Commentary | 18 November 2019

Beijing's tactics are driving spiral of violence in Hong Kong

If China is trying to drive wedges between the protest movement and mainstream citizens, it seems to be failing.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

If China is trying to drive wedges between the protest movement and mainstream citizens, it seems to be failing.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

It is not just foreign leaders such as Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron who are awed by their personal meetings with Xi Jinping. A tête-à-tête with the Chinese President earlier this month seems to have stiffened the spine of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, as she intensifies the crackdown on the months-long pro-democracy protests that have shaken the city to its core.

Blind to the government’s role in driving the dangerous spiral of escalating violence, she dubbed the diverse range of Hong Kongers who support the protests “enemies of the people”. And she vowed never to give in to their “so-called political demands”.

Her renewed resolve was mirrored by her Communist Party bosses in Beijing. After a meeting of the high-level party central committee, officials said that there was an “urgent” need to establish a national security law in Hong Kong and promote “patriotic” education for young people – two proposals that sparked mass protests in 2003 and 2012. Xi also leaned into the Hong Kong authorities’ ever more aggressive tactics, calling on the police and the government to “severely” punish the “violent criminals” who he claims are driving the protests.

And this weekend, in a not so subtle move, there was a soft deployment of People's Liberation Army troops with brooms to help clear debris off the street outside their barracks.

Despite speculation that she might be removed for stoking the biggest crisis in Hong Kong since the handover from British control in 1997, the meeting with Xi suggests that Beijing is doubling down on Lam for now. And it is doubling down on a hardline strategy that has not only proven ineffective but has backfired again and again.

Beijing’s intensifying pressure on Hong Kongers’ freedoms and autonomy over the past few years created a combustible mix of anger, frustration and defiance. That was ignited in June by the proposed bill that would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, undermining the independent legal system that underpins the city’s "one country, two systems" arrangement.

Why are the authorities taking this dangerous path?

Acting with Beijing’s full backing, the Hong Kong authorities have sought to tackle this political problem with an ever more uncompromising criminal justice solution. One consequence has been to radicalise protesters and heighten their paranoia, prompting a disturbing series of vigilante attacks on purported supporters of Beijing. That might seem to work in the government’s favour by undercutting the legitimacy of the protesters.

However, if the authorities are really trying to drive a wedge between the front-line “braves” and the majority of more moderate democracy supporters, it is failing. Surveys have consistently shown that Hong Kongers are far more concerned about excessive force used by the police, who last week shot an unarmed youngster and pummelled students on their university campus with hundreds of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets.

As Beijing’s position is hardening, so is that of the resistance in Hong Kong. Rather than abandoning the most hardened protesters, who have armed themselves with Molotov cocktails and bows and arrows, more moderate Hong Kongers are rallying around them.

Last week the heart of Hong Kong’s business district was brought to a standstill lunchtime after lunchtime as investment bankers, accountants and administrators demonstrated in support of the movement’s demands for democracy, an independent inquiry into police actions and an amnesty for protesters. Aggressive arrests of bystanders and repeated volleys of tear gas only seemed to embolden these middle-class office workers, who were traditionally seen as motivated by money, not morals.

Clifford Stott, a British expert on crowd management who was brought in to advise Hong Kong’s police complaints council on a study into the protest response, warned this week that such seemingly indiscriminate use of force will merely “radicalise and entrench conflict”. Instead of blaming rioters and outside agitators, the Hong Kong government should try to win “hearts and minds” with a peacekeeping approach, he argued.

Foreign minister Marise Payne was right to echo Stott’s call for enhanced, independent powers to investigate police wrongdoing in Hong Kong. While urging both the police and the protesters to take “genuine steps to de-escalate tensions”, she also emphasised the need to find “an effective political solution that supports and upholds Hong Kong’s freedoms and advantages”. Movement on that front, however, can only come from the Hong Kong government and its ultimate masters in Beijing.

Back in August,  Lam told a group of businesspeople in private comments, which were later leaked, that there is “nothing” she can do apart from deploy an increasingly worn-down police force. But even if Beijing has tied her hands when it comes to political concessions, she could in theory have taken a more emollient personal approach, perhaps visiting injured protesters in hospital or stopping the police from acting in an indiscriminate fashion, pepper-spraying and arresting journalists and bystanders. That she has done the opposite is deeply troubling.

Why are the authorities taking this dangerous path? One dark theory is that Beijing wants to escalate the crisis and break Hong Kong so that it can remake it in its own image. Or perhaps officials who fear Xi’s wrath are telling him what he wants to hear.

More likely, they are simply trapped by their own rhetoric and past mistakes, as well as the political reality that the liberal democratic values that many Hong Kongers hold dear are diametrically opposed to the Communist Party’s view of the world. Whatever the explanation, unless Beijing changes course, Hong Kong is headed for more conflict, more repression, more injuries and, sadly, more deaths. The city will never be the same again.