Brutal treatment of protesters and a government that will not listen have inflamed a dangerous situation
Hong Kong is unrecognisable. In less than six months a global financial centre known for its efficiency and pragmatism has become consumed by rage and violence. On Tuesday, as police stormed a university campus to arrest students, and their teargas and rubber bullets were met by petrol bombs, parts of the campus looked more like a conflict zone than a seat of learning.
The initial trigger for all this was the now-withdrawn extradition bill. But the government’s response, and in particular police brutality, has fired the protests. The latest escalation was sparked by the death of a student who fell from a building following police clashes with protesters last week. Most responded passionately but peacefully – with an estimated 100,000 gathering this weekend for a vigil. Others have ramped up their stance.
As activists disrupted the morning commute for two days in a row, and attacked property associated with support for the Hong Kong government and Beijing, footage showed police officers shooting a demonstrator in the torso at close range; driving a motorbike into protesters repeatedly; and beating a person inside a church. Meanwhile another horrific video showed a man being sprayed with flammable liquid and set alight, apparently by a protester with whom he had been arguing, in an indefensible attack that has appalled supporters of the movement as well as those bitterly opposed to it.
The government appears to see that assault, and the wider destruction, as an opportunity to drive a wedge between those taking part in protests and the rest of the population: Carrie Lam, the chief executive, described demonstrators as “enemies of the people”. Some residents are no doubt shifting. Yet the real and profound disagreement remains that between the government and the population of Hong Kong – as Ms Lam’s historically low approval ratings indicate. Even people who disapprove of some or many of the movement’s means understand that, unlike the police, it has no command structure. They also see protest actions as spawned by police violence and a government that can only crack down, never compromise. Attacks by thugs on crowds of protesters and the targeting of leading activists have further hardened opinion.
Nor does the news that the city is now in recession, due in large part to the movement, seem to have made a significant dent. And despite Monday’s disruption and violence, white-collar workers in the city’s centre applauded activists and passed them supplies. In a survey taken a few weeks ago, more than four out of 10 respondents said protesters had used excessive violence; but almost seven in 10 said the same of police. Nearly nine in 10 backed an independent inquiry into police actions.
The true responsibility lies not with rank-and-file officers but with those commanding them. A public inquiry and an amnesty for protesters who have not committed violent crimes might still take some steam out of the movement. But these look unlikelier than ever. The alternative is probably ever-escalating violence. Hong Kong’s government must rely on the police because it does not have the support of the public. And it cannot command public support because residents understand that it is not there on their behalf but that of Beijing. That is why the right to choose their own leaders has become a central demand.
John Tsang, the city’s former financial secretary, defeated by Ms Lam for the chief executive post, observed on Tuesday that, given the imbalance of power between protesters and the government, the government should take the initiative to de-escalate the force it is using. This seems like a statement of the obvious but from a pro-establishment figure it is striking. Yet it will almost certainly go unheard. Beijing appears more determined than ever to rely upon increased repression and a few economic sweeteners. But neither trigger-happy policing nor bungs can resolve this political struggle.
It is hard to explain life and politics in Hong Kong right now. Think of the lack of any political antennae and empathy of Teresa May and ramp it up many times. Think of the inertia of the most stolid and conservative of regimes in history and cover it in superglue.. Think of any person you know who can only make the wrong decision on everything. Then you have Carrie Lam and her government.
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