Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Justice and Anger in Hong Kong's 'Anonymous War'

Justice and Anger in Hong Kong's Anonymous War: reflections of a not-very-knowledgeable but sympathetic old man from far away...


The school year in Hong Kong has begun... with a massive student strike. As the ongoing civil protest movement enters its fourth month, it begins to look more and more like an unprecedented series of events that will only be understood in retrospect.

It may indeed be many, many years before we begin to see the significance of this widespread, sustained popular uprising. Immense energies have been expended by people from every sector of society, and new modes of collaboration have been invented that have generated large coordinated purposeful actions, without the emergence (as yet) of any leadership. Media and communications technology are playing a big role in this apparently "faceless" movement, as protesters plan activities on the internet, gather at agreed-upon locations, and engage in creative and provocative demonstrations.

This is supposed to be a "nonviolent movement." It certainly appeared that way in June, when millions took to the streets in opposition to a bill proposed in the Legislative Council that would have authorized extradition to mainland China of alleged criminals for prosecution.

As the Summer passes, however, a fierce and complicated struggle is being played out in this unique city (and on video screens the world over). For those of us who watch from afar, it has been inspiring, but also frightening and perplexing. Since 2014, we have been seeing the historic rise of a generation of courageous young people willing to risk everything by taking a stand for the noble cause of human dignity and freedom, and against the machinations of the world's largest, most controlling and soul-suffocating dictatorship.

We are, of course, rooting for these freedom fighters. Oh my, yes! But we are also worried about them. We are seeing more and more videos of barracaded protesters - clad in black, wearing gas masks, and some of them hurling projectiles - facing off against an ominous deployment of police in full riot gear (looking like a dystopian Darth Vader army) pumping preposterous quantities of tear gas, pepper spray, and other "non-lethal" (but far from harmless) materials into the crowd. In some videos, groups from the protester side break through their barriers and charge at the police lines with long metal poles, and we see scenes of hand-to-hand combat with police batons.

As I noted in a previous post, "the revolution is being televised." Videos of huge peaceful protests and hand-to-hand "human chains" illuminating the night with cellphone lights are awesome. But the "battle scenes" are more alarming, and they give the impression that this is not going to end well.

Make no mistake: the police and Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government are responsible for initiating and escalating this situation of conflict, beginning with the first cannister of tear gas they fired at defenseless protesters peacefully assembled five years ago at the start of what became known as the "Umbrella Movement." Since then, there have been continual tensions between government officials and large groups of dissenters. The long, snake-like arm of Beijing barely even tries to hide its egregious manipulation of everything it can reach.

Reporters (other than those associated with the Chinese propaganda machine) have provided for the world a context that explains the widescale public outrage against the HK law enforcement sector's brutal tactics. International human rights organizations have condemned ongoing acts of police repression. Also clear is the tightening grip of Beijing's claw trying to suffocate what remains of the civil institutions of a free society in Hong Kong. Now, faceless groups of (mostly) young people are desperately trying to fight back. But it's not an "even fight."

It's remarkable that Hong Kong's democracy movement has remained mostly nonviolent for so long. But during this long hot Summer, protesters (some of them, at least) have grown increasingly angry and aggressive. This is understandable but it's a reason for concern.

What is happening to the focus on the core principles of nonviolence - its reliance on self-discipline, sacrifice, bringing evils to light, and the conversion of enemies into friends? This most radical level of nonviolence, of course, is very difficult to sustain in a prolonged conflict. It is especially frustrating when the enemy (the Chinese Communist Party) is unnaturally stubborn, or worse, offers false friendship. Many people are likely to give up altogether in the long run, and it would be harsh to blame them. They just want to live their lives in whatever space of freedom they can carve out for themselves. But widespread disillusionment will defeat the cause. Beijing and its local puppets are counting on it.

It would appear that some desperate Hong Kong people, driven by a deeply ambivalent anger that mingles burning frustration with the fires of their passion for freedom and justice, are seeking to fight violence with violence, to return hatred for hatred. This cannot bear good fruit. And it only plays into Beijing's hand.

