Hong Kong’s Protestors Have Already Won. They Need to Appreciate That.
Congratulations are in order. Together, through a campaign of mostly peaceful protests, the people of Hong Kong have forced their government (and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was likely behind the whole thing) to withdraw the controversial extradition bill. They sustained their movement for 13 weeks until the bill was withdrawn, putting to shame Singaporeans, who never come out to protest far worse abuses, and Malaysians, whose occasional protests last no more than a day and end without a single demand being met. Hong Kongers defended their city’s special liberties against this attempted encroachment from the mainland, beating back an opponent many times more powerful, defying Xi Jinping, who has subordinated the rest of the country to his will. They’ve taught the CCP that it messes with Hong Kong at its own risk – and you can bet it’ll think twice before trying anything like this again. Even if they gain nothing else, this is a great achievement.
Many Hong Kongers don’t seem to see it that way. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to withdraw the bill last week hasn’t ended the protests, with many calling it too little, too late. Demands have grown beyond just the withdrawal of the extradition bill to include an independent probe into police brutality in relation to the protests, and, more ambitiously, amnesty for arrested protestors, genuine universal suffrage, and Lam’s resignation, and many protestors have vowed to continue their civil disobedience until these four other demands have been met.
This is a mistake. In so many ways, till this point, the protestors have been right. They needed to demonstrate strength, because bullies only respond to strength, and the CCP is undoubtedly a bully. The mass protests did this, enabling them to negotiate from a position of strength and force the withdrawal of the extradition bill, which otherwise would have been passed in the legislative council. Yet, an effective strategy requires separating the more realistic demands from the less realistic ones. It’s difficult to ask for amnesty for protestors who broke the law when the very purpose of the protests was to defend Hong Kong’s unique rule of law. Indeed, a major reason why the successful civil disobedience movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King garnered so much respect was because they and their supporters were willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions. As for genuine universal suffrage, whilst Hong Kongers certainly have the right to it, it’s highly unlikely the CCP will grant them this under the circumstances, if only because it goes so far beyond the scope of the extradition issue. The demand for Lam’s resignation is largely pointless without genuine universal suffrage, since the CCP would just replace her with another puppet.
An effective strategy requires separating the more realistic demands from the less realistic ones.
The demand for an independent probe into police brutality, however, is a realistic one. Certainly, the police have had a very difficult job dealing with the protests, and some of them were indeed provoked and even attacked by some of the more radical demonstrators, but what can excuse firing tear gas into a subway station, repeatedly beating cowering protestors, or seemingly shooting beanbag rounds at such close range and so recklessly that it broke through a protestor’s safety goggles and ruptured her eye? Such actions have seriously damaged the image of the police force, and it will take more than a study by the existing Independent Police Complaints Council, a body stacked with pro-establishment figures, and which has no power to summon witnesses, to repair it. Many, including former Chief Justice Andrew Li, have called for an independent commission of inquiry, led by a judge. Such an inquiry would have more credibility, it would hold the police to higher standards, and it wouldn’t be hugely difficult for the government to set up; furthermore, nothing less is likely to restore public confidence in the police.
Protestors accuse police of brutality
Despite the reasonableness of this demand, though, you can’t expect the government to grant it if it thinks it’ll do nothing to stop the demonstrations because protestors will insist on the three other terms, or, worse, because it’ll embolden them to add to their list of demands. If protestors hope to see an independent probe, they need to communicate clearly that if this demand is met they will stand down, that, whilst it isn’t all they want and all they deserve, it will be enough.
An effective strategy also requires punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior. For months, Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping refused to withdraw the extradition bill; Hong Kongers punished them with a summer of unprecedented mass protests. Now, they’ve withdrawn the bill; too little, too late, perhaps, but certainly better late than never, a small concession in the eyes of many protestors, but a unilateral concession nonetheless, and that should be rewarded by indicating a willingness to meet them halfway, to end the demonstrations if an independent commission of inquiry is established. The protestors should try to encourage the moderates within Lam and Xi’s administrations who advised making some concessions, not the hardliners who argued against giving in on anything.
An effective strategy also requires punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior.
Of course, the fact that the protest movement has no clear leaders makes it difficult to say who can credibly speak and negotiate on the protestors’ behalf. Hopefully someone will step up soon, though. With each passing week, a certain segment of the protestors grows more radical, crossing the line from peaceful protests to violent riots, and posing a danger to their own city and their own cause. Increasingly militant actions like attacking police officers and vandalizing subway stations sacrifice the moral high ground and makes a Tiananmen-style solution more palatable to Beijing.
How will this saga end? “The protestors persisted until they got everything they asked for, including genuine universal suffrage,” would make a splendid story, to be sure, but the chances of it happening are almost zero.
More likely it’ll be: “They persisted, and the demonstrations descended into riots, discrediting their movement,” or “They persisted, and the demonstrations descended into riots, resulting in a crackdown by the People’s Liberation Army.”
I prefer: “They held the line against overwhelming odds, got the best they could, and then quit whilst they were ahead.”