Forty per cent.
That, according to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, is how much tourism slumped in Hong Kong last month due to the anti-government protests that have turned streets into tear-gas-filled battle zones and seen MTR stations trashed, Hong Kong International Airport virtually shut down and the police force pushed to the breaking point.
More importantly, however, according to opinion polls, that is also the proportion—or very nearly the proportion—of the Hong Kong public that remains supportive of a campaign that has become increasingly violent and disruptive as it enters week 15 with no clear end in sight.
By contrast, support for embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stands at under 20 per cent, with three-quarters of the public opposed to her as CE.
Who’s winning this battle for hearts and minds?
No doubt Lam and her masters in Beijing once calculated that the violence, disruption and general inconvenience wrought by the most extreme elements of the protest movement—the masked, black-clad, helmeted mobs chucking bricks and petrol bombs—would eventually alienate Hong Kong’s famously practical, common-sense majority.
And they were right—but not right enough. After nearly three months of protest chaos, 60-40 just doesn’t cut it when the city’s leader, her ministers and the police are so widely reviled.
Despite all the damage that’s been done—to our physical infrastructure and our international reputation, not to mention our collective psyche—it is simply astonishing that such a sizeable minority continues to support the protesters and their remaining four demands.
It needs to be said that, even as MTR stations are vandalised in response to the corporation’s perceived alliance with the police, the Hong Kong government and, ultimately, those pulling the strings in Beijing, anti-government demonstrations have remained largely peaceful.
But a clear pattern has developed: Massive peaceful rallies and marches by day become pitched battles with the police by night, at which time the die-hard commandos go to work. It’s brutal, it’s ugly and someone could get killed.
Indeed, if you believe the rumour mill ground by the frenzied fringe of the protest movement, there have already been three fatalities among their ranks. These allegedly occurred during the aggressive police clearance of Prince Edward MTR station on August 31 but were subsequently covered up by the force. The story is nonsense, but that doesn’t matter to many in a city whose police have become an arm of the government given a pass on acts of brutality. And, as it turns out, police did that night unnecessarily delay access to the station by paramedics waiting to treat injured protesters inside.
At this stage, anti-government protests have become a messy, paradoxical mix of peace and principle versus violence and rumour-mongering.
Yet the movement continues to garner substantial public support because the government and its gendarme enforcers have proved just as nasty and even more confused and contradictory in their response to the ongoing crisis.
From the beginning, the Lam administration has been wrong-headed and wrong-footed. Nearly three months later not much has changed.
A police force that was initially ordered to act with restraint during this prolonged ordeal has now been given carte blanche to attack not only extremists throwing petrol bombs but also innocent bystanders and journalists.
A chief executive who had long adamantly refused to accept any of the protesters’ five demands finally conceded last week to what had become the meaningless first on the list —the formal withdrawal of the hated extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of criminals suspects from Hong Kong to what many see as the corrupt legal system on the mainland.
Lam had already declared the bill “dead” way back in June, although she stubbornly refused to use the more formal term “withdraw.”
Since then, the million-strong demonstrations sparked specifically by the bill have grown into a much broader movement to defend and protect Hong Kong’s core personal freedoms and unique East/West identity from an unrepresentative government taking orders from Beijing.
Withdrawing the bill at this point is virtually meaningless, so the protests rage on.
If the chief executive really wants to defuse the crisis, she must concede at least one of the four remaining demands: 1) establish an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, 2) give amnesty to those who have been arrested in the protests, 3) retract the government’s characterisation of the protests as riots and 4) grant full democracy to Hong Kong.
Option 1 appears the best choice as it has widespread community support, although it also reportedly faces fierce opposition from the overtaxed police force that has been holding the line for Lam’s enfeebled government.
For the good of the city, however—and for her own good—Lam must overcome this opposition and do the right thing, which should have been done many weeks ago.
Instead, however, during a week in which the state-run China Daily crazily claimed that anti-government protesters planned mass terrorist attacks on September 11, the infamous date of the 2001 Al-Qaeda strikes on the United States that took nearly 3,000 lives, Lam joined Beijing’s shrill chorus blaming foreign forces, particularly the US, for fomenting anarchy in Hong Kong.
But who’s buying that?
To any even quasi-objective observer, this is obviously a home-grown protest movement rooted in the overwhelming distrust that the people of Hong Kong feel for the Lam administration and for its overseers in Beijing. That the movement is reaching out to western democracies for support is only right and natural.
Finally, it should be noted, this was also a week in which one of Lam’s top advisers, Executive Councillor Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, once again lost her senses, declaring (based on a story told to her by a friend of a friend) that schoolgirls as young as 14 were offering free sex to frontline protesters.
That’s where we stand heading into week 15, no closer to resolution than we were in week one.
Hong Kong Free Press relies on direct reader support. Help safeguard independent journalism and press freedom as we invest more in freelancers, overtime, safety gear & insurance during this summer’s protests. 10 ways to support us.