Monday, December 16, 2019

Hong Kong: The Protest Goes On, the Stakes Increase

The struggle in Hong Kong has intensified dramatically since the last time I posted about it. Indeed, it has managed to keep the attention of the Western media, one reason being that it has exacerbated China's "image problem," undermining China's current efforts to present itself as a responsible business and trade partner.

But in the West there is also a combination of growing support, admiration, and astonishment at the perseverance of the protesters. The stubbornness of the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing is, by contrast, not surprising. We have begun to wonder, however, why Emperor Xi and his Brave New China have not yet "restored law and order," in classic CCP style. I don't know the Chinese term for "smash them," but it was one of Mao's favorites. Yet there has been no "smashing" in Hong Kong. Yet.

It's just possible that the mandarins of the Politburo are even more astonished than us. Perhaps they have not acted because they don't know what to do.

It's not as if the Party-state is suffering from "a troubled conscience." Sadly, the Uighurs in western Xinjiang know only too well that New China has no humanitarian scruples. But "The Company" is in the process of negotiating multiple deals all over the world, and Hong Kong is in the global spotlight. That's rather inconvenient for the bosses in Beijing. But it may not be the only thing that perplexes them.

Hong Kong's "Revolution of Our Times" is looking more and more like an unprecedented social upheaval. Though we still try to use them, the old categories for "civil uprisings" are just not adequate to describe all that is happening. The term "police brutality" remains appropriate. As does the term "escalation," although it has a very peculiar dynamic in this case. The heat of events increases slowly (insofar as we can measure) but inexorably. The "non-lethal" force used by the police, along with the refusal of the government to show anything but contempt for the popular movement, are a kind of slow but sustained mass torture of a substantial segment of Hong Kong society. Tear gas is practically becoming part of the atmosphere people breathe every day.

On the other hand, it has become difficult to refer to the vastly diverse but still remarkably cohesive masses of people who have been taking to the streets for the past six months as "protesters" in any ordinary sense of the term. Still, I can't think of any other word for them. There are still many classical protests (such as the recent six month anniversary march that brought out nearly a million people). More and more, however, we see groups resorting to the use of force, not only in self-defense but also — in cases of vandalism and large-scale property damage — as a way to send a message to their pro-Beijing adversaries.

"Non-violence" has long ceased to define the movement. The use of force, however, is controlled and purposeful. People are not targets, and casualties (outside of rare rogue actions) are unintentional and infrequent. The "petrol bombs" are certainly dangerous but they are used primarily to block police advances. Property damage and spray-paint sloganeering are dramatic in their appearance (they are intended to be) but they are relatively restrained.

If these were rioters, they would be burning things down deliberately, causing maximum indiscriminate destruction, and looting on a large scale. Hong Kong people aren't doing any of these things, as far as I know. We have had plenty of riots in the West. We know what riots look like. Hong Kong's street protesters are not rioters. They look like something different. They look like guerrilla warriors with a new style, new strategies, new tactics, a sense of restraint, and a basic respect for human life.

This is a new kind of social movement. Its actions don't correspond to any of the standard classifications.

Still, we can't endorse all their methods. In addition to questions of particular justice, the intensification of force — indeed one could call it "militant" action — without a leadership that can claim political legitimacy will inevitably fragment the movement, coarsen its participants, and engender in them a poisonous hatred of their enemies. Such has been the sad experience of human history.

I am nothing more than a Western intellectual, an interdisciplinary scholar, and a fascinated (but decidedly amateur and poorly informed) "China watcher."  What I am doing here is recording my impressions and ruminating on the news reports. I don't know what's going on, and I don't know what direction it will take. I still STAND WITH HONG KONG. As someone who has no power and who can be nothing other than an observer, however, I can't help but ruminate and worry.

One thing has been made clear. Hong Kong's protest movement is a truly popular movement — it has consistent and proven support among the people of the city. I'm not sure what this support means, or whether it approaches anything like a foundation or beginning of something that might develop into a political mandate. But the most remarkable of the recent events in Hong Kong was the stunning political triumph of pro-democracy candidates in the District Council elections of November 24.

The District Councils are made up of local officials with little real political power. It is precisely for this reason that they are the only officials chosen entirely by popular vote. Understandably, these elections have never generated much interest, with candidates often running unopposed for positions that allow them to participate in decisions like where to put a bus stop in a neighborhood.

But these 452 seemingly insignificant offices took on a powerful symbolism in November of 2019. Pro-democracy forces had been planning for two years to change the complexion of the District Councils, and candidates were lined up to run against the normally uncontested establishment. The elections came after five months of the protest movement. The people of Hong Kong were given this opportunity to make their voices heard at this point. They did more than speak. They roared.

It was the largest election in Hong Kong history, with an unprecedented voter turnout of nearly three million people. There were long lines all day at the polling places all over the territory. The pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, and 17 out of 18 overall districts. It was a landslide, beyond anyone's dreams. The message of these results is clear:

Source: Wikipedia
Beijing and their minions appear to have been caught entirely off guard. It would have been easy enough to call off these elections, citing the dangers posed by all the "rioters" (the elections, in fact, were entirely peaceful). But they never expected to suffer such a humiliating defeat. Maybe the Chinese Communist Party has actually started to believe its own propaganda. Maybe they expected a hitherto "silent majority" to come out and rally behind the government and the police.

They got a big surprise. It's difficult to predict what they will make of it.

Meanwhile, the protest goes on. We are watching history unfold.