It is becoming progressively clear that Party-state leadership suffers from a complete inability to understand Hong Kong people.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong garrison propaganda video released last week may play well to mainland Chinese fans of Wolf Warrior one and two (two wildly popular action movies), but the crude nationalism and military might on display will only reinforce Hong Kong people’s distrust, anger and resolve to defend the city’s autonomy. Hong Kong will never become just another Chinese city.

tear gas china extradition protest june 12 2019 Photo May James (19) (Copy)
Photo: May James.

During the July 29 press briefing by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (the first since 1997 when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China), spokesperson Yang Guang predictably condemned the actions of protesters, expressed support and sympathy for the Hong Kong police and their families, and reaffirmed the central government’s support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Yang emphasised the government’s bottom line – safeguarding One Country Two Systems, and urged Hong Kong people to uphold the rule of law. He pointed to Hongkongers’ lack of understanding of the mainland’s legal system as fuelling public panic and blamed the usual suspects – “outside forces” – as intent on stoking unhappiness in the city while undermining Beijing.

But Hongkongers understand the mainland legal system all too well: Beijing’s “rule the country by law” (依法治国) is not the rule of law.

The massive crackdowns on human rights lawyers in mainland China in 2015, the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers in 2016, and the subordination of law to the Communist Party of China (clearly and officially reiterated in policy pronouncements) are clear warnings that Hong Kong must protect its rule of law and fundamental rights against Beijing’s encroachment.

The actual targets of the politicised and discriminatory campaign of “swift punishment,” endorsed by Beijing, as a further warning are revealed in the arrests made since the start of the Hong Kong protests: over 500 demonstrators and counting. But so far only six men with gang links related to the horrific Yuen Long attacks on passersby and demonstrators on July 21 have been arrested. What actions are being taken to regulate the police?

July 7 Sunday anti-extradition protest Mong Kok Tsim Sha Tsui Nathan Road
Photo: May James.

As the sabre rattling becomes louder, with China’s PLA holding military “drills” just across the border, water cannon trucks have been displayed and tested to “reclaim the ground” and re-establish “order.” Hong Kong people must persist in countering threats of state-sanctioned violence with non-violence to truly uphold the city’s values.

On the discursive front, we need to expose rhetoric that erases existing power imbalances and ignores the responsibility and accountability of those who wield state power. This is especially critical to counter language used as part of China’s “discourse power” (话语权) strategy and promotes official narratives of control.

For example, references to both “sides” when framing the escalating violence misses what is at stake. The myriad of violent demonstrators are participants in a decentralised movement of overwhelmingly peaceful actions involving millions of people. Despite having shared demands, they are not monolithic, and claims of outside manipulation are insulting to the diverse and expanding groups – including students, educators, parents, airline personnel, civil servants, social workers, and pro-democracy legislators.

In contrast, the Hong Kong police, dressed in tactical gear, with rubber bullets, guns, tear gas, pepper spray, and batons, wield the coercive power of the state, with the clear backing of the central government. In carrying out their duty to maintain public safety, they must be held to a standard of professional conduct in accordance with international law.

Unlike China’s “stability maintenance” (维稳) tactics that aim to protect the state’s interests at any and all costs, the Hong Kong police are accountable to the public, in ways that include complicity with non-state violence, such as the suspected triad-related attacks in Yuen Long.

yuen long mtr yuen long july 28 china extradition
Photo: May James/HKFP.

The current escalation of police violence is not the first time that excessive use of force by the police has generated international concern. As I wrote recently in HKFP, the UN Human Rights Committee, an independent body of experts, in its April 2013 report of Hong Kong’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressed concern about reports of excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police and recommended training officers in line with international law, while stating that the HKSAR government should take steps to establish a fully independent mechanism mandated to conduct independent, proper and effective investigation into complaints about the inappropriate use of force or other abuse of power by the police.

The HKSAR government had an opportunity to follow the recommendations put forward by UN experts, but instead, the world watched in 2014 as the police used excessive force against civilians during the Umbrella Movement.

july 21 china extradition
Photo: May James/HKFP.

To move beyond the current political crisis, the central authorities in Beijing and the HKSAR government must demonstrate compliance with their international human rights obligations. However, while that might be like asking the tiger for its skin, the bill for impunity must be paid sooner or later.

As with all social justice movements, it will be the persistence and courage of citizens engaged in peaceful principled resistance – despite facing state-sanctioned violence and politicised prosecutions— that will promote accountability and the lasting protection of rights.

The international community can play a critical role in limiting and mitigating the inevitable human costs.  So to Hong Kong people facing even more fierce storms ahead, add oil (加油)!

Sharon K. Hom is Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), Adjunct Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, and Professor of Law Emerita at the City University of New York School of Law. Hom taught law for 18 years, including training judges, lawyers, and law teachers at eight law schools in China. Her non-law book publications include Chinese Women Traversing Diaspora: Memoirs, Essays, and Poetry (ed.,1999). In 2007, she was named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the “50 Women to Watch.” Born in Hong Kong, she lives in New York with her family and 12 rescued cats.