Background To The Crisis
After more than 20 years of Hong Kong being ruled by China, concerns are rising about the latter not keeping their promise for independence and self-rule towards the former. Hong Kong, previously ruled by Britain, has been a part of China under the One Country, Two Systems policy. This allows a large degree of autonomy benefiting both sides. Nevertheless, as China tightens its grip over Hong Kong’s politics, governance and daily life, the more divided the society becomes. The democratisation movement has been present from the very start and has been gaining popularity despite its unsuccessful efforts to gain independence. At the same time, mass migration from Mainland China, as well as relentless propaganda campaigns, and Beijing’s controlled governance has led to the polarisation of attitudes regarding democratisation and independence.
The issue at hand currently is the latest wave of protests that followed a controversial extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government. The move, in June 2019, sparked massive protests which at times escalated to violent conflicts that continue now. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has defended the police’s actions, which include shooting blanks in peaceful crowds and violent beatings of protesters. Despite her denying the withdrawal of the bill, it was later scrapped in an attempt to quell the protests, albeit unsuccessfully. The demands have been amended to include, except the scrapping of the extradition bill, an inquiry on police brutality, release of arrested protesters, withdrawal of the term “riot” when used to describe them and Carrie Lam’s resignation with universal suffrage.
The extradition bill, which if it had been passed, would have allowed for individuals that are not accused of a crime in Hong Kong, to be transported to China for prosecution. The protests built upon the Umbrella Movement that took place a few years prior, both for their demands and their supporters. Despite the protests escalating extremely fast, with countless standoffs with the police and storming the Legislative Council, Carrie Lam refused to give in. Countless efforts were made for the protests to be quashed and their supporters silenced. They all failed. The extreme violence perpetrated by police, served to ignite more fires and forced the protesters to respond in kind. Their demands solidified and the methods to achieve them, at times, became more unorthodox. This can be seen in the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic and the Legislative Council.
How The Events Unfolded
It is clear from the events, that the role of the police and the goals of the government were not to de-escalate the situation and maintain order, or to cause the least disruption while they negotiate a solution. Instead, through violence and aggression, for the most part invited by the government, they aimed both to paint the movement as violent riots that threatened the way of life of the average Hong Konger.
Meanwhile, by arresting, beating, shooting and countless other atrocities committed towards protesters, they hoped to set an example for others, as well as present an image of strength and power not to be reckoned with. What was achieved instead was increases in the numbers and frequency of protesters. Society became more and more polarised. Leaders lost any semblance of transparency and ability to govern on behalf of the people. Rather, in the eyes of the people supporting the protests, a bit under 60% according to Reuters, they were nothing more than puppets of Beijing.
It is a commonly accepted fact that protests, especially to the scale that Hong Kong has experienced over the past several months, are negatively affecting all aspects of life. In the territory, the GDP is expected to fall by 5.8% in 2020, according to CNBC, as a direct result of the protests. It is also common knowledge, although not usually talked about, that political systems that allow a situation like this to unfold unchecked, usually fear the consequences of what will follow if they react.
In this case, a violent suppression could mean actual rioting and international condemnation, while a negotiation would lead the political leaders to come under scrutiny from the Chinese state. The dilemma Carrie Lam and the rest of her cabinet find themselves in, was and remains difficult indeed. The use of white-wearing gangs, targeting peaceful protesters and inciting violent acts could have been a result of this dilemma. Taking the non-confrontational route and hoping to gain an excuse to respond with large scale violence, while also not backing out from the bill or other demands, was the ideal solution from the government’s side.
Simultaneously, however, when the issue is human rights and how to extend them rather than oppress and suppress them, the government’s response was nowhere near satisfactory. It is very easy for someone entirely unaffiliated with either side to make idealistic assertions that are meant to be morally superior to what is actually happening. The reality of the situation of course, is much more complex and the dynamics at play can be difficult to understand even for the most well versed experts. Without insider knowledge and first hand experience, it is impossible to propose a solution to maintain stability and solve the conflict, with respect to human rights and the will of the people.
That being said, reaching a compromise in middle ground is usually an outcome that would please the majority. Even though self-rule has been a long term ambition for a good number of Hong Kongers, it is not likely to happen based on the current circumstances. It must be said though, that the courage the protesters have shown is admirable. It certainly is possible to achieve their demands, but considering China’s track record on human rights issues, any kind of revolution is much more likely to end in bloodshed.
Addressing The Issue
In any case, the government should at the very least accept the protester’s demand of an inquiry and investigation on police brutality, not only as a gesture of good will, but because it is a very serious issue in general and must be addressed. Doing so, would also show the protesters that the government is actually considering their side and taking action against the brutality, which by extension would also acknowledge the fact that the protests themselves were peaceful. In this approach, the differences between the two sides could begin to be bridged, acts of violence and destruction would lessen and the society at large could finally begin to heal. The underlying issue of course, would remain unaddressed , but it would be an excellent starting point to reaching a definitive end in the current crisis.
In conclusion, the Hong Kong protests have uncovered several layers of corruption and abuse of power, both by local and central governments. The will of the vocal majority is apparent as well as the obstacles they face in achieving it. Nevertheless, the protests will be continuing during the foreseeable future, unless their demands are somehow addressed. The best course of action on either side would be to minimise the violence, at the very least. Human rights ought to be protected, regardless of how much they are being breached by the opposing side.