“Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana 1863-1952

The Peterloo Massacre and the events surrounding it are considered to be pivotal in the UK ‘s history towards obtaining universal suffrage. 200 years later, we are again witnessing the same process going on in Hong Kong where the cry for universal suffrage is one of the main objectives of the protestors.

The Peterloo demonstration was the culmination of a series of political rallies in 1819, demanding universal suffrage. A large gathering of 60,000 men, women, and children in St Peter’s Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819, led to the magistrates ordering the Yeomanry to arrest the speakers, resulting in the killing of 11 people with 500 injured. This event became known as The Peterloo Massacre.

Today, protestors in Hong Kong are mobilising with not only similar objectives but also some of the same struggles – attempts to shut down protests, police brutality towards non-violent protestors, hiring of others to do their dirty work, pursing the leaders of the movement, targeting of journalists, manipulation of the press, attempts to maintain control by the ruling elite, and more – there are many parallels between the two struggles.

Then and now: who holds the power?

Resistance to universal suffrage is driven by fear that the ruling class will lose their authority over their current status.

In 1800s UK, voters were rich landowners and their priority was their own prosperity and power. Robert Poole, Professor of History at UCLan, Preston, author of Peterloo: the English Uprising and co-author of the graphic novel Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, explains, “There was no Manchester corporation, just a jumble of old-fashioned bodies run in a secretive way by a High Tory local elite who regarded themselves as accountable to no-one.”

In his book, he goes on to describe the town of Manchester as “presided over by ….. the parish vestry, manorial court, bench of magistrates, churchwardens, and overseers of the poor, all in ‘a state of indescribable disorder’ according to its despairing historians, the methodical Sidney and Beatrice Webb.”

Manchester was the largest city outside of London but did not even have an MP. Only 2% of the people had the vote in 1819.

Currently, in Hong Kong, the ruling class is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who decide on the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. There is an election for this position, but those running for the position are approved by the Chinese government and a select committee are the only ones allowed to vote. The general feeling in Hong Kong is that this is a puppet government of the mainland CCP.

Andrew Work, publisher of Harbour Times, a Hong Kong publication, sums up the fight for the vote by saying, “without democracy, [the people of Hong Kong] are powerless to resist the depredations of others and have no control over their future.”

six acts
Read: The Six Acts, inspired by Peterloo, aims to reboot democracy now


What led to each of the protests?

The Peterloo Massacre on August 16, 1819 attested to the fears of the privileged class with the massacre symbolising Tory callousness and tyranny. There was a series of political rallies in 1819 with the working class feeling angry over their lack of representation. They were overworked, with 16-hour workdays being commonplace, and they were hungry, as the Corn Tax raised the price of bread. Motivated by the 1789 French Revolution and inspired by radical leaders such as Henry Hunt, the working class in the large industrial area of Manchester felt that the vote would give them the equality and fairness they needed.

Peterloo protestors had banners saying:

  • Reform
  • Universal Suffrage
  • Equal Representation
  • Love

Recent unrest in HK began with protestors trying to stop a controversial bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. Critics feel that China would use the bill to extradite political opponents to China, where their legal protections cannot be guaranteed, but this bill appears to only be the catalyst to start a much more serious protest.

HK demonstrators are seeking five demands:

  • Withdrawal of the extradition bill
  • Independent probe into the use of force by police
  • Amnesty for arrested protestors
  • A halt to categorising the protests as riots
  • Implementation of universal suffrage

While many involved in Peterloo had little to lose with their poor quality of life, Hong Kong has a high standard of living.

Ma Dawei (not his real name to protect his family in China), was born in China, has lived and worked in Hong Kong, and is currently residing in Canada. He found that Hong Kong, on his first trip from the mainland in 1994, was clean, safe, and orderly compared to China. He found it so different from the (Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule that he lived in, and in 2005 when he moved to Hong Kong, was surprised that the board members at the company that he worked for were enjoying the freedom they had in Hong Kong but were pro-mainland China. He observed that China was giving these businesspeople perks that would maintain their support to the government.

