Commentary: The deepening crisis over the Hong Kong protests
Is Beijing running out of patience? And what can quell the protests? Amid a stormy outlook, Yale-NUS’ Yew Wei Lit discusses what an endgame could look like.
SINGAPORE: After months of being engulfed in protests, precipitated by the now-suspended extradition bill, there remains no end in sight to the situation in Hong Kong.
If anything, the crisis has deepened.
The Hong Kong police are visibly agitated and have rolled out fiercer tactics over the course of the protests. They have infiltrated protest rallies to make surprise arrests.
They have fired as many as 800 rounds of tear gas in one night. In their cat-and-mouse chase of protesters, they have also fired rubber bullets and sponge grenades. They may well turn to water cannons next.
Beijing is equally running out of patience. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council has repeatedly delivered stern warnings, calling the recent turn of actions “terrorist-like”.
China’s state media also recently shared a video of armoured troop carriers apparently assembling in Shenzhen, a mainland city bordering Hong Kong.
Armed intervention – what some considered unthinkable two months ago – may be now less than 30km away from becoming a reality. Indeed, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned, Hong Kong may well be on the brink of going down “a path of no return” and there’s no telling whether she might call on Beijing for help to quell the protests.
LOCKED INTO A POLITICAL STALEMATE
The anti-extradition bill movement, on the other hand, has effectively locked the authorities into a political stalemate. Far from being cowed into silence, it continues to evolve as protesters escalate their tactics.
Just in the last two weeks alone, in addition to demonstrations by lawyers, civil servants, and hospital staff, a city-wide general strike that disrupted businesses and transportation networks was called.
Rather than petering out, more protests are expected to come in the coming weeks.
The protesters have made five demands so far: The formal withdrawal of the bill, Carrie Lam’s resignation, the retracting of the characterisation of events as “riots”, a full independent inquiry into police actions, and the release and exoneration of arrested protesters.
Various Occupy leaders have served, or are still serving time in prison. Elected pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from office.
Captured in their organising philosophy of “Be Water”, protesters have been mobile and tactically flexible. They have been able to launch a provocative, hit-and-run strategy against the police in multiple districts before dispersing quickly to evade arrest.
Being formless and leaderless, they have avoided the police’s direct targeting of protest leadership that would have demoralised the rest of the movement.
However, such an environment has also precipitated occasional bursts of violence like those seen in the clashes at the Hong Kong Airport.
This also speaks to the challenges in trying to end the chaos: Who can credibly claim to represent their voice at the negotiating table? Or tell them to cease their actions?
A MINORITY OF PROTESTERS SUPPORT CEASING THE PROTESTS
A recent academic survey of motivations of almost 6,700 respondents carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong over June to August is especially instructive on the state of the movement.
With over 90 per cent of surveyed protesters unwilling to contemplate suspending the movement, it is unlikely at this point that authorities can persuade them to get off the streets.
The onus is on Hong Kong authorities to foster a public mood of civility and restraint, tackle the discontent and end this norm of violence.
Scholars have documented how taking a tougher course of action to clamp down on protests can backfire, and instead add to the general spectacle of the protest. Indeed, perceived police brutality is often part of the viral video clips disseminated across various digital platforms.
A young woman was reportedly hit in the eye by a beanbag round fired by police during one of the recent clashes.
The image of her bloodied face went viral, and is now the latest rallying symbol of the movement, which has not only dented the government’s legitimacy, but also hardened attitudes towards any chances of compromise.
The CUHK survey recorded in the past two weeks also tells us that more than 95 per cent of respondents came out to “express dissatisfaction with police’s handling of the protests”. That the resignation of Carrie Lam is no longer the protesters’ first priority speaks to how perceived dramatic police aggression has transformed dynamics.
More than 93 per cent of surveyed protesters also believed “radical tactics” are “understandable” in the face of an intransigent government – a proportion that has grown from June to August.
In fact, since July, “Hong Kong’s democracy” has become a primary goal for 85 per cent of the protesters.
Protesters are radicalising not only in terms of their tactics, but also in their goals.
WHAT AN ENDGAME COULD LOOK LIKE
The Hong Kong government must think outside of the box to deal with this unprecedented challenge. It cannot simply hope to wait out the protests, or rely on the typical suite of hardline tactics.
It should accept humility and consider implementing an independent inquiry into the use of force by law enforcement, a course of action already urged by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
While some observers have said that giving into protesters’ demands would legitimise their acts of violence, the possible scenario of hardline alternatives gaining more traction is far worse.
A whole generation of Hong Kongers could be irreversibly radicalised. Studies show Hong Kong youth’s outlook regarding identity, Hong Kong’s autonomy and Chinese policy towards Hong Kong have sunk to all-time lows.
The last thing authorities want is to make Hong Kong youths feel backed into a corner.
Dr Yew Wei Lit is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale-NUS College.