Others might seek to reframe their struggle in terms of legitimate self-defense against an alien regime. They might try to include the justifiable application of proportionate physical force when necessary (some already appear to be inclined toward this option). In principle, when all other means have proved futile, an argument can be made for armed resistance in accordance with strict criteria of justice, restraint, the requirements of the common good, and other aspects of what is known as the "just war" paradigm. The use of force to defend against and repel an unjust aggressor is not "violence," as long as it is not aimed at the degradation of enemies as human persons (many Western "conventions" of warfare, such as humane treatment of POWs, etc find their roots here). In any case, it's very difficult to carry out consistently in practice.

Here the current present movement in Hong Kong has a basic problem. It lacks the leadership and positive social coherence required (at the very least) to assume "public authority" for directing the use of force. There are unifying themes and aspirations (and in the CCP a deplorable, unscrupulous enemy) but there is no leadership. Indeed, in the late-night conflicts, the masked protesters themselves are unidentifiable even to one another, and the crowd dressed in black may include undercover police, embedded reporters, and possibly agitators with their own agendas.

Some of the recent protest "disruptions" have crossed the line between demonstrative civil disobedience and lawless vandalism. If reports are true that some protesters smashed up city infrastructure such as subway stations, that would be most unfortunate. We have all seen the horrific videos of police storming a subway station and beating everyone in sight; the public has a right to demand that perpetrators of this outrage and all those responsible be brought to justice. But individuals wearing masks have no right to escalate the level of anarchy by further acts of violence. We hope that such actions come from fringe elements, or perhaps even 'fake protesters' planted to deliberately perpetrate violence in order to smear the movement - it's hard to believe that Beijing itself has not infiltrated the protest and put its own paid agents in the streets, as well as among the police.

All the anger and desperation that are being vented now can be appreciated by people in free societies and their governments, even if they lead to mistakes and some unruly behavior in the streets. But Hong Kong's protest movement must resist the temptation to go to war. There is little room for even the semblance of error in this direction. Without a structure of verifiable accountability, physical force too easily degenerates into open violence (this is precisely the point protesters are rightly trying to make regarding the behavior of the police). If this happens, the anonymous resistance will devolve into guerrilla warfare, which is even harder to direct, more likely to turn toward vengeance and destruction, break into factions, perpetuate increasing cycles of violence, and get a lot of people killed.

It should be noted that thus far no one had died as a direct result of actions by either side in the past three months. This is astonishing (especially to those of us living in the USA, who have become sadly accustomed to the bloody casualties of increasingly frequent random acts of violence in streets, schools, and public venues). In Hong Kong's "Summer of unrest," there have been many injuries, but no fatalities ... yet. That does not mean that the violence lacks intensity. It is deplorable that so much of it comes from civil agents whose office it is to protect the people. But their tactics are at the service of authorities who are ultimately answerable to Beijing's politburo. The HK government's violence and manipulation are enacting a political script. Under the pretext of perpetuating a strange conception of the 'rule of law,' it aims not to kill but to repress political dissent and create a climate of fear and conformity while mainland China carries out its agenda to gradually take over the city.

In the streets, nothing the protesters have done thus far comes anywhere near justifying the ferocious behavior of the Hong Kong Police, who seem to think that crowd-control is best achieved by 'preventive first strikes' that are outrageously disproportionate to anything a crowd could conceivably do. They do the opposite of "de-escalating" potentially volatile situations. On the contrary, those who are deployed at demonstrations seem to provoke more danger and conflict. If the people have lost patience, it's because they have been goaded and prodded relentlessly by a police force that answers to no one... or worse, one that does the bidding of Beijing.

The protesters are also not easily distinguished and held accountable, which only strengthens the pretext of those bent on indiscriminately repressing them. Clearly some of protesters are far from being angels. But it's difficult to identify who might be responsible for objectionable actions or tendencies. It's hard to gage the spirit of the protest movement, its strength, or what internal disagreements might lie behind its united front. The people are anonymous. They have been driven to it for their own safety's sake. We don't know them. Often they don't even know one another. Who knows what direction they will take if they survive the current crisis? Now more than ever, the protest movement needs people who think things through.