Up to now, Hong Kong people have enjoyed a good life, enjoying a materialistic existence and paying little attention to politics. Dawei feels that “Hong Kong protests must mean that the situation is so serious they feel that they must act now….they know how the CCP operates in China….the protests are an indication that they are losing their freedoms and lifestyle.”

Andrew Work, Harbour Times, agrees.

“Hong Kong people fear becoming subject to an autocratic regime similar to the mainland. They fear arbitrary justice, lack of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, lack of access to free internet, arbitrary arrest and police and military acting with impunity. They fear having to toe the party line or face losing work or jail. They fear being made second class citizens in their own city and lacking the ability to negotiate their future with their peers, rather than having it dictated to them by those with the guns. They fear an all-pervasive, all-watching, big brother society.”

Violence and the police

Peterloo led to deaths and serious injury, but the protestors were unarmed, and it was reported that it started off with families, dancing, and a party atmosphere. The massacre was caused by panic when it was decided to arrest speakers, as the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry slashed at people on their way to arrest. The fact that their sabres had been sharpened before the meeting supported the idea that the violence was premeditated.

Before the rally took place, local magistrates were already worried and two spies named Murray and Shawcross were beaten by reformers that were meeting to organise for the 16 August protest. This only caused the magistrates to increase their anger towards and fear of the reformers, leading them to publish a notice in the Manchester Observer that any meeting would be illegal.

Hong Kong reformers have demanded an independent probe into the use of force by police. The protestors believe that the police have infiltrated their protests with spies and there are many videos of the thugs that have attacked protestors and others in the MTR (underground stations) while the police were nowhere to be seen and took a very long time to respond.

Andrew Work states:

“There is a widespread sense that police have given local gangsters a free pass to act with impunity in their neighbourhoods from Yuen Long to Fortress Hill. They may finally, gently restrain them when they go ‘too far’, but give them a light touch, for example, letting them use police shields to hide their faces and letting them keep weapons and use their mobile phones. Normal procedure for protesters is 2-3 riot police on their backs and grinding faces into pavement, even after the application of handcuffs. This has had an unfortunate effect of dramatically reducing public confidence in the police. I hear parents telling their teenagers going to and from school to avoid the police if at all possible.”

Ma Dawei feels that the CCP like to infer that there are dark forces behind the Hong Kong demonstrations. He gives an example of an American man caught up in the violence. As he tries to get out of the train station the man tells police “I just want to go home”, but the mainland media tells its audience that he is a CIA agent from America, implying that it is America that is stirring up violence in Hong Kong. Both sides have a different story.

The fact that the Hong Kong government refuses to meet the demand for an independent inquiry into police behaviour seems to reinforce the Hong Kong reformers’ feelings about the police.

Lack of understanding

Author, Robert Poole, found that in the UK around the time of Peterloo, the “wealthy and enlightened inhabitants…mostly chose to live safely outside Manchester itself, ……limited to driving past the poor in carriages”, creating a segregated society. The reformers mistrusted the magistrates and in return, the magistrates mistrusted the reformers. There was a strong rich/poor divide and a fear of soldiers, with Conservatives arguing that a lack of local government was good for business. In this ghettoised society there was little understanding of the poverty that was prevalent at that time.

There was a lack of a proper representation in parliament, a disorganised local leadership, and in 1783 James Ogden wrote: “Manchester being only a market town governed by Constables, is not subject to such regulations as are made in corporations, to favour freemen in exclusion of strangers: and, indeed, nothing could be more fatal to its trading interest, if it should be incorporated, and have representatives in Parliament.” With little understanding of local life and the issues involved, the last thing the ruling class wanted was reform.

In Hong Kong, a lack of understanding also exists. According to Ma Dawei, “mainland people would like to think that they are more resourceful than Hong Kong residents. Hong Kong people may be wealthier, but mainland people believe that they have a higher spiritual level.” He believes that the tactics of the Chinese government show that they think that Hong Kongers are the same as mainland Chinese, but they are different. Like the social classes of Peterloo, the two groups have been living in segregation.

