Hong Kong finds flickers of hope in Ukraine’s Winter on Fire

Oscar-nominated documentary on Ukraine’s revolution captures attention of audience growing restless under Chinese rule.

Hong Kong - Fire
Demonstrators in Hong Kong are demanding the government withdrawal of the extradition bill [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Hong Kong, China – On a muggy summer night thousands of people across two dozen neighbourhoods gathered in Hong Kong to watch Winter on Fire, the Oscar-nominated documentary on the 2013 demonstrations in a snowbound Ukraine that eventually toppled the country’s pro-Russia government.

Kiev and Hong Kong, nearly 8,000km apart, could not be more different, but the film, with its bloody but hopeful ending, has been the talk of many protesters in the Chinese city since their own struggle with the authorities began three months ago.

“It’s time to reflect and to imbibe new ideas to energise our movement,” said Napo Wong, who co-organised the screening in his neighbourhood near the University of Hong Kong.

Nearly 300 people fanned out on the sloped, concrete pavement, transfixed by scenes that evoked their own experiences of facing off against the riot police.

Hong Kong Winter on Fire
Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have found inspiration from overseas, attending outdoor screenings of the Oscar-nominated documentary on Ukraine’s revolution, Winter on Fire. [Violet Law/Al Jazeera]

Protests over the extradition bill began in June, but have since morphed into a broader movement against the government with protesters detailing five demands including the right to elect the territory’s top leader.

A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework, which guaranteed Hong Kong people rights and freedoms largely absent in Communist Party-controlled mainland China.

Fear of crackdown

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday announced the complete withdrawal of the bill after three months of protest and sometimes angry confrontations with police, there have been no moves to meet the protesters’ other demands. 

China has railed against “foreign forces” it claims are fomenting unrest, but it’s the Hong Kong protesters themselves who have been eager to adopt tactics used elsewhere in the world.

In 2014, taking a page from the Occupy Wall Street playbook, thousands of protesters camped out on the city’s main thoroughfares for nearly three months to demand free and fair elections.

Just two weeks ago, more than 200,000 stood shoulder-to-shoulder to form a 60-km long human chain.

They were inspired by nothing more than an old snapshot showing some of the two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who joined hands in August 1989 in what was known as the “Baltic Way” to show their support for independence and their opposition to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was signed in 1939 and set the stage for the Baltic states’ annexation by the Soviet Union. 

The rally, organised online under the rubric of “we connect, and stand hand in hand in our fight for freedom,” was dubbed the “Hong Kong Way”.

Ukraine’s 2015 protest toppled the country’s pro-Russia government [Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA]

Most of the demonstrators came out after work without having to protect themselves with umbrellas and hard hats. By turn, they burst into songs and protest slogans.

“Many supporters of the current movement prefer to use non-violent tactics to drum up international support, even though it won’t sway Beijing,” Dixon Ming Sing, an associate professor at the University of Science and Technology who studies comparative political culture, told Al Jazeera.

“People around the world can relate to this.”

Drawing parallels

Some seven months after the Baltic protest Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.

But two 30-year anniversaries being marked this year resonate strongly with the Hong Kong protesters – China’s brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of Europe’s Cold War division.

“It’s an historical irony that has left a strong memory,” said Kenneth Chan, a former legislator and now associate professor at Baptist University who specialises in Eastern European history. “Hong Kongers have a strong interest in finding out what happened to countries under oppression.

“The protesters have drawn lessons from around the world and from history on the steps to take to grow the movement, at the same time making sure it doesn’t burn out. There’s a sharp learning curve.”

Much as the protesters have stunned the world with regular million-strong marches, demonstrators are all too aware of the demands of such a struggle.

“We see in Ukraine how many people lost their lives and (how) they succeeded,” KY Cheung said at the screening.

“This time, more people are ready to sacrifice and we need to solidify our base.”

After the government announced the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protesters – promising to hold out until all their conditions were met – once again found inspiration in Ukraine’s experience, citing a line from the film: “If we accept the government’s conditions, our friends who have sacrificed their lives will never forgive us.”

China has tagged Hong Kong’s protests a “colour revolution” evoking the waves of uprisings in the states of the former Soviet Union. 

For Chan, it seems apt.

“Hong Kong is not an orphan in the global battle for democratic self-government; ours is not a standalone struggle,” he said.

“What we’re facing isn’t dissimilar from the former Soviet regime.”

Source: Al Jazeera