In 19th century revolutions, the usual procedure was for the insurgents to build barricades in working-class districts and fight pitched battles with the forces of order, a process idealised in paintings and poetry. If the forces of order were defeated you then went on to storm the Bastille, the Palace of Versailles or whatever.

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix. Photo: Wikicommons.

In the 21st century, this is no longer a realistic ambition. Advanced societies cannot be physically brought to their knees by anything that happens on the streets. The people are outgunned. On the other hand, governments depend on the consent of the governed in a way that traditional autocracies did not.

This leads to the paradoxical result that the aim of protests, however exuberant or destructive of property, is not to inflict violence but to provoke it. The merits of the protesters’ cause are reinforced by the impression that state power is being abused to suppress it.

Unfortunately, our police force, though wonderful in many ways, is disastrously easy to provoke. When it was decided that CS gas, which is banned for military use, could be issued to police forces, the justification was that this would give them a weapon they could use when they would otherwise have to open fire with real guns.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

So the fact that it was fairly poisonous is acceptable in other countries because the alternative would be more dangerous. In Hong Kong, though, tear gas is not an alternative to deadly force. It is an alternative to thought. After a gathering of 100,000 or more people, whether for a rally, a race meeting or a football match, there are bound to be people milling about in the streets, especially if the bus and MTR stations are closed. Treating this as an unlawful assembly stirs up unnecessary trouble.

However, lessons are being learned. Protesters and police alike were making notable efforts last weekend to appear the least violent parties to the conflict, a nice change.

This left the current propaganda campaign from our imperial masters looking a bit phoney. We were invited to believe that high levels of violence were being deployed, and indeed that the situation verged on “terrorism.”

Photo: May James/HKFP.

This was never very convincing. “Violence” covers a continuum with an over-enthusiastic slap on the back at one end and a thermonuclear weapon on the other. Trashing a council chamber is vandalism, not violence. Same for throwing eggs at buildings.

Both sides have no doubt exaggerated in their descriptions of the violence inflicted by the other. Which of course is where we came in. The object of subversive protests is now to be not the victor, but the victim.

So I detected a certain lack of objectivity in the Hong Kong Standard the other day, in the production of the magical headline “Raw Violence Stuns World”. Wow! Here? Indeed yes. This was The Standard’s way of introducing the story about two people being detained and roughed up during the airport protest.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Let me make it clear that this was certainly a very unpleasant experience for the two gentlemen concerned. It was politically erroneous and ethically indefensible. But raw violence? Actually, the proceedings seem to have been extensively interrupted by protesters — not to mention the odd reporter — who objected to them.

The two victims, though doubtless candidates for future post-traumatic stress disorder, escaped serious injury. Well “raw violence” is a flexible phrase. But was the world stunned?

At about the same time there were two mass shootings in the United States. Canadian police were hunting two teenagers who had killed three people and went on to kill themselves. A mentally ill person went on a knife-wielding rampage in Australia. Civil wars continued in Yemen, Syria, Congo and Libya. Islamist gangs kidnapped and murdered in North Nigeria. Protests in Moscow were violently repressed. The usual despots continued to jail or kill their opponents.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

It would be nice to think that the world leads such a sheltered existence that the spectacle of two people being roughed up in our airport would have triggered shock and horror. Nice, but difficult.

Did a spot of aggro at the Hong Kong Airport really register on the stun meter? Actually, I used to see rather similar scenes most weekends when I was covering English football, and that was in the Second Division (now renamed the Championship). Such scenes were too common to be worth reporting.

However, the Airport Authority Chief Executive Fred Lam Tin-fuk was clearly with the official programme, expressing his sympathy for the two “mainland visitors.” Hang on a minute! These were not two innocent individuals randomly plucked from the passing stream of tourists. One of them was a secret policeman. This is a hazardous profession. No doubt the protesters thought he was up to no good and so do I.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The other one was a reporter for the Global Times. The Global Times masquerades as a tabloid newspaper but is in practice an organ of state propaganda. It is the sort of “newspaper” in which no self-respecting dead fish would wish to be wrapped.

I do not approve at all of people attacking journalists, but I am not sure that someone who writes for the Global Times is in any real sense a journalist.

Let us, though, salute the Liaison Office spokesman who complained that the attack on this reporter was “trampling on press freedom.” This was a daring contribution to the local debate. China under the flawless rule of the Communist Party does not enjoy press freedom, so it is surprising, and perhaps even a little dangerous, for its local representative to imply that press freedom is a desirable thing on which we should not trample.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

A similarly novel note was struck by the police spokesman at the ensuing press conference. The protesters, he said, were “putting other people’s safety at risk during their pursuit of human rights.” What, no black hands, no foreign puppet masters?

Unfortunately, the voice of the Force went on to an egregious error, with the accusation that radical protesters had “lynched innocent tourists.” Well innocent is perhaps not quite the right word, but “lynched” is clearly a grotesque mistake.

The meaning of “lynched” is well established. It means a mob hangs someone. Usually, it is reserved for occasions when the mob is white and the victim is black. It is a universal characteristic of lynchings that at the end of them the victim is dead.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.