The Hong Kong protestors holding up USA and UK flags outside of embassies are also indicators of some misunderstanding by reformers. Ma Dawei, is worried that “this gives fuel to the CCP government as evidence of foreign interference”, though he feels that it is not interference but misunderstanding, as the Sino-British Joint Declaration never promised universal suffrage. There never was universal suffrage when Hong Kong was under British rule. Instead, the concept of “One Country-Two Systems” was to be in play for 50 years. Dawei feels that the Chinese government is not respecting the One Country-Two Systems agreement.

He states that the Hong Kong people are now realising that “they have gradually been losing their freedoms …….that they must act now! Do something now or it will be too late for themselves and future generations.”

Andrew Work also agrees that the CPP do not understand the reformers of Hong Kong. They have been living free in Hong Kong with no controls over the internet, the media, and their lifestyle.

Control of the press and the right to protest

After the Peterloo Massacre, the government sanctioned the soldiers’ actions and this led to the Six Acts, which included stopping public meetings of over 50 people, paranoid actions towards the press and the punishing of authors deemed to be seditious. Many newspapers used satire and humour to make their points in order to avoid prosecution.

Recently some members of the press in Hong Kong have been injured in spite of wearing orange press jackets, including one journalist that has lost an eye.

Andrew Work, Harbour Times, has found that “for now, while press seem to be increasingly under threat while reporting on protests and police actions, so far journalists have wide-ranging access to the events and the international media has been given visas to come and cover the events. Hong Kong’s story is playing out on a world stage – for now.”

Ma Dawei feels that the main media control is in China. He says that “the media in China did not report much until August….even the 2 million march was not reported….protestors are branded as violent with no respect for social order….the notion is to stir up Chinese nationalism…the Chinese government-controlled WeChat is the main source of information for mainland Chinese, both inside and outside China, especially overseas students.” Dawei has found that the misunderstanding of the issues has brought stress into his own family and even though he points out all media to his family members, they “still prefer to believe Chinese media over Western media.”

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong Chief Executive, has now started to implement the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, in an attempt to control the situation. It only seems to have made the protestors even more determined.

The legacy of the Peterloo massacre was that it allowed the reformers to gain the high moral ground. By 1832, the property-owning middle class were given the vote. It took approximately 100 years after the massacre for universal suffrage to be completely installed. Will the people of Hong Kong be able to be that patient?

The Chinese media is using the phrase “zhi bao, zhi luan” (Control Violence, Control Chaos) in order to “prepare people that they may have to crack down and take a strong and violent stand against demonstrators,” according to Dawei.

Andrew Work sums it up by saying,

“the breakdown of rule of law on all sides is regrettable. The loss of trust in the police to act fairly and responsibly is a shame. Young prosecutors in government are dismayed at the politicisation of their department coming from the top. So many institutions built up over time are being destroyed as our political leadership dithers and hides behind police. Neither they nor their political masters in the CCP understand the mentality of free people so they lack the means of handling the situation. It bodes ill for a speedy resolution that moves Hong Kong forward.”

What next – is history repeating itself?

It is impossible to predict if the results for Hong Kong will be the same as the UK, but the similarities between the protests are amazingly comparable. The difference is that most of the world (except in places like mainland China) are watching the struggle in Hong Kong live on social media. While Peterloo is remembered today through eyewitness testimonies painstakingly gathered by the local media of the day, much of the events taking place in Hong Kong today are being shared firsthand through tweets, photos and videos. How these events will be remembered by the world in 200 years time, however, remains to be seen.

Dale Anne McAulay

You can order Peterloo: the English Uprising at www.oup.com and get a 30% discount by using promotion code AAFLYG6

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  • Dale Anne McAulay

    Dale Anne McAulay was an international mathematics teacher for forty years before returning to university to obtain a master’sdegree in multi-media journalism at MMU. Dale is a Canadian that has travelled to 60 countries, living and working in four of them and currently resides in Manchester. She considers herself an educator, world traveller, multiculturalist, and an egalitarian. Dale is a freelance journalist and sits on The Meteor’s Production Team and story circle.


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