Commentary: Has the use of violence in Hong Kong’s protests backfired?
It is strong public consensus and widespread pressure, rather than violence, which have cajoled the Hong Kong government to respond to some of the movement’s demands, says CUHK’s Wilson Wong.
Although the law was intended to deter masked violence and assist the police in law enforcement, Hong Kong has seen rougher days in recent weeks, with suspected bombs discovered, and fires and pitched battles enveloping parts of the city.
Hong Kong’s economy has also experienced a slump as it enters a recession.
Surely, the government should have anticipated that the anti-mask law could be perceived as hard-handed and would generate a backlash, compared to other softer means like a dialogue.
But the protesters must also ask themselves: Is this increased use of violence by radical protesters going to help the movement achieve its cause?
PROTESTERS STILL ENJOY STRONG SUPPORT
The answer is that it is unlikely.
But it is puzzling how the protesters have managed to preserve support from the majority of Hong Kong residents.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey has been monitoring public sentiments towards the protests. As of mid-October, 71.4 per cent of over 700 citizens surveyed oppose the anti-mask emergency law.
While 41.4 per cent of respondents consider the use of radical tactics to be excessive, many more – about 69 per cent – believe that the police is using excessive force.
These survey results suggest that the Hong Kong public blames the police more than the protesters for the escalation of events.
About 51.5 per cent of respondents say they have zero trust in the police and 68.8 per cent agree that the police should be subject to radical reform.
The government’s refusal to accept the other four demands of the protesters has been a key reason why support for the protesters remains high.
Some 59.2 per cent of respondents say they find the use of violence by protesters understandable as the government did not respond to the requests made when the movement had been peaceful.
This figure has grown – the same survey carried out a month ago recorded 55.7 per cent support.
Are violent actions gaining support from the wider Hong Kong public? Does this mean that the Hong Kong public will support protesters achieving their remaining demands through any means possible?
ESCALATION AND FINGER POINTING
The concern is whether public support for violence could fuel a dangerous game of finger pointing and tit-for-tat escalation.
The police too has made many wildly unpopular and assertive moves, including arresting young protesters, firing water cannons and incurring collateral damage in the process, including one mosque struck by blue dye.
All these contentious actions, caught on camera, partially explains the serious public disapproval of the police. Given the volatility of the situation, it only takes one tragedy for locals sitting on the fence to shift their support for protesters.
But is violence a legitimate way forward for the protesters?
THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF VIOLENT PROTESTS
US scholars Eric Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, shows that non-violent resistance is more than twice as effective as violent tactics in attaining stated goals.
Their groundbreaking study, based on a dataset of over 320 major protests and campaigns in the world from 1900 to 2006, shows that even if violent tactics eventually attain success, societies that have undergone such periods of turmoil tend to experience more social unrest and instability afterwards.
Hong Kong has a larger appetite for mass protests compared to many Asian cities, though the 2014 Umbrella Movement saw support wane and ended after 79 days, after the camps were cleared.
But my view is that the most reliable way towards positive change is through galvanising public opinion and generating international pressure.
Non-violent protests would stand in stark contrast to the regime, should authorities be the only actor employing harsh tactics.
By occupying the moral high ground, the movement could also win a broad base of unflinching support from Hong Kongers of all walks of life, which would accord the protesters with greater diversity and tactical innovation.
The massive popularity of Hong Kong’s Lennon Wall, a sprawling collage of post-its expressing support for protesters, and the forming of human chains by students have demonstrated that the more peaceful, inclusive aspects of the protests resonate most with Hong Kongers.
So far, the protesters have been winning in the court of public opinion. Their goals have gained widespread support and the government has relented with the formal withdrawal of the Extradition Bill.
There is also strong attention on proportionality. Aggressive actions by the police, including fired shots and at least one shot protester, have also kept the heat of the media spotlight on authorities.
However, this may not last long as the protests drag on and authorities’ actions evolve. Many protesters are waiting to see if the government will enact further restrictions under Hong Kong’s emergency powers.
Some protesters allege that undercover police or gangsters have fabricated cases of vandalism or violence to tar the movement.
But the sad reality is that once the protesters resorted to the use of extreme violence, it became hard for the movement to claim innocence and avoid being discredited.
People are watching if Chief Executive Carrie Lam will be replaced, even though Beijing has labelled these reports as political rumours.
Hong Kongers are also looking for signs the government might be open to plucking the next low-hanging fruit from the remaining demands – setting up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the police, which sources within the government said would be the next step if the public finds the current watchdog’s impending report unsatisfactory.
As the polls over the last six months have shown, it is strong public consensus and widespread pressure, rather than violence, which have cajoled the Hong Kong government to respond to the movement’s demands.
This also means that any further escalation of violence could easily backfire and hurt rather than help the movement.
Wilson Wong is Associate Professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.