Hong Kong: A Path to De-escalation?

6 January 2020

Hong Kong’s protest movement has now been developing for more than half a year. In its early stages, the movement brought success for the protesters, in the form of massive mobilizations (June 9 and 16), the suspension (June 15) and later withdrawal (September 4) of the Extradition Bill that had originally sparked the controversy. At the same time, the summer months also saw unprecedented police violence against protesters, as well as triad violence unchecked by the police, in a spiral of escalating confrontation. Of the five demands originally formulated on July 1, one has been met, but the focus has shifted to three demands that target the police response, in particular the need for an independent Commission of Inquiry (as well as retraction of the “riot” label and amnesty for arrested protesters) and the fifth demand, universal suffrage.


The central government initially seemed eager to keep out of the fray, preferring to blame Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam—although Reuters has reported that central authorities also played a role in originally pushing for the extradition bill, and that they were unwilling to allow Lam to withdraw it. In any case, after protesters targeted state symbols in July, Beijing took on an increasingly visible role, and laid out a comprehensive strategy in a series of authoritative documents and speeches. Throughout these pronouncements, Beijing prioritized uniting the “pro-establishment” camp, putting massive economic and political pressure on companies to discipline their employees, on schools to discipline their students, and on Hong Kong administrations (hospitals, universities, and the civil service) to discipline their staff. Employees of firms like Cathay Pacific or BNP Paribas have been fired on the simple suspicion of expressing sympathy with protesters on social media; banks have frozen accounts supporting protesters; and teachers and civil servants can now be suspended on the mere suspicion of protest-related crimes.


The central prong of Beijing’s strategy has been to rely on the Hong Kong Police Force and the local judiciary to deal a fatal blow to the protesters. Not only were police guidelines on the use of force officially revised to allow a higher degree of violence, but even these looser guidelines were systematically breached, with at least tacit approval from police commanders, according to comprehensive investigations by Amnesty International and the Washington Post, which for the first time leaked relevant confidential sections of the police handbook. Former officers have offered testimony on how the police willingly turned its back on its previously high standards. In a situation in which Beijing has publicly designated the protests as a danger to national security, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the Central Government Liaison Office has inserted itself into the police chain of command in order to define the aims and strategies of police interventions.


Beginning in August, the government engaged in an apparently calculated tactic of escalation to provoke confrontation with protesters, arrest as many of them as possible, and intimidate others through the use of disproportionate violence (for example, a revised standard in the police manual lowered the threshold for using live bullets just ahead of planned protests on October 1). This was achieved by turning down all applications for marches between August and November as well as most applications for static gatherings, making them effectively illegal by virtue of the colonial-era Public Order Ordinance. In the few cases in which gatherings were authorized, it was not rare for the police to suddenly ban them before the authorized ending time, arresting anyone who did not immediately leave the scene. On October 4, the government further criminalized the use of face masks in protest gatherings, invoking a 1922 Emergency Ordinance to bypass the Legislative Council (LegCo). In the face of massive protests, the government order was found to be unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals on November 18 and suspended, only to be vocally defended by members of the Political-Legal Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, which holds the ultimate power to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The government’s appeal is still pending, but so far the NPC has refrained from issuing another unsolicited “interpretation” of the Basic Law. Meanwhile, over 6000 people have been arrested since June, more than the entire population of Hong Kong’s prisons. The fact that only around 1000 have so far been prosecuted suggests that many of the arrests are intended as intimidations and carried out despite the absence of solid evidence. These tactics culminated in a violent siege of several university campuses, in particular PolyU, in mid-November, when the police was rumored to be seeking mass arrests of thousands of “frontline” protesters.


The protesters have also resorted to increasingly violent methods. Though acts of violence are unacceptable, in particular those resulting in grave injuries or death, isolated instances are probably inevitable in a movement of this scope. But the protesters also have increasingly engaged in targeted retaliation (siliu 私了) against businesses perceived as favoring Beijing. These tactics have ranged from boycotts of so-called “blue ribbon” businesses, to “Shop With You” protests (in which protesters enter shopping malls singing the protest anthem or carrying banners and disrupt shopping), to more confrontational measures known as “redecorating” (covering a shop in pro-democracy posters or post-its) or “refurbishing” (vandalizing shops or MTR stations). Targets have been chosen through participative deliberation on social media, resulting at times in errors as to targets’ loyalties, like in the case of the Shanghai Commercial bank, which is in fact Taiwanese. Protesters have also encouraged shopping at businesses supporting their cause, in the aim fostering what they have called a “Yellow Economy.”


Against this background, it is remarkable that Hong Kong residents have, by and large, continued to support the protest movement. In the latest survey, interviewees express support for the protesters’ demands: 71.7% support an independent inquiry; 69.5% support restarting political reforms; 63.7% support removing the “riot” label; 60.9% support an amnesty for arrested protesters; and 63.4% support “reorganizing the police” (see also a compilation of public opinion surveys over the last 6 months by PORI). Another poll shows that the public blames the government for escalating violence, expresses tolerance for “forceful” protest methods, and has overwhelmingly lost confidence in the police (just over 50% rate their trust in the police at 0 on a scale of 0 to 10). In-depth reports—like this one in the New Yorker—confirm the existence of widespread support networks that provide food, shelter and medical care for protesters in need who are afraid to return home or attend government hospitals.




