As Hong Kong’s summer of discontent enters its ninth consecutive weekend, every week citizens are worried about how things may get worse if the violence escalates and, most of all, what’s next for the city roiled by a political crisis with no end in sight.
In a situation where political leadership is critically needed to face up to Hong Kong’s underlying problems, such leadership is also conspicuously missing. The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has virtually disappeared, and the government seems to have gone on autopilot, notably with the exception of the police.
This week, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office held a rare press conference in Beijing to express the central government’s position on the unrest in Hong Kong. The standout message was a reiteration of support for the Hong Kong Police Force in its bid to quash the protests. Ironically, compared to the praise given to the police, the Chief Executive herself only received a routine and lukewarm reaffirmation of support from the central government.
No wonder that, back in Hong Kong, many feel that the police have been given a carte blanche to advance its use of force against protesters, with the People’s Liberation Army lurking over the border, ready to make its move. The fear, or even possibly, of Hong Kong becoming a police state, with many of our promised freedoms in the Basic Law — including our freedoms of assembly, expression, speech and others — soon to be curtailed, is becoming more and more of a possibility.
Many people have begun to ask, who do our police report to – the Hong Kong government or Beijing authorities? When our own Chief Secretary gave a mild apology for the handling of the triad attacks on citizens in the Yuen Long train station on June 21st, the frontline unions of the police criticised the Chief Secretary – the very person who the force is supposed to be reporting to.
Instead of reprimanding the police, the Chief Secretary appeased them. Such is the ridiculous situation we face in Hong Kong, further reinforcing the possibility of a future police state.
And when more than 40 protesters were arrested during a confrontation with the police last Sunday night in Central, they were promptly prosecuted with rioting charges. Their arrests contradicted comments made by the Police Commissioner and the Secretary of Justice barely a month ago that the thresholds for the prosecution of such charges would be “very high.”
We know right away that this follows the position staked out by Beijing, that is, to instil fear with heavy, violent and dangerous police tactics, including targeting citizens with live ammunition at close range and handing protesters the heaviest criminal charges possible, in order to scare off others.
All of this is done regardless of the fact that those arrested included medical and social workers who were on scene merely to assist citizens or bystanders trying to help the wounded. Justice is no longer the goal. Intimidation is now the means to the ultimate goal of a rule by force. As indicated by the rare and courageous open letter by some civil servants in the Department of Justice, which made the serious accusation that the Secretary for Justice was making politically motivated prosecution decisions, our Department of Justice has actually become the Department of Injustice.
So, what’s next? It is clear that protesters are so determined that they are not going to give up easily. The call for change in the last two months has been expanded far beyond the original call for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. It is now also about the injustice that our government and those in authority have ignored for years — and I, most certainly, do not mean the lack of affordable housing for young people.
We are talking about all the lies about the absolute sociopolitical domination of power by the pro-establishment, permeating all levels of government and eroding the rule of law and autonomy of Hong Kong under the One Country Two Systems principle. People see these injustices every day and they are not going to be convinced by a few more top-down declarations from Beijing.
But I am also convinced that the majority of protesters know that they must bear the weight of this struggle in the longterm, and I mean “protesters” in the broadest sense of the word – from millions of peaceful marchers to those on the frontline in recent weeks across different parts of Hong Kong. And violent confrontations are not only unsustainable but they also carry the risks of losing public empathy.
We must find other more peaceful and sustainable tactics to carry on the struggle for political and social justice and democracy in Hong Kong. Statements and writings from those who were previously considered to be the most radical voices — such as Edward Leung, who is in jail serving sentences relating to “rioting” — to the more moderate political and academic figures, all echo this sentiment.
So, there is hope that the call for a day of strikes on August 5 may signal a long term and more peaceful strategy for the movement. Certainly, this will be only the first wave of such tactics to demand more meaningful responses from authorities.
Protesters and their supporters must also begin to understand that peaceful actions are much, much more effective than violence or the use of force, in generating and maintaining support, both domestically and internationally.
We must also focus on how to change minds not only in Hong Kong, but also in Beijing. Make no mistake about it – everything will not go back to normal once the protests end, as some in Beijing or their cronies in Hong Kong want to believe. Beijing may want to continue to fool themselves or others by branding this movement as led by foreign forces. But this may just be a reflection of their biggest fear.
For two months, global media has cast Hong Kong in the spotlight like never before. The world cares about our city and our wellbeing, and this attention may turn out to be our last and most important safety net. And China must also realise that it must live up to the international standards and play by the rules accepted by the rest of the world. That will be the only happy ending for China, Hong Kong, and the world.