As Hong Kong protests turn violent, has China just been handed the excuse for a crackdown?

The conspiracy theories are swirling after police appeared to vanish from the frontline before protestors stormed the legislature

Joseph Yu-Shek Cheng
Tuesday 02 July 2019 13:44
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Protesters attempt to smash into Hong Kong legislature

On Sunday morning, the Hong Kong establishment celebrated the anniversary of the former British colony’s return to the motherland. It was indoors, the public weren’t allowed to observe and it seemed that every effort was made to stop protesters turning it into an embarrassment. It didn’t go as planned.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is growing resilient, and its young members are growing angry and frustrated. All their demands have been rejected, including the two that form the basis of this protest: a clear-cut withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent investigation into the alleged police violence on 12 June.

Most people in Hong Kong have been willing to demonstrate their position through peaceful rallies, despite the fact that by this point they do not expect much from the Carrie Lam administration. Some young people, however, believe that this peaceful approach is ineffective. And their frustration has driven something more radical and confrontational. These are big moments for democracy in Hong Kong.

Surrounding government buildings had been the usual tactic; young protesters successfully stopped legislative council meetings on 12 June, which was instrumental in terminating deliberations on the controversial Fugitive (Amendment) Bill. This week has seen a sharp escalation.

The Hong Kong police are well trained and should have the capacity to protect key government buildings. However, police officers appeared to go missing on Monday evening, shortly before demonstrators broke into the legislative council building. The inevitable conspiracy theory that followed is that the withdrawal was deliberate, allowing the vandalism within the building to take place and thereby damaging the community’s sympathy for the young protesters.

Hong Kong people normally shun violence and political campaigners using violence cannot attract majority support.

That aggression is born of anger and desperation, exacerbated by a refusal from government to engage in any dialogue. Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has declined to meet pro-democracy legislators since the criticism began to mount in early June. She has again rejected a meeting this week.

The radical youth also feared that as the G20 summit ended and US president Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping had a positive meeting on the Sino-American bilateral trade dispute, international support for Hong Kong might subside.

Many voices in the pro-democracy movement believe this crisis has now become a war of public opinion. The peaceful, non-violent approach had ensured broad community support, clearly demonstrated by the protest rallies on 9 June and 16 June, which saw an estimated 1 million and 2 million participants respectively. The goal was for momentum to be maintained on 1 July (when 550,000 people took part peacefully). There have also been hopes that the pro-democracy movement would do well in the district council elections in November and the legislative council elections in September next year.

Now though, the propaganda machinery of the pro-Beijing camp has been given a windfall.

State sovereignty, national security and the combat of advocacy for independence have been justifications for political crackdown, and the rampage in the legislative council building has provided an excuse for arrests and prosecutions of protesters.

As the Chinese leadership has chosen to support Carrie Lam, and is concerned about the morale of the local police force, a crackdown in the name of law and order can now be justified.

Chinese leaders have, in my view, been keen to learn the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the colour revolutions in eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. And one of the key lessons has been crushing the source of trouble in the very beginning.

There is zero appetite to yield to a mass movement, and there is an ingrained instinct to minimise any wider effects from the Hong Kong demonstrations. The Hong Kong people’s desire to hold on to the principles of democracy is not likely to meet a conciliatory response from Beijing.

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Looking locally, the Carrie Lam administration has been much weakened – even China is unhappy with her performance. The business community resents her sacrifice of their financial interests; and the pro-Beijing political parties are angry with the damage done to their electoral campaigns. Lam now has to rely mainly on support from Beijing, whose influence and interference are expected to increase further.

Hong Kong people understand that the situation is grim. Emigration sometimes feels like the only sensible option. But most of them have not abandoned hope. A moment of angry vandalism might be a dent to the image of a benign “umbrella” revolution, but their political struggle should still take succour from the sympathy and support of the international community.

Joseph Yu-shek Cheng is a retired professor of political science and coordinator of the Contemporary China Research Project, City University of Hong Kong. He is the founding editor of the ‘Hong Kong Journal of Social Sciences’ and the ‘Journal of Comparative Asian Development’ and was the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy in Hong Kong and a trustee of the Justice Defence Fund in Hong Kong

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