New Cold War Endangers Activists in Hong Kong

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The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had terrible consequences for those caught up in it. History does not repeat, but it does rhyme. The next cold war is upon us: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States are now competing for hegemony over the Pacific. Despite the climate crisis and the global pandemic, the two most powerful countries on earth would rather test hypersonic missiles and conduct naval exercises than work together to prevent our collective annihilation.

This new cold war has already had profound implications for those caught in the crossfire. Nowhere is this truer than in Hong Kong. After a proposed extradition bill threatened Hong Kong’s autonomy within the PRC in late 2019, millions took to the city’s streets to protest. The resulting movement has since faltered, with the Chinese state accelerating Hong Kong’s integration with mainland China by introducing a repressive national security law and lambasting protesters as secessionists and Western puppets. The U.S. Left has largely accepted that narrative and dismissed the movement as reactionary.

Democratic Left spoke with a member of the Lausan Collective, one of the left-wing activist groups aiming to disrupt U.S. and Chinese narratives about Hong Kong. Let’s call them X. When street protests erupted in 2019, images of Hong Kongers waving U.S. flags and shouting Trump slogans alienated U.S leftists. But as X attested, this was only half of the story. The protests were not ideologically coherent: Participants were “primarily driven by a yearning for more thorough democratic reforms” and by economic anxieties. Figures on the U.S Right did not care about Hong Kong, and it was a mistake to allow them to control the narrative. X noted, “The [U.S.] state will exploit anything in its rivalry with China, and the Chinese state will use whatever means to push back.” While the U.S. government used the Hong Kong protests to bolster its campaign against the PRC, the U.S. Left ignored the movement’s real strengths, including the creation of new labor unions and a fluid organizational structure that allowed them to build solidarity across diverse social groups.

X argues that U.S. socialists’ lack of attention to Hong Kong is due to a fundamental misunderstanding. Unlike the first Cold War, this cold war is not an ideological contest; despite tensions between them, the United States and the PRC are both oppressive, capitalist countries. Our options on the Left are not limited to heralding the Chinese state as anti-imperialist or justifying U.S. intervention. Socialists must sup- port “those [who are] exploited and oppressed.” The only alternative to the new cold war is building solidarity between social movements and turning our individual weaknesses into collective strength. Hong Kong’s complex ideological landscape is thus a test for DSA: Can we offer solidarity to potential allies—or only judgment?