Are Hong Kong protesters pro-American or British when they wave the US and UK flags? The answer is complicated
- The flying of flags of other countries at protests is often cited as evidence of foreign interference or an attempt to spark an uprising against central government
- But ask the flag-bearers themselves and the picture is more nuanced and quite different from these assumptions
They are also often cited as evidence of foreign interference or part of a “colour revolution”, in which foreign hands are trying to steer an uprising against the central government.
But ask the flag-bearers themselves and the picture is more nuanced and quite different from these assumptions, at least according to interviews the Post conducted over the past weeks.
Elsewhere in the area, a dozen colonial British flags fluttered in the evening breeze. Apart from foreign flags, a scattering of pro-independence flags for movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan have also been sighted at protests, a different provocation that analysts said would also likely irritate Beijing.
There have been 11 consecutive weekends of protests against the now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions such as mainland China.
“I believe in the concept of freedom, the flag represents the value of freedom,” he said.
But Cheung was not at all convinced that the US would give direct support to the movement.
“We are not their citizens, they will not give help,” he said.
Another US flag-waver, who refused to give his name, said he wanted the American government to pass the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
The proposed act will give the US president power to take action against people “complicit in suppressing basic freedoms in Hong Kong”. An annual review of technology transfer between the US and the city would also have to be done under this law.
Some believe that the legislation will deter Beijing from suppressing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The unnamed protester also dismissed claims that those with foreign flags were “hired guns” of foreign agents.
As for those carrying the British flags – a more regular feature of protests in previous years – those present at Friday’s rally said they were members of British National (Overseas) and Commonwealth Citizens Equal Rights Rummage, an online group exclusively for Hongkongers with British citizenship or British National (Overseas) passports.
A core member, surnamed Ling, said the group was calling for Britain to give right of abode to BN(O) passports holders.
Ling also said his group disputed that Hongkongers born before 1997 were Chinese nationals.
“Unfortunately Chinese nationality was added onto our status after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” the 58-year-old retiree said.
The declaration, signed in 1984, paved the way for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Ling said he supported the anti-extradition movement, but added his group had a specific mission and he did not see them as fighting for greater democracy like the other protesters.
The Friday rally, jointly organised by university students and a group of pro-democracy internet users, called on the US to pass the proposed act and for Britain to declare that China failed to deliver its promises in the Joint Declaration.
A 55-year-old Briton, who gave his name as Steven, was a bit worried seeing his country’s flag at Hong Kong protests, even if it made him think it showed the protesters also liked democracy and universal suffrage.
“I’m nervous because I know a lot of people think that foreigners are coming here to cause trouble and split China,” he said.
“They would like to blame the problems on outsiders, but it’s not really true.”
On LIHKG, an online forum frequented by anti-extradition protesters, there were mixed views over the presence of the foreign flags.
Some said the US flag would raise awareness of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and act as a “signal for help”.
But others believed the images of Hongkongers waving foreign flags being replayed all over the world could give people wrong ideas about the movement.
“It will only lead the moderates to believe that we were paid by the Americans to protest,” one user wrote.
Most people attending protests and interviewed by the Post shrugged off the foreign flags.
At a march in To Kwa Wan on Saturday, a 21-year-old university student, surnamed Kwok, said the flags could spark interest in those countries.
“They might not support [the movement], or they will oppose it, but at least they will pay attention to what is happening in Hong Kong,” Kwok said.
Professor Hung Ho-fung, who chairs Johns Hopkins University’s sociology department, said it was not uncommon for social movements to feature foreign flags and symbols.
“During its revolutionary years, the Chinese Communist Party held the portraits of foreign leaders – Lenin and Stalin – all the time,” Hung said.
He also said the foreign flags showed protesters wanted Hong Kong to be “an international city rather than only a Chinese city”.
Hung added: “It also reflects some protesters’ identification with the values of liberty and justice that the US flag represents.”
The Post spotted one US flag at the To Kwa Wan march, as well as one for Hong Kong independence and another for anarchism.
Lai Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said some people waved the flags to irritate and agitate against Beijing.
“But it gives the Chinese government more reasons to believe that foreign forces are involved [in the protests],” Lau said, suggesting such suspicions would not aid the protesters’ cause.
Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said the foreign flags, though in small numbers, may have helped protesters spread their messages abroad.
Noting that outlets such as Fox News were now carrying more reports on the protests, he said: “When US media see the flag, they pay more attention.”