What China's Xi should learn from Hong Kong's protest march

Story highlights

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for three days last week
  • He was there to mark 20 years since Britain handed Hong Kong to Chinese rule

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, published by Penguin. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Hong Kong (CNN)China's President has traditionally visited Hong Kong only once every five years, swearing in the Chief Executive for a new five year term and then hastily making an exit before the traditional July 1 protest march.

For all the bluster about Beijing tightening its control over Hong Kong, President Xi Jinping's visit for the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule was no exception.
In the mold of the traditional emperor's inspection tour, Xi's visit was highly choreographed. Foregoing any mingling with Hong Kongers in the streets, the most prominent stop on Xi's itinerary was pointedly a visit to inspect the troops of the People's Liberation Army garrison.
    In a closely-watched speech, Xi stated that any attempts to challenge Beijing's authority over Hong Kong crossed a "red line" and was "absolutely impermissible." Given the tone of official Beijing rhetoric towards Hong Kong in recent years, this was not a surprise.
    However, Xi's belief, stated in his speech, that "development" is "the golden key" to resolving the conflicts dividing Hong Kong society shows just how deeply Beijing misunderstands Hong Kong. Beijing seems to think that -- just like in the rest of China -- if only Hong Kong people were wealthier, they would be happier.
    Xi's departure before the protest commenced enabled both Xi and the Hong Kong administration to save face and avoid the embarrassment of a Chinese leader being present in a Chinese city holding a massive anti-government demonstration. It is a pity, however, because if Xi had stuck around he would have learned more about Hong Kong than from the rest of his short tour.
    Authorities inaccurately reported that turnout was the lowest ever. The more reliable Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme said the numbers were actually slightly higher than the past two years, although certainly lower than the huge numbers that marched in 2014 leading up to the Umbrella Movement protests.
    There are those who would nevertheless say that falling attendance shows the protest spirit of Hong Kong and its aspirations for democracy are fading. However, walking among the crowds on Saturday, that is not what I saw.
    What I saw -- what Xi would have seen if he had surreptitiously joined the parade, perhaps cunningly disguised as his own impersonator -- was a deeply engaged populace. That protesters still came in such numbers -- despite thunderstorms and stifling heat, despite official obstruction, despite rumors of a coercive police approach -- shows how committed Hong Kongers are to speaking out for causes they believe in.
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    These causes go far beyond politics. The protest route was lined with street stands promoting causes such as government-funded dental care for disabled people; "Fixing Hong Kong", volunteers who repair poorly-maintained public housing; "Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis," promoting the Cantonese language; "Water For Free," discouraging bottled water; a group of residents from a remote district protesting a government decision to sell their local shopping mall; and a group supporting a Hong Konger imprisoned for 17 years in the Philippines on apparently trumped-up charges.
    Meanwhile, in spite of Xi's "red line", a small group of protesters waved "Hong Kong Independence" banners, watched carefully by the police but nevertheless protected -- at least for now -- by Hong Kong's constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
    Like every July 1 rally, the march was testament to a lively and active civil society, unimaginable in the mainland which continues to crack down on civil society groups, lawyers, overseas NGOs and religious groups.
    This civil society -- and the accompanying impulse to speak out and to protest -- is deeply ingrained in Hong Kong culture, and won't just magically disappear with material "development." The government must hear, and respond to, these diverse voices.
    But if Xi had joined the march, he should also have been reassured, that these protests all arise from one common motivation: a love of Hong Kong and a desire to improve it for all of its populace. Now that is real development.