Pro-democracy supporters take to the streets of Hong Kong for nonviolent protests
A year after the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong caught the world’s attention, the city is back in the headlines — although this time around, for less positive reasons.
Last month, celebrations of the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong came to an abrupt stop when violence broke out in the middle of the city. What started as a conflict over food stall inspections quickly transformed into a brawl between police and localist groups — one faction within Hong Kong’s larger pro-democracy movement — protesting against China’s growing influence.
The violent outbreak sheds light on the state of Hong Kong’s protest movement. A sizable portion of protesters have discarded the strict adherence to nonviolence that earned them international accolades, and are now willing to use more hostile tactics to press for their political agenda.
The recent protest struck a different tone from last year’s Umbrella Movement. Rather than widespread, peaceful demonstrations representative of Hong Kong’s larger pro-democracy movement, a handful of protesters broke with the established precedent and resorted to violence.
Unlike last month’s demonstrators, Umbrella Movement protesters practiced considerable restraint during their 79-day occupation. The organizers of the demonstration, the activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace, made it very clear from day one that they were proposing a “non-violent civil disobedience movement.” And even when the demonstrations began to spiral out of the group’s control, the demonstrators still defended themselves against police batons, pepper spray, and tear gas with flimsy umbrellas, demonstrating a degree of civility that shocked the world.
The police crackdowns on defenseless protesters that followed provoked a concerned response from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Committee against Torture. When the police left, students sorted trash, held group discussions, and caught up on their homework.
The recent protest, by contrast, took on a more destructive tone. Last year, protesters picked up trash as part of their demonstrations. This year, people burned it. When police appeared in full riot gear and pepper sprayed the crowd, protesters hurled bricks and glass bottles in response. Most identified with localist groups that do not rule out the use of violence on principle.
Hong Kong Indigenous spokesman Edward Leung Tin-kei, who is charged with one count of rioting from last month’s outbreak, explained the protestors’ logic to the media: “we know no bounds when we do things…if you want real achievement, you can’t contemplate too much.”
Faced with unsatisfactory, incremental progress, a split in Hong Kong’s democracy movement has occurred with a minority willing to use violence and an overarching majority who are opposed to it. Fortunately, the latter is still the dominant faction.
The international community needs to recognize that the violent faction is not the face of the city’s movement for democracy. In fact, even if members of the recent protest had good intentions, their use of violence definitely did not help advance the pro-democracy movement’s goals.
The recent protest may well turn off moderate supporters of the movement and spark internal division. Last year’s occupation of the city was only supported by wider society in Hong Kong because its civil nature matched with the city’s values. This outbreak, which really had no point, will only confuse and divide the city even more.
The divergent tactics of factions within Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could exacerbate its growing internal divide. The mainstream pan-democratic candidate squeaked by with a small victory margin in the recent by-election for the local Legislative Council, but a growing number of Hong Kong’s residents instead lent their support to localist groups. This switch can spell trouble for the democratic camp in the upcoming September citywide election: if votes for the pan-democrats are split between rival factions, they will lose further seats and Hong Kong’s government will have free reign to introduce further political restrictions.
While violent protesters will likely hinder, not help, curb Chinese influence, Hong Kong’s local government has certainly contributed to mounting tensions. If local authorities want to maintain Hong Kong’s unity and international reputation, they must work to address protestors’ concerns.
The government under Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who was selected in 2012 by a committee vetted by Beijing, has repeatedly disregarded the value of political freedom integral to Hong Kong’s identity. Virtually every policy he has put in place has sparked divisions since last year’s Umbrella Movement protests. “Illegal” was the sole adjective he used to describe the two-month long protest.
In his policy address after the demonstrations, he reiterated that Beijing’s demand to monitor Hong Kong’s elections was inflexible. Moreover, he openly criticized a student article that argued for self-determination in Hong Kong as spreading “fallacies” – quite an overreaction from a head of government to an undergraduate student magazine.
A month later, the government responded to civil disobedience by establishing a student cadet group, dressed eerily similar to the People’s Liberation Army. Not surprisingly, the inauguration ceremony was blessed by the attendance of Communist officials from Beijing.
This is not to mention the signs of restrictions on other freedoms in the city. As many as 39 journalists complained of being harassed, attacked, and wrongly detained by the police during their coverage of occupation protests. Afterwards, 71% of local journalists reported that they believed “the Hong Kong government was one of the sources of press freedom suppression” and Hong Kong’s Press Freedom ranking as determined by the International Journalists Federation plummeted to its lowest levels.
More recently, the local government dramatically labeled last month’s events a “riot,” which is indisputably an overstatement. Mr. Leung also stated that he “strongly condemns” the protests. Given the violence they set off, this is somewhat understandable. However, before he intensifies his condemnation, further polarizing the city, he should cede some ground and admit that his government’s bears at least some responsibility for rising tensions.
In fact, even Beijing wants to see tensions alleviated in the Special Administrative Region. Just last year, President Xi Jinping expressed “hope that the SAR government could unite all circles in Hong Kong to maintain social and political stability in the region.” This recent violent outbreak demonstrates that Hong Kong’s local government has failed to do so. The best course of action for Mr. Leung’s government continues to be to focus on healing the city’s political divide rather than stoking its flames.
Matt Lam is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying Economics. [firstname.lastname@example.org]