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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.