Dear Commons Community,
Hong Kong’s protests took took a violent turn earlier this week threatening to divide the pro-democracy movement and bring on a backlash from Beijing. Protesters clashed with riot police officers before an official ceremony to mark the anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty.
When hundreds of thousands marched through the broiling streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks, they posed a serious challenge for the Chinese government. But when some of them stormed the Legislative Council and ransacked the chamber on Monday, they put their movement’s fragile gains at risk. Here are concerns as expressed by the New York Times Editorial Board yesterday.
“What first set off the latest wave of mass protests was a proposed law that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. On the surface a legal formality, it was perceived by a large majority of Hong Kongers as yet another surreptitious attempt by the government in Beijing to erode the enclave’s rule of law and autonomy, guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula. The protests, by residents of all ages and walks of life, were a powerful and inspiring declaration that people raised in freedom will not easily surrender it.
For China’s hard-line leader, Xi Jinping, the reaction was a humiliating rejection of his basic premise that Western liberties and independent judiciaries are incompatible with the “people’s republic.” Yet so long as the protests were big but peaceful, he seemed content to have his captive media grumble about “Western” incitement and otherwise inform the mainland public as little as possible about what was going on in Hong Kong. The Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, was left to retreat, issuing public apologies and then indefinitely suspending consideration of the contentious legislation.
All that changed on Monday, the day Hong Kong’s Beijing-endorsed officials were to make their annual demonstration of fealty to China at ceremonies marking the anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. A small group of masked protesters broke away from a peaceful march and attacked the legislature, smashing down glass doors, destroying official portraits and spray-painting slogans in the formal chamber. It will be weeks before the legislators can meet there again.
Those masked protesters may well be convinced that peaceful action results only in tactical retreats by a system determined to bring Hong Kong more firmly under the heel of China’s central government. When they stormed the legislature, Ms. Lam had only suspended consideration of the contentious extradition law, and the angry protesters recalled that a 79-day occupation of major thoroughfares in 2014 to demand freer elections, the so-called Umbrella Movement, achieved nothing durable. Among the spray-painted messages in the legislature was one to Ms. Lam: “You taught me peaceful protests are futile.”
Yet they should be asking themselves whether violent protests can possibly be a better answer. The mass demonstrations in Hong Kong’s narrow streets, like the Umbrella Movement before them, had confronted China’s Communists, and China’s people, with the powerful message that people reared in freedom — normal people, not radicals or rebels — do not buy the notion that the rule of law or freedom of speech are affectations of a decadent West that would be harmful in the East.
Further, the sight of Ms. Lam publicly apologizing and finally shelving the extradition law was a demonstration of the moral power of the people, even if the greater struggle with the mainland was certain to continue.
The ransacked Legislative Council, by contrast, gave the authorities an excuse to crack down on all their detractors. China’s government assailed the vandalism as “totally intolerable” and demanded strong countermeasures from Hong Kong authorities.
No doubt the authorities are aware that a crackdown would carry a heavy price in global opinion and potentially drive away the many multinational businesses headquartered there. The protesters, for their part, stand not only to provoke a crackdown but also to forfeit the support of most Hong Kong demonstrators. Both sides need to consider whether violence is the best way forward. It rarely is.”
There is wisdom in the New York Times editorial!