When X-Men debuted in 1963, few could have guessed at the staying power of a comic book about a team of mutants defending the world from other mutants and disasters. But one of the X-Men’s most compelling storylines isn’t about the dangers posed by other mutants. It’s about the X-Men’s campaign to protect themselves and their privacy from an increasingly intrusive government. Attempts to regulate and monitor mutants in the name of “national security” evolve, with violent, militarized Sentinels hunting not only mutants but all humans, as they are capable of potentially having mutant children.
It’s easy to see how the slippery slope presented in X-Men might find real-world representation. In a post-9/11 world, civil liberties and protections are sacrificed to fight back against “terrorism”. Police are increasingly militarised, with American officers often receiving access to military-grade weapons. All this is aided by ever-expansive surveillance systems including facial recognition technology and data mining from private devices. In authoritarian regimes, the slide is quicker and sharper.
This brings us to the present situation between China and Hong Kong. In recent months and weeks, China has become increasingly aggressive in their overtures to destroy political freedom in Hong Kong. Their most recent move, the passage of a draconian national security law, has caused millions of Hong Kong’s citizens to consider leaving the territory to protect themselves and their rights from assault by the authoritarian regime.
So, what does a team of crime-fighting mutants have to do with political suppression in the South China Sea?
X-Men teaches us that small abuses never stay small. Mutant Control Acts, in different versions of X-Men, first force mutants to reveal their mutant abilities to the government. Depending on the multiverse, these bills occasionally force mutants to also work for the government or join S.H.I.E.L.D. In spite of the X-Men’s best attempts to lobby against the government’s violation of their freedom to associate, the government continues to escalate its abuses against mutants. Eventually, Sentinel robots begin hunting and murdering mutants.
China has been attempting to become a unitary power in Hong Kong since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1997. It has prevented Hong Kong from pursuing democratisation by opposing calls for the direct election of all members of the legislative council and continuing to impose control over the selection of the chief executive.
But this hasn’t been enough. In 2019, chief executive Carrie Lam introduced an extradition bill which would have allowed China to arrest political dissenters in Hong Kong. In light of the bill’s failure and widespread protests, Lam adopted emergency powers in order to ban face masks, effectively denying protestors anonymity.
In 2020, the National People’s Congress in Beijing implemented a national anthem bill, outlawing criticism of China’s national anthem, and a national security law, criminalising acts of subversion or secession in the name of national security. These changes disregard the popular opposition to Chinese control and are in fact meant to suppress the protestors who would see Chinese influence confined to Beijing.
As in X-Men, the Chinese government will only continue to escalate the means of repression used until they mirror those used in mainland China. This means a situation that will eventually result in the assassination of democratic leaders, the imprisonment and disappearances of dissidents and the destruction of free speech.
More importantly, X-Men teaches us that targeted oppression doesn’t stay targeted. In Days of Future Past, the Sentinels actively hunt humans as well as mutants because humans have the potential to bear mutant children. Hong Kong is not China’s first victim. That title goes to the journalists, protestors and anti-communist thinkers who have been arrested, imprisoned and murdered by the regime on the mainland.
From Tiananmen Square to the Uighur Muslims, China has abused and killed dissent inside its borders. Hong Kong is simply the next target. Taiwan might be next in line. In Days of Future Past, our heroes at least have the opportunity to time-travel and right the failures of the past. We won’t get that chance with China and Hong Kong.
When we read the stories of the X-Men, we know who the bad guys are. We never stop to question whether Senator Kelly has sincere national security concerns when he proposes registering and tracking mutants. We know his true intentions are motivated by his anti-mutant bigotry and the force of government is his most effective tool in perpetuating that bigotry.
China is unambiguously trying to co-opt Hong Kong into its control and without support, the citizens of Hong Kong will suffer. Don’t fool yourself – China is Hong Kong’s Senator Kelly. If China had Sentinels to send to Hong Kong, they would do it without thinking twice. X-Men teaches us that each violation is just one step on a long ladder. We can’t let China keep climbing that ladder.