In this context, the November 24 District Council elections, which two thirds of survey respondents described as a referendum on the protests, were a crucial test for the movement. The results were therefore particularly significant: the pro-democracy camp won an overwhelming victory, with participation reaching an unprecedented 71% (in contrast, the 2015 District Council elections saw a turnout of 47%, while the 2016 LegCo elections set a record at 58%). Pro-democracy forces won 388 seats (+263) against 59 for the pro-Beijing forces (-240), taking control of 17 District Councils out of 18 (pro-Beijing forces only held on to the “Outlying Islands” Council, thanks to 10 specially appointed councilors). Many young candidates with no prior political experience (e.g. Chan Tsz-wai) as well as grassroots community organizers (e.g. Susi Law) were elected. However, observers also pointed out that the overwhelming result was the expression of the first-past the post system: pro-democracy forces only took 57% of the popular vote.


The first conclusion that can be drawn is that democratic expression still has the ability to reduce confrontations. Although the police siege of PolyU had ended only a few days earlier, the lead-up to the election was calm, as both sides pledged to ensure a peaceful and fair voting process. Although some over-confidence could be observed in the pro-Beijing camp—which may have believed that the images of violent protesters holed up in PolyU would turn public opinion against the pro-democracy candidates—both sides played the game. Perhaps chastened by the enduring protests, the government’s “returning officers” approved the applications of all pro-democracy candidates except one, including several who had been barred from running in previous elections. Joshua Wong, the lone exception, was disqualified only after the original returning officer had take indefinite sick leave and been replaced at short notice by a well-known pro-government loyalist. The repeated disqualifications of elected lawmakers (always from the pro-democracy camp) since 2015 can be seen as one of the underlying causes of the 2019 movement, and it is worth noting the change of trend in this election. This truce endured after the election when the police issued the first authorization for a march since August. On the other side, after the “peaceful” protesters expressed solidarity with the “forceful” ones in the siege of PolyU, the latter respected the peaceful ritual of voting and refrained from “refurbishing” or providing other pretexts to halt the vote.


The sociology of the vote also confirmed the reconfiguration of Hong Kong’s political landscape. As noted by Ivan Choy, while pro-establishment votes were traditionally distributed along a U-shaped curve, with high support among low-income and high-income voters, the new curve is J-shaped, with low-income voters having abandoned the government. This confirms previous findings that suggest protesters identify as belonging to not only middle-class but also low-income groups.


The result was undoubtedly a disappointing setback for Beijing, some commentators have even suggested that it may have taken the central government by surprise. Xinhua and People’s Daily—having first widely reported on efforts by the Hong Kong Police to guarantee safe elections under the “shadow of black terror”—carried no mention of the final result. Commentators whose livelihoods derive from stoking fears in Beijing were quick to pour oil on the fire: the academic Tian Feilong, for example, wrote that the election tsunami “has effectively ushered in a political process through which [the opposition] would be able to seize power through elections and that would soon trigger a security crisis for the one country, two systems [arrangement].” Indeed, officials like former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, or the current director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Zhang Xiaoming, immediately echoed the need to step up patriotic education and central control over local governance, notably through a national security law.


These fears are undoubtedly exaggerated. It is true that their overwhelming win will give the pro-democracy camp an additional hundred seats on the Election Committee that chooses the next Chief Executive in 2022, as well as one additional seat in LegCo (representing the district councils). As they currently hold over 300 seats on the Election Committee, they may reach a maximum of around 450 (out of a total of 1200). While they will not have the power to select the next Chief Executive, it is true that Beijing will need to be more careful in its selection and vetting of candidates to avoid unwanted outcomes. Legislative elections, to be held in September 2020, use a proportional representation system by district to elect 35 seats out of 70, with an additional 30 elected indirectly by “functional constituencies” representing various professions (proportional representation was introduced by Beijing in 1997 in order to roll back reforms initiated by governor Chris Patten and ensure that the opposition can never achieve a majority in LegCo). With the current popular vote ratio of 57/43, the pro-democracy camp cannot expect to pick up a significant number of additional seats through proportional representation, though they may marginally increase their number of functional constituency seats (e.g. in the medical, health services, and architectural sectors). The symbolic effects of the election victory are in this sense more significant than the actual political consequences.


What the district councils do offer is an opportunity to advance a de-escalation of the crisis. The government continues to ignore the remaining four demands, despite widespread calls for a Commission of Inquiry throughout the political spectrum. Five foreign experts, appointed to assist the internal police watchdog (the IPCC) currently tasked with a very limited investigation, collectively resigned on December 11, criticizing the council’s lack of independence and investigative powers. Various citizen groups have compiled video footage and media reports, as well as legal analysis of alleged police misconduct. The Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong has submitted a white paper on granting amnesties to protesters, based on local legal precedent. Since the Special Administrative Region government is not prepared to take action, there have been suggestions that the district councils could hold public hearings and submit reports to the government about at least some of the allegations and material compiled. They can also contribute to allocating the resources they are provided by the government for civil and resident groups in a more fair and transparent manner, fostering local activism. This is all the more significant as the protests have given rise to new forms of community organizations, including at least 24 new labor unions formed in 2019. While the Christmas holidays have seen a renewed spike in police violence and intimidation of protesters, the application for a pro-democracy march traditionally held on January 1 was approved, although the march was subsequently once again halted halfway by the police and hundreds of thousands of participants ordered to disperse within 30 minutes and teargassed. Nonetheless, to some extent, there is still an expectation that the narrow path opened up by universal suffrage can offer a way toward further de-escalation, even though a full return to civil peace may not yet be within reach.


Photo Credit: Studio Incendo, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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