Kong.

“The rea­son… I guess, is that we didn’t have too much cov­er­age on the Ukrainian Rev­o­lu­tion back then, the news didn’t re­port it too much, and most Hong Kong peo­ple were not aware of it at that time.”

Hong Kong is also, ac­cord­ing to Kin-hei, closer to main­land China and the break­away, demo­cratic is­land of Can­tonese-speak­ing Tai­wan — which pro­vides the coun­try with more pro-democ­racy in­spi­ra­tion than dis­tant Ukraine.

“Our com­par­i­son goes more to­wards the Tien­an­men Mas­sacre in 1989, and re­cent suppressio­n of Tai­wan by Bei­jing,” Kin-hei says, in ref­er­ence to the event 30 years ago in Bei­jing, where the Chi­nese mil­i­tary crushed a pro-democ­racy protest with tanks, killing thou­sands of stu­dents.

“Hav­ing said that, I know some peo­ple are re­ally drawing at­ten­tion to the Ukrainian Rev­o­lu­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter watch­ing that doc­u­men­tary on Net­flix,” the demo­cratic law­maker says. “We see sim­i­lar­i­ties — and some of us fear the ca­su­al­ties that hap­pened in Ukraine will

one day hap­pen in Hong Kong,” he added.

Sol­i­dar­ity in Kyiv

In Ukraine, there is also plenty of sup­port for the Hong Kong protesters: “We can see the clear­est par­al­lels be­tween Ukraine and Hong Kong,” says Arthur Kharytonov, a civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist, co­or­di­na­tor at the Free Hong Kong Cen­ter in Kyiv, and co-founder of the Lib­eral Demo­cratic League of Ukraine.

“We feel that they are our friends — they are the same as we are… we want to help them in their fight for democ­racy, rule of law and hu­man rights,” Kharytonov says. Ukraine’s rev­o­lu­tion and the Um­brella Move­ment in Hong Kong have the same goals and the same spirit, he ar­gues.

“There are a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties: stu­dent re­sis­tance to com­mu­nis­tic (Rus­sian) ideas, the abuse of hu­man rights and the le­gal sys­tem, po­lice bru­tal­ity and ag­gres­sive, anti-demo­cratic pro­pa­ganda… with Rus­sia and China form­ing a kind of to­tal­i­tar­ian fam­ily, Ukraine and Hong Kong need to stand to­gether.”

Same but dif­fer­ent

“There are

sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the up­ris­ings in Ukraine and Hong Kong,” says Glen Grant, a se­cu­rity and de­fense ex­pert at Kyiv-based think tank, the Ukrainian In­sti­tute. “In both cases, power in the form of gov­ern­ment is try­ing to sup­press the will of the peo­ple.”

But the two strug­gles are not ex­actly the same and have taken place against dif­fer­ent back­drops, and dif­fer­ent cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal con­texts, ex­perts say.

Hong Kong also has a much big­ger chal­lenge ahead, if it plans a Euro­Maidan-style push for full in­de­pen­dence.

“The dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of the Maidan is that the re­sources of the state were out­matched by the re­sources of civil so­ci­ety,” says James Sherr, a fel­low at the Es­to­nian For­eign Pol­icy In­sti­tute. “That is not the case in Moscow or in Hong Kong,” he adds, where the re­sources of the state have not even been fully brought to bear on protesters.

Grant notes that the for­merly UK-gov­erned ter­ri­tory of Hong Kong en­joyed many years of rel­a­tive po­lit­i­cal free­dom and au­ton­omy. China ac­cepted this par­tial democ­racy fol­low­ing the han­dover, but Chi­nese pa­tience could now be wear­ing thin.

“There has been a grad­ual erod­ing of free­doms, squeez­ing democ­racy and at­tack­ing core val­ues,” he says. “Free­dom once gained is a hard thing to lose — so there will be con­tin­u­ing un­rest. I fear that China will never back down, so there will even­tu­ally be a hard crack­down and re­pres­sion.”

But Bei­jing also finds it­self in a quandary. A news black­out would be im­pos­si­ble, and if such a crack­down is launched it will likely hurt China too, ex­perts say. The main­land will suf­fer, es­pe­cially eco­nom­i­cally. And with thou­sands of for­eign busi­nesses lo­cated in Hong Kong, there would also be reper­cus­sions world­wide.

“We are look­ing to ex­haust the po­lice,” says Pop­pie. “Make it in­con­ve­nient for ev­ery­one so the gov­ern­ment will start lis­ten­ing.”

Some ac­tivists, how­ever, still fear a re­peat of the Tien­an­men Square mas­sacre. But Pop­pie says the Chi­nese army will not come to Hong Kong, as it would be too costly for China to fully and openly crush dis­sent in the semi-au­ton­o­mous ter­ri­tory: “If we burn, they will burn,” she says.

Po­lice fire tear gas dur­ing a pro-democ­racy protest in Hong Kong on Aug. 4, 2019. (AFP)

Protesters throw back tear gas fired by the po­lice in Wong Tai Sin dur­ing a gen­eral strike in Hong Kong on Au­gust 5, 2019, as si­mul­ta­ne­ous ral­lies were held across seven dis­tricts. (AFP)

Ukrainian po­lice as­saulted dozens of protesters on Nov. 30, 2013 in a crack­down on demon­stra­tions de­mand­ing the ouster of Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych. The po­lice at­tacks that day be­came one of the many turn­ing points in the re­bel­lion that suc­ceeded in driv­ing Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, 2014. (AFP)

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