Football fans are booing the national anthem and flipping the bird to the motherland. The chief executive cannot enter the Legislative Council (Legco) chamber without being heckled and shouted down. University students trade insults and engage in wrestling matches over pro-independence posters. This list goes on.

Hong Kong’s protest culture—once a global model of peaceful resistance to poor leadership and injustice—has taken a decidedly ugly turn, and all signs indicate the worst is yet to come.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Once we had “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”; now we have brick-throwing rioters in Mong Kok and rival “yellow-ribbon” and “blue-ribbon” demonstrators clashing in our streets.

As the city’s quest for democracy has been blocked and its celebrated freedoms eroded by the Chinese leadership in Beijing in concert with their local minions, we have lost any sense of unity and, even more regrettably, our civility.

There is only one answer: my answer. There is only one side: my side. It’s us versus them; you’re either with us or against us in this perverse Manichaean vision of Hong Kong affairs.

It’s counter-productive, it’s dangerous and this city will remain rudderless and adrift while awaiting its next worst protest as long as this polarised mindset continues.

But how to change this unfortunate trajectory at this advanced point of misunderstanding, miscommunication and misadventure? That question may be too difficult to manage at present.

How to begin to change it? Better to start there.

demosisto national day protest
A National Day protest. Photo: Demosisto.

On the pro-democracy, pro-individual rights, pro-freedom side—in other words, on the side that will be proven right by history—it must commence with a return to civility and fundamental human decency.

When Beijing kidnaps Hong Kong booksellers, rams patriotic education down our throats and rewrites the Basic Law at its convenience to advance the central government’s repressive agenda in Hong Kong, the Chinese leadership demeans itself in the eyes of the world.

And when human rights activists such as Britain’s Benedict Rogers speak out against this repression and are subsequently banned from entering our city, the regime only further sullies its already shameful reputation for a totalitarianism that brooks no dissent.

Likewise, however, when pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong turn LegCo into a three-ring circus, hurl everything from glassware to tuna sandwiches at the chief executive and lace our political discourse with insults and obscenities, they do the same for their otherwise worthy cause.

police liu xiaobo democracy july protest rally wanchai wan chai
Photo: Dan Garrett.

They play into Beijing’s hands with their crude political antics and ad hominem attacks; moreover, they raise basic questions of competence about their leadership that prompt many ordinary Hongkongers to turn their backs on politics altogether and begrudgingly accept the grim reality of the central government’s increasingly heavy-handed interference in Hong Kong affairs.

Remarkably, the attitudes of many people today, especially among the older generation, are not so different from those exhibited during Hong Kong’s colonial years: Accept what you can’t change. Then it was a British governor; now it’s a Beijing puppet.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

That’s why the city pro-democracy forces—from the radical separatists to those more meek and moderate —need to flip the script to regain the moral high ground.

They could start with this new and simple five-point Protest Protocol for Hong Kong. Readers should feel free to agree or object to the points of the code proposed by the writer and/or to suggest additional points of their own.

  1. Renounce violence—in Legco, in the streets and everywhere else. This includes everything from throwing bricks at cops in Mong Kok to throwing food and other sundry items at chief executives and their ministers. While such forms of protest may be cathartic for the perpetrators and for those who enjoy watching the humiliation of human symbols of an authority that has gone wrong, they do nothing to advance freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
  2. Change the language and tone of political discourse. Lower the volume, stop the empty, cliched sloganeering, delete the profanity and start making a more intelligent, principled argument for a better Hong Kong. For example, the next time Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appears before Legco, it would be positively uplifting to see lawmakers pepper her with incisive points of information rather than unfurl banners and shout insults and tired old tropes that make a travesty of the cause they are promoting.
  3. Embrace a diversity views. The pan-democrats spend as much time bickering among themselves as they do opposing the authoritarianism of the central government and the lame acquiescence of Hong Kong officials to every edict that comes down the pike from Beijing. This charge applies especially to university student unions and advocates of the localist movement who smugly dismiss traditional democrats as feckless dinosaurs and try to pretend that this behemoth called mainland China can be endlessly vilified and dismissed. If all the different factions supporting democracy would stop fighting over relatively petty semantic and philosophical differences and unite on their common ground, then real progress could be made.
  4. Be willing to pay the price. Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang are currently serving six to eight months in jail for their roles as student leaders who launched the entirely laudable 79-day Occupy protests in 2014. And, depending on the verdict in their trial,  the older founders of that prolonged civil-disobedience campaign for full democracy in Hong Kong—Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man—may soon be joining their youthful compatriots behind bars. Is anyone brave enough to be next?
  5. No violence. This point bears repeating.

Again, feel free to revise and add to the list if you, too, think it’s time for a change.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.