The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong democracy activists confront their Trump dilemma

A person dressed as President Trump waves an American flag during a protest in Hong Kong on Oct. 31, 2019. (Kin Cheung/AP)
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HONG KONG — One by one, the Hong Kong democracy activists last weekend began switching their Twitter profile pictures to the instantly recognizable image of President Trump.

The man they view as their key ally in their fight against the Chinese Communist Party had been kicked off the platform hours earlier. They wanted to flood Twitter with his photo in solidarity.

“Support from Hong Kong,” wrote one supporter. “We are Trump,” said another.

Across Hong Kong, Taiwan and the globe-spanning Chinese dissident community, a significant number of activists have bought into the rhetoric and conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and some of his supporters, despite the president’s attempts to subvert U.S. democracy. As President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration nears, those who view Trump as dangerous and divisive are figuring out how to engage with Trump loyalists in their ranks, stop divisions from upending their mutual cause, and promote engagement with the new administration.

“We are trying hard to see where they are coming from, what exactly is at play that motivates people to support” Trump, said Sharon Yam, an academic at the University of Kentucky who is from Hong Kong. “This moment of reckoning for the U.S. has also become one for the Hong Kong movement, where we have to confront how right-wing we have become.”

'The plastic left'

For many Hong Kong activists, their entry point into U.S. politics came in 2019 during anti-government protests that were fueled by fears that Beijing was moving swiftly to end the territory’s autonomy and long-held freedoms. By the time the protests broke out, Trump was defined by his tough-on-China rhetoric, and the relationship between Beijing and Washington was plumbing depths unseen in decades.

Exploiting the tensions, Hong Kong protesters made overt appeals to the United States to intervene. Protests resembled Fourth of July parades, with people singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

The demonstrators embraced the idea of Trump as a strongman ally, in particular for signing a bill in support of their movement that fundamentally changed Washington’s relationship with Hong Kong and created a pathway for sanctions. But Trump had initially demurred, saying Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a “friend.”

Ahead of the November U.S. elections, popular broadsheets like Apple Daily, whose influential founder Jimmy Lai is a stalwart Trump supporter, began publishing op-eds endorsing the president. Through disinformation, including articles published in the Epoch Times newspaper and other outlets that oppose the Communist Party, some Hong Kong activists started parroting the language of the alt-right. (The Epoch Times has repeatedly pushed back against charges of disinformation, saying it stands for “honest and accurate” journalism.)

Hong Kong protesters sing ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ call on Trump to ‘liberate’ the city

“Trump didn’t try to subvert democracy in his own country. He wasn’t the one who cheated in the election,” said a popular Hong Kong YouTuber who goes by the name Stormtrooper. “Everything he did was within the system, he did not incite people to be violent.”

Stormtrooper, who comments frequently on U.S. politics, added that Beijing will “have a chance to breathe” under Biden — echoing the Republican view that Biden will be soft on the Communist Party.

Debates between the Hong Kong camps have become so heated that those urging people to give Biden a chance often get attacked online, tarred with the same language as the president-elect. Hong Kongers who defend Biden have been called “leftards” or “the plastic left,” a term implying they are unrealistic and rigid. Lee Cheuk-yan, an activist who questioned Trump’s claim of election fraud in November, was vilified by people who said he had received money from the Democratic Party.

A siege on the U.S. Capitol, a strike against democracy worldwide

Right-wing factions have even coined new phrases in Cantonese, Hong Kong’s native language, such as “sam chang gwok ga” — meaning “deep state” — and are advocating for gun rights.

“It is quite difficult to cultivate a collective space in which we can talk and hash out these differences,” said Yam, who studies rhetoric and political emotion.

'Thank you Lord Trump'

In Taiwan, which Beijing routinely threatens to invade, Trump is perhaps even more popular. Taiwan has been lavished with official visits and statements of support by the Trump administration, part of its campaign to confront Beijing but which has had the effect of making the island more diplomatically engaged with Washington and globally relevant. A YouGov poll in October found Taiwan to be the only one of 15 European and Asian states that favored Trump over Biden.

Facebook and Twitter accounts that extol Trump and lambaste Democrats as soft on China are highly influential there. In a typical post this past week, “Meme Power,” a Facebook page that supports the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, celebrated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s lifting of restrictions on U.S. diplomats’ interactions with Taiwanese counterparts.

“Thank you Lord Trump for your great love of Taiwan,” said the post. “The shackles of bondage that Lord Trump finally unraveled for Taiwan will be placed upon Taiwan again after Biden takes power.”

Lev Nachman, a Taipei-based Ph.D. student at the University of California at Irvine who studies political sentiment, said support for Trump is one of the few issues Taiwan’s deeply polarized media can agree on. Outlets supporting both leading parties in Taiwan were filled in late October with negative reports about the business and sex life of Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son.

“There’s a logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ ” Nachman said. “A lot of people in Taiwan and Hong Kong feel they’re not in a position of power and are thankful for Trump’s help.”

In December, hundreds gathered outside Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, Taipei 101, at a rally organized by the Epoch Times, where they held signs that read “Stop the Steal” and “Taiwan, Fight for Trump.”

First came political crimes. Now, a digital crackdown descends on Hong Kong.

Sang Pu, a lawyer and media commentator in Taipei, said he was one of many who believed the results of the November election were suspicious. As in Hong Kong, many in Taiwan are distraught over what they see as a Chinese-style effort by social media companies such as Twitter and YouTube to censor their hero, Trump, said Sang.

“People in China use VPN because they crave uncensored information, but now when they climb over the Great Firewall what they’ll find is more partisan, more censored, more narrow speech rather than an open arena for debate,” Sang said.

Charting a way forward

As the inauguration nears, activists who understand how damaging Trump has been for democratic movements are urging civility. Beijing has stepped up its repression and threats, and bipartisan support for Hong Kong and Taiwan has never been more important, activists say.

“Our work remains the same, and our work is to raise awareness on Hong Kong issues, no matter who is in the administration,” said Joey Siu, a Hong Kong-American activist. Sunny Cheung, another Hong Kong activist in exile, says he urges Hong Kongers not to “copy and paste jargon” into different political contexts, to accept the result of the election, and to “focus on policies favorable to us.”

Yam, the academic, worries that all this bickering simply benefits China’s Communist Party.

“This is the collective moment in which we need to be finding new strategies during this time of heightened repression,” she said. “But instead we are all fighting each other over the U.S. presidential election.”

Shih reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

A siege on the U.S. Capitol, a strike against democracy worldwide

First came political crimes. Now, a digital crackdown descends on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong protesters sing ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ call on Trump to ‘liberate’ the city