HK’s ‘be water’ protests leave China casting about for an enemy

31-Aug-2019 Intellasia | The Guardian | 6:02 AM Print This Post

On Friday morning, as Hong Kong woke up, the news came in as thick as the incessant rain: Andy Chan Ho-tin, the head of the outlawed Hong Kong National party, was arrested overnight at the airport as he was about to go to Japan.

Then came the news of Joshua Wong’s arrest one of the most famous pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Wong’s name became known in 2012 when, at 15, he organised the protests against the national education curriculum. The curriculum was seen as an attempt at instilling patriotism in Hong Kong’s youth, but described as “brainwashing” by Wong and his supporters. He was one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, in 2014 for which he served time in jail, and is still facing a number of charges. Among the Umbrella Movement’s leaders was Agnes Chow: she, too, was arrested on Friday. Wong and Chow are the co-founders of the political party Demosisto, which, like Chan’s Hong Kong National party, is one of the organisations that emerged from the Umbrella Movement.

None of them have had a high profile in the current political strife it is a leaderless movement that has assumed as one of its recognisable slogans Bruce Lee’s motto of “being water”: adaptable, and mobile.

Commentators have been trying to find a good label to give to the protests that have been rocking Hong Kong all summer: umbrellas play a less important role than they did in 2014, even if they are still visible as a protective tool against the weather, tear gas, and unwelcome photographs or security cameras.

Some tried to baptise this the Hard Hat Revolution: things have become a lot more violent on the ground in Hong Kong, with the police routinely firing multiple rounds of tear gas, as well as beanbags rounds, rubber bullets, sponge grenades. Police batons are used with abandon, so helmets can be useful. On Sunday Hong Kong also saw an officer fire the first live round in half a century. The previous one was fired by the colonial police while trying to restore calm in the territory after the leftist riots of 1967, a spillover of the Chinese Cultural Revolution across then British territory.

Protesters have not reacted idly to the escalation of violence: bricks have been thrown at police since 2016. That was when a group of activists battled with the authorities to stop them evicting unlicensed street food sellers during Chinese New Year. It became the Fishball Revolution, from the name of a local delicacy. Its leader was Edward Leung, now 27 and serving a six-year jail sentence. The founder of the group Hong Kong Indigenous, his political awakening came through the fear that the local way of life is being eroded by the desire to integrate Hong Kong ever more seamlessly into China. Leung has given the current movement its most enduring slogan: Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time.

Why are people protesting?

The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Public anger fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive, densely populated cities.

The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station while authorities seemingly did little to intervene.

Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong has grown in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.

Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.

The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.

How have the authorities responded?

Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, while Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city’s semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.

Beijing has ramped up its accusations that foreign countries are “fanning the fire” of unrest in the city. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has ordered the US to “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form”.

What started as a revolt against an ill-conceived attempt to introduce an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland China, spearheaded by the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has over time has become a fully-fledged fight for universal suffrage (long promised to Hong Kong) and against increasing police violence.

Looking back through the 22 years that Hong Kong has been under Chinese sovereignty, one major aspect emerges as a clear motivator of the growing political dissatisfaction: the lack of channels of meaningful communication between the government and the governed.

Still, the authorities, in Hong Kong and in Beijing, seem genuinely unable to understand that their chosen interlocutors a motley crew of billionaires and pro-Beijing loyalists are not representative of most voices. Hong Kong’s Executive Council is appointed by the chief executive, elected by 1,200 people chosen out of the territory’s 7.5 million citizens. In 2017 Carrie Lam got just 777 of those votes.

Since 1997, every Hong Kong administration has refused to engage in any significant way with the pro-democracy camp, in spite of how vastly representative it is. Lam has been no different.

In recent days Hong Kong has seen an increase in sable rattling from China, which has been putting on display its military power near the border. An armed intervention still seems most unlikely, but instilling the fear of it is seen as a useful strategy. And then, after the arrest of close to 1,000 people through the course of the summer, on Friday came the seemingly inexplicable arrests of activists who have kept a rather low profile. This gives us a clue.

Ever since Beijing has had to admit it cannot control the information flooding out of Hong Kong, it has reshaped the events into something it could spin: a small group of “black hands” acting behind the scenes and with international support has tried to sow discord into Hong Kong. The “black hand” theory is an old Soviet trope still shaping the Chinese Communist party’s worldview. With Friday’s arrests we can see that it not only uses it as propaganda, but also actually believes it.

This worldview cannot conceive of a leaderless movement: there have to be saboteurs behind it, whether they are maliciously undermining China’s Five Year Plan, or inciting disaffected people in Hong Kong to ask for a responsive government. That is how the Tiananmen protests ended, too: with a multi-year campaign to unmask and arrest the “black hands” that had caused it, refusing to take into account that the popular sentiment expressed by the millions who took to the streets could be genuine and spontaneous.

What this also points out is a common mistake easily made when looking at China’s most assertive, yet seemingly preposterous, pronouncements: what sounds just like propaganda to outside ears might actually be what China’s leadership believes in, given the determination with which it shuts off all dissenting voices. A government that refuses to listen to its opponents, believes its own propaganda.

https://sg.news.yahoo.com/hong-kongs-water-protests-leaves-063007795.html

 


Category: Hong Kong

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