Hong Kong Protests 2019
Credit: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

Pencils sharpened. Check.

Lunches packed. Check.

Yellow helmets and gas masks. Check.

Students in Hong Kong may be skipping the American trend of hauling bulletproof backpacks to school, but they have prepared themselves for both an education and further police confrontation at the start of the school year. This year’s school gear is meant for struggle and survival.

They have chosen to strike against their classrooms to strengthen the ongoing demand for peace and freedom. Some would argue they are protesting for survival. Adorned in their school uniforms—dress whites with ties—they stand out in contrast to the all-black clothing and black face masks donned by the daily street demonstrators. Umbrellas and tennis rackets are optional attire, used both to shield from water cannons and to volley back tear gas canisters toward the police.

Gearing up for a continuing fight is a necessity. These students—and all Hong Kong protesters—are on their own. Hong Kongers need to plan on self-sufficiency because the world mostly has taken a pass at supporting their fight to preserve their rights and democracy.

Yes, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned against escalating police violence and, sure, the U.S. State Department is “deeply concerned” about the threat to citizens and sovereignty. But the bottom line is that no nation is willing to put anything more than its moral outrage on the line for the protesters. Foreign leaders know this. Hong Kongers know this, too.

This is a different reality for defenders of democracy. In the past, there often has been the mistaken understanding that the United States would engage—or even intervene—on behalf of freedom fighters. In 1956, Hungarians had a hopeful belief that America would aid the unarmed street protesters who wanted their own elected leaders in and the Soviets out.

I lived in Hungary for a number of years when my wife was the U.S. ambassador from 2010 to 2013, and the story is still fresh. For most, however, the ‘56 Hungarian Revolution seems like ancient history. For Hong Kong, it is a highly relevant event. Its lessons continue to be researched at the Hoover Institution, where I work. Our archives on Hungary and the revolution’s aftermath document the Soviet crushing of popular opposition forces and circumstances surrounding the execution of Hungary’s Prime Minister Imre Nagy. The lesson: Stick your neck out, and get your head cut off. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that still has generational resonance in parts of Central Europe.

Hungary’s sad history and its lessons should inform popular movements from Hong Kong to Turkey to Venezuela today. Students hitting the streets should first hit their history books to learn how to develop a domestic opposition force into a successful movement for change without the expectation that a foreign power can or will intervene. Hong Kongers are already showing that they know they own their fight.

Nearly four months of walk-outs and demonstrations—some violent—have finally won a major concession for one of their five demands this week: the withdrawal of an extradition bill allowing Hong Kongers to be shipped off for trial on mainland China.

This is a victory.

And in light of this, Beijing has had its own teachable moments. Most recently, it has paid strict attention to the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine and, as disturbingly, the destabilizing aftermath of the Arab Spring. In 1989, the Communist leadership suppressed and sacrificed its own citizens in the Tiananmen Square student protests. China violently snuffed out what it saw as the conditions leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s part of the reason that as Hong Kong’s government steps back from extradition, Beijing steps up its pressure and asserts the power to intervene unilaterally and declare a state of emergency whenever it likes. One step forward, two steps back.

Beijing, the Hong Kong leadership, and some in the business community are hoping that backing off of extradition is enough of a sop to the invigorated opposition that students go back to class, and weekends are no longer meant for mass protests. It may be an empty hope.

What lessons have Hong Kong students learned by the government’s retreat from the law that sparked their protests? That steady pressure and mass movements can achieve change and defend rights? That “people power” is paramount and the hope for foreign intervention is usually futile and unnecessary? What are the lessons Beijing has learned since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre? Has its traditionally heavy-handed approach evolved to fight a slow and steady war of attrition, built on small concessions along the way in order to secure its long-term goals of building and uniting a Greater China?

One thing is for sure: Students in Taiwan, Budapest, Moscow, and, yes, even Beijing, are watching intently and learning from what happens in Hong Kong.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).