Why Hong Kong democrats are sharing Trump's lies

By Pui Man Katy Chan
PhD Candidate at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Melbourne

The United States presidential election matters far beyond its national borders, because the leadership of the most powerful country in the world always has a major bearing on global politics. A Biden presidency will change the international landscape over the coming four years.

Like millions of others around the world, people in Hong Kong have been closely watching the election campaign, passionately filling up their social media space with speculation and opinions. Though they can't vote, could their online engagement have affected the election, and more significantly, American democracy?

Make Hong Kong great again

Curiously enough, despite his own assault on democratic norms in the US, Trump is lauded among Hong Kong democracy fighters for his hawkishness toward China. During Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition movement last year, protestors sought international support for defending freedom and autonomy against China's aggression, and the Trump-led United States answered.

Republican senators introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires the US government to impose sanctions against mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials considered responsible for human rights abuses against the movement.

In addition to signing the Act, Trump released an executive order to end Hong Kong’s special trading status - the city will no longer enjoy lower trade tariffs and a separate customs framework to China in its dealings with the United States. These new policies do not only wreak immediate vengeance on individual bigwigs behind the brutality experienced by Hong Kong protestors in the movement but also increases the long-term costs of China’s authoritarian agenda, by cancelling Hong Kong as China's favoured doorway to foreign goods and global finance.

The new policies are probably ineffective in promoting any substantial democratic change, as exemplified by the unaltered political reality of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, despite the decades of US sanctions. Yet, at least some nominal challenges against China are being made, and Hong Kong democrat circles feels thankful for that.

Soon after the signing of the Act, hundreds in Hong Kong gathered to express their gratitude to Trump. They sang the US national anthem, waved the US national flag, and posted Trump’s face with thank you notes along the footpath in the city centre.

Protesters in Hong Kong hold a banner reading 'President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong
Pro-democracy activists protest in Hong Kong in September 2019. Pic: Studio Incendo/Flickr

Some held banners reading ‘President Trump, let’s make Hong Kong great again.’ The prominent Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong openly welcomed the new policies, telling the South China Morning Post that “President Trump signed the bill, increased the bargaining chips of Hongkongers.”

In the virtual world, memes about Trump signing the Act went viral. People took to Twitter to thank Trump and Republican senators who made the sanctions happen.

Trump's delayed concession and disinformation

As we all witnessed, postal ballots, which tend to favour the Democrats, have added extra excitement to the US presidential election this year. A number of competitive states, including Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, cannot count their postal ballots until polls close and in-person votes are tallied. Some states like Arizona allow election officials to count postal ballots before the election day, but realistically ballots sent right before the election can only arrive at the end of the election week.

Even for states like Nevada where such early counting is forbidden, there may be a grace period for receiving mail votes after the election day. These different conditions all mean that new effective ballots keep coming in during the counting process, and there are good chances for the election results to flip at the last minute.

Indeed, the postal ballots did bring the election results of the above states to a roller coaster ride – Biden often led in the beginning when counting first started, followed by Trump surpassing Biden, yet the results shifted again at the final moment, eventually turning these states from red to blue.

Trump is now refusing to concede defeat. His campaign alleges in lawsuits and public statements that election officials did not follow proper procedures while counting and claims insufficient verification measures for the postal ballots.

At the same time, rumours and unverified reports about Biden getting mysterious votes spread on Twitter and Facebook from the US to Hong Kong. Blinded by their preference for Trump, or fear of China, many in Hong Kong have uncritically shared outdated data believing that the number of votes exceeded the number of registered voters in several states.

Donald Trump smiles as he stands behind a lectern.
Donald Trump's refusal to concede is eroding trust in America's democratic institutions. Pic: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

They have also shared false graphs of statistical irregularities as well as unsourced stories of dead people voting. Some Hong Kong democracy activists further called for a Twitter information war for Trump as Biden’s victory became obvious. The reproduction of misinformation from Hong Kong, thus, has gone beyond individual efforts to collective action.

While contemporary liberal democracy emerged from distrust – specifically the distrust of traditional political and clerical authorities – it sustains on a healthy level of institutional trust. People have to believe in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of the governing and administrative institutions, trusting that institutions will safeguard and deliver democracy as demanded by the constitution, despite diverse political views and choices. Accusing the US presidential election of being fraudulent without solid evidence is unlikely to alter the results, but worse, it can erode Americans’ trust toward their electoral system. If the electoral system cannot be trusted, how can one continue to practice democracy?

Trust is a delicate thing. Once it is broken, it is broken. Perhaps it is time for each of us to rethink the costs of misinformation. It is true that social media has opened up new opportunities for democratic development, yet it can also hinder democratic movements.

Perhaps it is time, too, for some Hong Kong democracy chasers to reflect on their subjectivity, realising that an obsessive hope for another imperial power to save them from China’s aggression may be a symptom of colonial complex and the limitations of such resistance psychology.

Banner image: Aftermath of an anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong in 2019. Source: Studio Incendo/Flickr


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