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Disturbing Parallels in Crackdowns on Protesters in the U.S. and Hong Kong

The First Amendment didn’t stop U.S. law enforcement from acting like the authoritarian government in China.

October 29, 2020

The protests that erup­ted in oppos­i­tion to police brutal­ity against Black Amer­ic­ans this year have been met with disquiet­ing, milit­ar­ized responses by law enforce­ment agen­cies across the coun­try. One of the most egre­gious examples occurred in Port­land, Oregon, where the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity deployed officers to “restore order” over the objec­tions of local author­it­ies.

The grim scenes led to compar­is­ons between the United States and author­it­arian regimes through­out history. The most conspicu­ous analogue may be last summer’s protests over Hong Kong’s inde­pend­ence from China. But despite clear tactical simil­ar­it­ies between the anti-police brutal­ity demon­stra­tions in Port­land and the widely celeb­rated pro-demo­cracy demon­stra­tions in Hong Kong, the U.S. govern­ment opted to meet the Port­land protest­ers with the same degree of force it denounced when perpet­rated by the Chinese govern­ment, the First Amend­ment notwith­stand­ing.

Both Hong Kong and the United States saw histor­ic­ally large outpour­ings of dissent­ers in response to moments that typify long­stand­ing prob­lems. In Hong Kong, a bill permit­ting the extra­di­tion of fugit­ives to main­land China stirred concern among citizens that the China-friendly govern­ment was ceding the territ­ory’s semi­autonom­ous status, whereas in the United States, the police killing of George Floyd served as the latest chapter in the coun­try’s ignoble history of state-sanc­tioned anti-Black­ness.

Hong Kong demon­strat­ors defaced build­ings that displayed signs of Chinese sover­eignty, and in Port­land protest­ers toppled statues of histor­ical Amer­ican figures who owned slaves. In response to the para­mil­it­ary tactics util­ized by police in both cities, protest­ers employed some­times make­shift protect­ive gear: tear gas was dispersed with leaf blowers, filtered via gas masks, and blocked with umbrel­las. The demon­strat­ors also used shields to defend them­selves against batons, and they used lasers to thwart facial recog­ni­tion soft­ware and other forms of police surveil­lance.

Law enforce­ment crack­downs on the demon­stra­tions were similar too, made espe­cially strik­ing given the contrast between Chin­a’s single-party regime and Amer­ican demo­cracy. In Hong Kong, secur­ity forces from the main­land joined efforts to repel protest­ers, while DHS sent camou­flaged and masked officers without ID badges to Oregon. Law enforce­ment in both juris­dic­tions used minor infrac­tions like jaywalk­ing to police the protests, and under­cover officers and unmarked vehicles roamed the streets. Predict­ably, the number of arrests in areas around the protests rock­eted up — while the number of protest­ers arres­ted in Port­land is much smal­ler than in Hong Kong, the percent­age by popu­la­tion is nearly identical. And para­mil­it­ary units suppressed the press in both cities, block­ing cameras, shov­ing and shoot­ing journ­al­ists with nonlethal muni­tions, and pepper spray­ing news crews.

Both govern­ments also employed invas­ive surveil­lance tech­no­logy to gather inform­a­tion on the demon­stra­tions. Author­it­ies used social media monit­or­ing to identify and arrest protest­ers. Hong Kong police seized more than 3,700 cell phones from protest­ers, precip­it­at­ing the worry among activ­ists that the phones were being implanted with spyware. The Nation recently revealed that DHS used cell phone clon­ing tech­no­logy to inter­cept commu­nic­a­tions, lead­ing to demands for an invest­ig­a­tion from members of Congress.

But the same U.S. offi­cials who criti­cized Amer­ic­ans demon­strat­ing against racial injustice heaped unre­served praise upon the mass move­ment in Hong Kong. Less than two months after Pres­id­ent Trump described the Chinese govern­ment’s inter­ven­tion in Hong Kong as “smoth­er­ing Hong Kong’s free­dom,” he threatened that if Oregon Gov. Kate Brown did not arrest the Port­land demon­strat­ors, he would have the “Federal Govern­ment do it for her.” Senate Major­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell decried Beijing as seek­ing “to snuff out dissent in Hong Kong” six months before he called the Port­land protest­ers “an alli­ance of conveni­ence between angry crim­in­als.” Attor­ney General Bill Barr condemned the Chinese govern­ment for its values “anti­thet­ic­al…to those we share in West­ern liberal demo­cra­cies.” Three months later, he char­ac­ter­ized the marches in Port­land as “an assault on the govern­ment of the United States.”

There are many other examples of viol­ent govern­ment suppres­sion of peace­ful demon­strat­ors around the United States, from the New York City Police Depart­ment assault­ing peace­ful protest­ers on numer­ous occa­sions to the use of tear gas outside the White House to clear the way for a pres­id­en­tial photo-op. Police miscon­duct escal­ated viol­ence at more than 180 protests nation­wide.

We should be wary of the normal­iz­a­tion of author­it­arian suppres­sion of dissent in the United States. We know too that Trump has refused to accept the premise of a peace­ful trans­fer of power and advoc­ated for voter intim­id­a­tion, again echo­ing author­it­arian rhet­oric.

In the after­math of Hong Kong’s protests, China passed legis­la­tion under­min­ing the city’s status as a demo­cratic entity. Amer­ican demo­cracy has the bene­fit of being more mature, but we must still push back against the forces work­ing to under­mine it.