By William Ka Shek Ng
After the break-in of the Parliament by protesters, pro-democracy lawmakers and the Hong Kong public were momentarily caught by a doubt. Did youngsters walk into a carefully choreographed trap set by the government, to swing public opinion against the anti-extradition movement, discredit and divide it?
I believe this question is not as relevant as many might have thought, if we remind ourselves of the context of conflict, and ask ourselves what made these young citizens take a move so risky and potentially self-destructive.
In recent months, there have been massive marches in protest at the extradition bill. Several million citizens, almost one-third of the population, have taken to the streets, some of them more than once, to oppose the bill.
Over a million on the 9th June, over two million on the 16th June, and another half a million on the 1st July poured into the streets in a perfectly civilised and orderly manner to make their voices heard. Three citizens have also fallen to their deaths, leaving messages about the protests.
On the morning of June 12, young students, housewives and old men braved rubber bullets, batons, tear gas canisters and beanbag rounds, in an attempt to stop the government bulldozing the bill through the parliament.
Our demands were perfectly legitimate and clear: scrap the bill, drop charges against the protestors, and set up a judge-led independent inquiry into police actions. These have all fallen on deaf ears.
Since June 9, the Hong Kong government has been given more than three weeks to do the right thing: listen to Hong Kong citizens and change its course. Instead of which, the government rounded up 32 protesters and charged five of them with rioting, a draconian colonial charge that has been abolished in Australia as a violation of human rights.
Senior ministers, from the Secretary for Justice to the Chief Executive, are all hiding behind frontline police officers in the face of boiling public anger.
During the siege of police headquarters on June 21, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo was nowhere to be seen. He sent a female police negotiator to urge the angry protesters to leave.
If the Politburo in Beijing is not considering this unknown female negotiator a qualified future chief executive candidate, then Mrs Carrie Lam certainly should recommend this negotiator to Mr Xi, as that unknown heroine was taking up the duty of the city’s leader.
How can a political crisis be resolved by frontline police officers? It needs a political solution – including rounds of listening exercises, consultations, negotiations, leading to a compromise. The Hong Kong government is a complete disgrace and an utter shambles for having done none of this.
I have as many reservations as other citizens about the use of violence to make our voices heard, but we must not lose sight of the root cause of the political chaos and polarisation in Hong Kong today. It is the Carrie Lam regime, not the protesters, that is responsible.
If the government thought the legislature’s break-in on July 1 might turn the tide of public opinion, it was treating Hongkongers as political imbeciles.
This is the biggest political crisis since 1997, or perhaps in the history of Hong Kong, because we now have citizens who are willing to put their lives on the line for a public cause. Many of them are very young.
The citizens who barged into the parliament in righteous anger did so in the knowledge that they could face decades of internment, or might even be fired at and beaten by police. It was not precisely a “ransacking” as described by the BBC and many other western media.
True, protesters smashed their way into the chamber and broke things. But the damage was specifically restricted to political symbols of the authoritarian Hong Kong government, including its emblem and the portraits of unpopular House speakers, Andrew Leung and Rita Fan, who are seen as traitors of Hong Kong’s core values.
The portraits of relatively ‘fair and just’ House speakers, Andrew Wong and John Swaine, were left untouched. The vandalism was targeted and restrained to convey a political message.
Neither did they steal things, nor profit personally during the break-in. They left money in a fridge before helping themselves to drinks in the Parliament Canteen, sticking a hand-written placard on the fridge that reads “We are not thieves.” Another handwritten sign was put in front of the library entrance which reads: “This is the library and no destruction please.”
The library remains undamaged; not a single item was stolen. With the glass cabinets that contain relics, the young people placed handwritten signs that read: “These are relics – protection, not destruction”, and these valuable items were left completely untouched.
They were conscious of the public perception of their actions. Rioters and ruffians do no such things and don’t care how they are perceived by the public.
However clumsily the whole plan was executed, or their messages were worded and conveyed, the young people barged into the chamber with a clear political mission to make a political statement, not to loot. They did that in good faith. That is why I will not use the word ‘ransacking’ to describe their behaviour.
And make a statement they did, by deeds and words. A statement was angrily delivered by a lanky young lad in a yellow hard hat: scrap the bill, drop charges against protesters, launch a judge-led investigation into the police actions, and demand universal suffrage.
Whether we agree with their actions or not, this was a direct action driven by a strong commitment to a public cause, a mission to defend the city’s freedom and rule of law, as well as a deep love of Hong Kong. It was not motivated by personal gain. The causes those young citizens were taking great personal risks of fighting for are our causes, too.
Whether we approve their actions or not, we must pause and think, why are these young people, opting for the moth-flying-to-flame path to fight for a public cause? The answer can be disturbing as it illuminates the political state into which Hong Kong has slipped in recent years.
William Ka Shek Ng is a postgraduate student majoring in World History at King’s College London.
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