Looking at Hong Kong’s recent protests through two historical massacres
On 16 August 1819, calvary charged into a crowd who had gathered to demand better parliamentary representation in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester.
On 22 January (9 January O.S.) 1905 in St. Petersburg, an unarmed crowd of demonstrators led by an Orthodox priest was fired upon by the soldiers of the Imperial Guards as they marched towards the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar.  [3: Robert Service, The Russian Revolution, 31–32]
On 11 August 2019 (time of writing) in Hong Kong, tea gas canisters were fired into a metro station, and beanbag rounds allegedly blinded a female protester, as the city’s political unrest heightens in yet another weekend of protests.
This article serves only one purpose, that is to put Hong Kong’s current situation in a greater context through the lens of historical protests and their results. I offer no ‘way out’ for the present political impasse, for that is something those in power ought to consider, and the consequences are theirs to bear.
1. What happened at Peterloo and why?
[I rely on Wikipedia for this section as I have no access to scholarly materials on this incident, if you feel that this discredits my argument then simply ignore all comments on what happened at Peterloo]
What happened was that the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him. The Yeomanry charged into the crowd, knocking down a woman and killing a child, and finally apprehending Hunt. The 15th Hussars were then summoned by the Chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates, William Hulton, to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
The causes of the demonstration that took place at Peterloo were:
- Famine and chronic unemployment due to the Napoleonic Wars in 1815
- Poor economic conditions
- Lack of suffrage in Northern England
How does that relate to Hong Kong today?
Since Hong Kong is not really affected by the first two causes, I shall look at the third cause: the lack of suffrage.
Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (equivalent to the British Parliament) has 70 seats, half of the legislators (equivalent to the Members of Parliament) are elected through local election (equivalent to a general election in the UK), and half of them are elected through professional representation in their ‘functional constituency’ (which means it is not geographical). This means that only a few members of a particular profession get to cast their votes, with most of the legislators elected through this way being the only candidate in their respective profession. There are also archaic functional constituencies such as ‘Fisheries’ and ‘Textiles’ constituencies, professions that are no longer representative of the working class of Hong Kong.
For a summary of the struggle to abolish ‘functional constituency’, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_constituency_(Hong_Kong)
2. What happened at St. Petersburg and why?
Many intellectuals in St. Petersburg believed that absolute monarchy was the cause of the numerous problems troubling the Tsarist Russia in 1915. Tsar Nicholas II’s determination to continue the Russo-Japanese War baffled his ministers, the massive defeat and the economic strain this War has inflicted on Russia caused great displeasure among the Russians.
What’s more, the influence of the still foreign Socialism, and the desire to restore the egalitarian tradition once seen in the peasant commune, gave rise to the ‘Populist’ militant (Narodniki, народники). They started to demand political liberty. The state police — Okhrana — rounded up activists in hundreds, the liberals were harassed, the neo-populists, the Socialist-Revolutionaries, suffered prison and exile. [4: Robert Service, The Russian Revolution, 31] The anti-monarchy Marxists were hunted hard by the police.
Led by Father Gapon, unarmed protesters were fired upon during a peaceful procession in favour of constitutional and social reforms. This is now know as the Russian ‘Bloody Sunday’, which is one of the cause of the Russian Revolution in 1905 and 1917.
The demands by the protesters include better working conditions, fairer wages, an end to the Russo-Japanese War and the introduction of universal suffrage.
Further Reading: Robert Service, The Russian Revolution, 19–51
How does that relate to Hong Kong today?
The resemblance between the two incidents is uncanny. Protesters demanded social reforms and universal suffrage. Both started off as peaceful protests, both were met with blatant violence from the state police, both led to strikes and worsened the tension between the people and the government.
Hong Kong government’s inaction and indifference to the demands of the protesters indirectly allow the Hong Kong police to act in such absurd ways. (although many believe that the government ordered the police to repress all forms of protests by force) History has taught us that things tend to go wrong for the government when they dodge political demands by hiding behind the armed forces. One only needs to look at the Kornilov affairs  to realise that this tactic not only loses the government’s credibility, but also its control over the armed forces, as they grow more and more unscrupulous and reckless.
The legality of protests
Many of the ‘middle of the road’ Hong-Kongers who support this political movement in principle find themselves in a ‘utopian dilemma’ when the protests turn violent. “I support the protests as long as they stay peaceful.” one of such sitting-on-the-fence-compatriot may say. I would like to point once again to the great Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (perhaps the July Days resembles the recent unrest the most), or shall I point out the ironic obvious — that the Communist Party of China (CPC) was hardly a legal entity for the first 20 years of its existence, and the militant ways in which it seized and reinforced power in mainland China, make them the least likely and qualified critic regarding the legality of the protest in Hong Kong. No one would believe that a government that runs a modern concentration camp is really concerned about law and order with no ulterior motives. Legality has always been a wishy-washy chalk line that is used extremely flexibly by those in power when facing political demands. From the Pharisees in Jesus’ time to today’s CPC, legality has been used as a mere commodity. To say that the protesters’ fighting back is bad because it is causing a lot of disruption and damage to properties, one might as well say that any other form of protests is doubleplusungood unless it is done peacefully, and except for the housing situation and tonnes of issues not addressed by the government because it has no duty to the people, Hong Kong is one of the doubleplusgood cities in the world, and any repression we think we are undergoing is simply the CPC being malquoted. Those who demand protests to be peaceful simply misses the point, and Hong Kong will only become another Airstrip One in the end.
One final consolation
Hong Kong’s current situation is a humanitarian crisis. It begs the support from other democratic countries, yet it is receiving none. In this era when capitalism is the global norm, it is ironic that the capitalistic principle of maximising one’s benefit is the only thing that is restraining democratic countries from speaking out against the systematic violence inflicted by a so-called socialist country on a former British territory that is on its knees begging for political reforms that perhaps would make housing a tiny bit more affordable, or would see its people electing their own chief executive for the first time.
If the massacres indeed can be read as pointers to the whats and whys of Hong Kong’s crisis, then History promises hope. Peterloo massacre is thought to be one of the defining moments in the development of British democracy. It is true that immediately after Peterloo massacre the government imposed serious measures on reform, however it successfully awoke the workers to struggle for the enfranchisement of the working class.
“Henceforth, the people were to stand with ever greater fortitude behind that great movement, which, stage by stage throughout the nineteenth century, was to impose a new political order upon society” — R J White
Hong Kong’s current political movement is sustained by not only the immeasurable will of Hong Kongers to fight for true freedom, as we have seen on social media, it is also fuelled with immense creativity, charity, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, peace and love. How can one not remain hopeful seeing the great resilience and unity humanity is able to demonstrate in such dark and gloomy days?
On the Russian revolutions:
History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky, Ch. 1–3
The Penguin History of Modern Russia by Robert Service
On the Peterloo Massacre:
BBC Radio documentary on the massacre (for a limited time only):