For Hong Kong, Armistice Day was the city’s darkest day – until Monday. A police officer shot a young protester using live ammunition and left him in critical condition, while another policeman drove his motorcycle wildly into the crowds, injuring several. In another part of the city, a man was set on fire as he argued with a crowd. On Tuesday, the crisis grew darker still, with an assault by the police upon students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
These incidents follow months of violence. Most have been perpetrated by the police, often against peaceful protesters, or by pro-Beijing triad gangs assaulting demonstrators. A pro-democracy candidate in the local elections was attacked a week ago by a knife-wielding pro-Beijing thug who bit the politician’s ear off.
But some of the violence, it must be acknowledged, has been carried out by a small minority of protesters. Their acts cannot be condoned, but they should be understood. They are the response of a deeply frustrated, desperate people who feel that no one is listening to them and so resort to extreme acts.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her puppet masters in Beijing thought they could stop the protesters by bludgeoning them into silence. They were wrong. The completely disproportionate police brutality, well-documented by organisations such as Amnesty International, has only angered the people further.
When Hongkongers who used to have a professional police force worthy of respect see the police beating unarmed, peaceful protesters with batons, spraying tear gas and pepper-spray directly into their eyes at point-blank range, firing rubber bullets at dangerously close quarters, chasing people into the subway and spraying tear gas at them on the platforms and trains underground, assaulting elderly people in their eighties and children as young as twelve, it is hardly surprising they feel angry. And then when reports began to emerge of torture in detention and allegations of rape, the enemy lines have been drawn.
The language used by the Hong Kong police is every bit as troubling as the physical brutality. Describing protesters as “cockroaches” has genocidal echoes and while no one is remotely suggesting Hong Kong has reached such a level of international crime, such dehumanising language is profoundly dangerous. So too are the frequent examples of the police denying access for paramedics, first aiders and ambulances to assist the injured.
I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, from 1997 until 2002, and never imagined we would see the scenes that are now on our news channels on a daily basis. Over the past five years Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and autonomy have been increasingly eroded, with booksellers kidnapped, pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified, peaceful protesters jailed, the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor and some foreign activists expelled and other threats to freedom of expression growing. But this year, the city has descended into a whole new level of conflict.
The crisis is entirely Lam’s making. She should never have proposed the badly thought-out and extremely dangerous extradition bill that sparked the protests. A bill that, had it passed, would have allowed the regime in Beijing to demand the extradition of anyone it disliked, from a city with a proud tradition of the rule of law into the mainland, a jurisdiction where torture, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and executions are commonplace, where the judiciary is controlled by the Communist Party and there is no concept of fair trial, and where the regime stands accused by an independent tribunal chaired by the man who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević of forcibly extracting the organs of prisoners of conscience.
Having proposed the bill, Lam could have stepped back early and listened to the concerns of lawyers and businesses, and the international community. She refused to do so. The peaceful march of a million Hongkongers, followed a week later by two million – a quarter of the population, according to organiser estimates – ought to have been a wake-up call. Instead, she merely suspended the legislation. Eventually, though months too late, she declared the bill “dead,” but still refused to bury it. Only last month, after six months of turmoil, did she formally withdraw it.
The protesters behaved with remarkable restraint at the beginning. Marches were peaceful, protesters cleaned up the litter after them, people held candlelit prayer vigils, and the song “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” echoed around the city. It was the police, not the protesters, who started the violence. From the very beginning, the police showed an extraordinary lack of control, and a wholly disproportionate response, beating peaceful marchers and firing tear gas and rubber bullets wildly into the crowds. It was their brutality and Lam’s refusal to condemn it that led to the escalation we see today.
The movement has grown from one opposed to the extradition bill to one demanding justice and political reform. They want an independent inquiry into police brutality. They call on the authorities to stop describing peaceful protesters as rioters. They demand amnesty for those who have been arrested. And they want democracy and universal suffrage.
These demands are not unreasonable. Of course, the minority of protesters who have committed actual crimes of violence against people or property should be held accountable, but existing laws need to be revised and applied carefully so that only those who have acted criminally are prosecuted.
Hong Kong is a city on the brink of collapse. It can pull back from the brink, but only if Lam changes course. She must realise that the only way to break the stalemate is dialogue and reform, not more violence. She must meet pro-democracy activists, set out a timetable for political reform, introduce universal suffrage in elections for Chief Executive and all seats in the legislature, and establish a truly independent inquiry into police conduct with powers to prosecute those responsible for brutality. Continued refusal to do this will lead to even more bloodshed.
The world has a responsibility now to act. Britain, as the former colonial power and signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, has a moral and legal obligation to lead. Britain should establish an international contact group of like-minded nations to coordinate efforts. It should impose targeted financial sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against those responsible for torture.
Britain should work with other countries to offer sanctuary for those who need to flee Hong Kong. And it should escalate diplomatic efforts to urge Lam, and the regime in Beijing, to step back from the brink and recognise that unless they address the people’s grievances, whatever may be left of Hong Kong as we knew it will die and with it one of the world’s most important financial and trading centres and one of Asia’s most open cities. And that would be a tragedy for everyone.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of the UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch.