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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.