Agnes Chow Ting
We do know the leaders from the pro-democracy groups, especially those who emerged from the 2014 student led "Umbrella Movement." Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow Ting, and other brave young people have grown up in the last five years (just like our own kids).

They have tried the political process and have been stonewalled. They are participants and supporters of the current movement, but are not its leaders. Some were recently arrested in a gratuitous fashion, as if the government - frustrated by efforts to crush a movement without visible leadership - just couldn't resist the urge to focus the blame on a few faces. We can be sure that the government and its CCP masters will eventually find scapegoats who will have much to suffer, and who will need our prayers, concern, and advocacy. We may be able to help them. We can at least recognize the courage of their stand, their witness to the value of the human person.

Even though it lacks conventional leadership, the Hong Kong protest movement has remained clear and unified in affirming its demands (see below), which seem eminently reasonable: they want the real autonomy secured by the treaty that established Hong Kong's current status in 1997; they want free and fair elections of their own government, an independent investigation into police brutality, the legitimization of their movement, and the complete unambiguous withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative agenda. Beijing, however, has also openly made its view clear: Hong Kong is "a Chinese city" and it had better get used to being run politically like any other Chinese city.

Ay, there's the rub.

Because Hong Kong is not like any other Chinese city ... not yet. It was separate from the China of Mao Zedong's revolution and its ravages, and from the China of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. It has only been under Chinese control (a very peculiar, delicately negotiated control) since 1997. Here is where the origin of the tensions can be found.

Hong Kong today supposedly holds a "special autonomous status," which China agreed to preserve "for fifty years" (i.e. through the year 2047) back in 1997 when the former British colony was handed over to Chinese control. This is what accounts for the "one country, two systems" explanation of Hong Kong's status. Theoretically, it is 'part of China' while retaining its own economic system (and status as a global financial center), its own framework of civil liberties (including freedom of press, assembly, and religion), and its own domestic political and juridical institutions.

The agreements that led up to the handover in 1997 involved a collection of awkward negotiated compromises between Britain and mainland China. The whole process leaned heavily on the "promises" of a Leninist one-party-State whose reputation for lying and cheating is notorious even by modern political standards. Not surprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party-state rigged Hong Kong's supposedly autonomous politics from the start. Beijing effectively controls the selection of Hong Kong's "Chief Executive" and the majority of its Legislative Council (there are processes through which this is done, but Beijing has them firmly under control). Less than half of the LegCo is elected by the people. Pro-democracy candidates dominate here, but at best they can only be a temporary brake to slow down the speed of Beijing's determination to swallow the city into the one system of New China.

Protest Movement demands, circulated on the internet
Can this protest movement do anything better for Hong Kong's future?

The New China has harnessed the engines of material prosperity (without scruples) while preserving one key feature of Marxism: subjection and control of persons, subsuming of the personality to a collectivist identity. This identity, in turn, is (thanks to Lenin) interpreted and imposed by an elite group, the Party dictatorship, which - in vast China - has effectively become a pervasive quasi-imperial bureaucracy.

This so-called "Communist Party" endures on the strength of a fierce nationalism that feeds (like a parasite) off China's ancient traditions as much as its current material powers. It aims to impose its version of Chinese nationalism throughout its domains. It promises material comfort and prosperity within an exaltation of the supremacy of the Nation-State as defined by the Party. Quite simply, China today embodies the ideal of Fascism. This is the monster that Hong Kong's protesters must grapple with. What hope do they have?

No matter what they do, they will probably lose the current battle. Many will go to jail or be otherwise socially marginalized. But if they can resist the temptation to turn to violence, their stand will be remembered and honored. They can use the time to learn from mistakes and to search for the roots of human freedom, for the source of the human person - that which gives the person an inviolable dignity that cannot be subordinated to any ideology.

Herein lies Hong Kong's path to freedom, the hope of Hong Kong people for a free society. It is a long, arduous path, but it remains possible.

It is a path for all of us. Hong Kong people can help to point us in the right direction.