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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 16 December, 2019
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Opinion: 'Hong Kong people are more tolerant of radical protest because of guilt - not anger'

Dr Chung Kam Kwok, a Research Fellow at Trinity College, gives some background to the violent protests seen in 2019 and asks what’s next for the territory.

Dr Chung Kam Kwok

UNTIL JUNE OF this year, Hong Kong was known internationally as a major financial hub. Although the city’s pro-democratic protests are not unfamiliar to the world, no one, not even the citizens of the city, could have imagined that wildcat actions and teargas would become everyday occurrences. 

While the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was hoping that the public would turn their back on the anti-extradition bill protests as more cases of violence were reported, evidence suggests otherwise.

Results of the district council elections in November and various opinion polls indicate that public support for the protests is still running strong. 

This strikes a stark contrast to the city’s culture. Since 1967, social movements in Hong Kong have been largely peaceful, and not long ago, violence was beneath contempt. So, what turned this peace-loving population into supporters of radical approaches? 

The answer can be found in a slogan left on a column of the city’s parliament by the protestors who stormed into the building on 1 July. The slogan read: “It was you who told me peaceful marches did not work”. 

Does this slogan hold water? To many, it does.

This has been building

Hong Kong’s democratic development is seen by many as a broken promise. Since the early 2000′s, its people have been urging the government to fulfill what was promised in the Basic Law (the constitution) that Hong Kong people could choose their political leaders by universal suffrage.

Despite years of peaceful protests, negotiations, and sometimes hunger strikes, the demand was met with a resounding “No”.  

For instance, in April 2004, the Chinese government ruled out the possibility of universal suffrage in 2007.

Although the public in turn pinned their hopes on 2012, in 2007, the Chinese government decided that 2017 would be the earliest possible date for the city’s Chief Executive to be selected by means of one person, one vote. 

The city’s hope for genuine democracy was finally dashed by the decision made by the Chinese government in 2014, which stated that the prerequisite for universal suffrage was to allow a largely pro-Beijing nominating committee to pre-screen the candidates beforehand. 

The decision not only shattered Hong Kong people’s desire for a more democratic government, but it also made a fool of the older generation in the eyes of the younger generation.

The question “how could you believe that Hong Kong would be granted democracy?” is not easy to answer for anyone in Hong Kong over the age of 40.  

A new approach

The younger generation also challenged the effectiveness of peaceful protests, mocking non-violent rallies in the past as “going through the motions”.

This sparked heated debates between the supporters of peaceful measures and proponents of a more radical approach.

The failure of the 2014 “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, which is better known as the Umbrella Movement, seemed to attest to the impotence of non-violent measures. 

The goal of the movement was to fight for democracy by occupying Hong Kong’s most important business district. The movement’s leader Benny Tai once described “Occupy Central” was the “deadliest weapon”.

However, despite a civil disobedience campaign where protesters occupied three thoroughfares over 79 days, the central government did not change its mind.

Since then, the hands of China have been increasingly visible. In 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of the People’s Republic of China (China’s legislative body) made and interpretation of the Basic Law which resulted in the disqualification of two pro-independence and four pro-democracy legislators-elect.

One country, two systems

This is widely seen as China’s attempt to stop lawmakers critical of China from taking office. The move of the NPCSC is perceived by many as violating the principle of ‘one country, two systems’.

It is considered detrimental to Hong Kong’s independent judiciary, because the interpretation came before the court gave its ruling in a judicial review about the incident.  

At this stage, what people are concerned about is not their right to select their own leaders, but the very survival of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the city’s rule of law.

As Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy was being eroded, one generation may have asked the other: “why did you even trust ‘one country, two systems’?” 

The generational difference seems to have narrowed recently, however. Not a few who lived through the transition period between 1984 and 1997 nowadays see the promise of ‘one country, two systems’ as a blatant lie, and some of them feel guilty for not doing enough in the past. 

Nonetheless, it is not anger and frustration that have made Hong Kong people become more tolerant of radical protesters, but sympathy with the present predicament of those arrested, and the feelings of guilt for being misled by the broken promise of ‘one country, two systems’. 

The feelings of guilt can be found on various social media platforms where many middle-aged Hong Kongers often refer to themselves as the “useless middle” (short for useless middle-aged man/woman) following the clashes which broke out between radical protesters and the police. 

What now for Hong Kong?

Having said that, it is wrong to conclude that protesters no longer believe in peaceful methods. Rather, the current movement is now a unity of peaceful and radical protesters.

Radical protesters appeal to the public to go on general strikes by saying, “If I can take a bullet for you, would you go on a strike for me?”

Meanwhile, peaceful protesters are also sympathetic to those who have been arrested and hurt during the movement.  

It must be emphasised that at the outset of the movement, people took to the street not because they believed that they could stop the SAR government from passing the extradition bill, but a sense of hopelessness. 

The worries go beyond the extradition bill, to the perception of a crumbling ‘one country, two systems’ approach, and a disintegrating rule of law.

This is why the movement showed no sign of stopping even when the proposed extradition bill was formally withdrawn. 

The SAR government seems to have generated more problems (such as the alleged police brutality) while attempting to restore social order.

Many ordinary Hong Kong citizens choose to cover their faces in public in defiance of the anti-mask law, and this is one of the signs that the government has lost credibility. 

What is interesting now is that despite the government’s heavy-handed measures and Beijing’s strong attitude toward the protesters, Hong Kong people are banding together. 

The question now is: when at least half of Hong Kong’s population does not trust the government anymore, even if all the protesters were put in prison tomorrow, how could Hong Kong ever become governable again?

Dr Chung Kam Kwok is a Research Fellow based in the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, researching in the area of language and identity. On December 3rd, he will speak at the Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines discussion ‘What’s going on in Hong Kong?’ in Trinity College Dublin. 

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Dr Chung Kam Kwok

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