Whose revolution is it?
There's something going on in Hong Kong (HK) ! A social movement has been mobilised, but who is responsible for it? There have been weeks of marches and meetings, protests, rallies and demonstrations that began in response to an unpopular Extradition Bill in March 2019. In a perverse way the Chief Executive (CE) of HK Carrie Lam is sometimes said to have started this unrest off with the legislation she initiated. She has admitted creating havoc in HK, so in one sense the revolution is her making. However, one of the protesters' popular slogans "Liberate Hong Kong: Revolution of our times" was actually coined in 2016 by jailed political activist Edward Leung.
Another of the movement's early leaders, law lecturer Benny Tai, has been a staunch advocate for non-violent protest action. Nevertheless, it has to be recognised that it is because large peaceful protests have been ignored by the CE, that citizens have become more frustrated, more angry and more willing to use violence to get their message across. At the same time Police and the government have become more willing to use force to suppress protest action. Like has happened elsewhere, this in turn has simply led to further escalation in HK.
The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF : 民間人權陣線) is the organising body responsible for protest marches that have had the largest turnouts in HK's history. The CHRF is an organisation that focuses on the political and livelihood issues of HK. It is affiliated with almost all pan-democratic legislators and their political parties in the SAR. The most well-known event held by the CHRF annually is the HK 1st July marches that generally act as a focus for whatever the burning issues of the day happen to be. In 2019 the annual 1st July protest recorded a large turnout, although the Police and organisers historically never agree on the number who take part.
As the July 1st 2019 protest march ended peacefully, a breakaway group gathered outside the Legislative Council (LegCo) Chamber, and after a clash with police they succeeded in breaking into the government facility, defacing the HK monogram and portraits of past leaders, and damaging electronic equipment normally used when the legislature is conducting its business. The shock and outrage expressed at that time pales into insignificance in comparison with the levels of civil disobedience, "riotous acts", police brutality, and government intransigence witnessed since then. Not the least of these is the latest constitutional crisis over the jurisdiction of the High Court in HK to rule on whether the Chief Executive's controversial face mask ban conflicts with the Basic Law.
In October CHRF convenor, Jimmy Sham, sustained head injuries and was hospitalised after being attacked by a group of masked men. Clearly being seen as a protest organiser makes one a target of opposition forces. Legislators in the pro-democracy camp have also been targeted several times. In other attacks, pro-democracy candidates in the HK district council elections have been targeted. Clearly being in the political limelight carries some risk in the present antagonistic climate, with emotions fuelled by conflicts with authorities in Beijing as well as groups and individuals inside HK, and coming from across the SAR border.
For months the HK Police have been trying in vain to identify the leaders of the HK social movement. They don't understand the idea of collective responsibility or collective consciousness, and don't seem to accept the idea that demonstrations like flash mobs can occur spontaneously. Since leaders like Benny Tai (imprisoned for his part in the 2014 political unrest in HK), and the younger radical political Party leader Joshua Wong (of Demosistō) have both served prison time for their work, who would want to step into a public leadership role in 2019? Media reports as far back as June indicated that the leaderless movement mobilised via online forums, and internet chat without a centralised hierarchical power structure. Other analyses by international media suggest this is trend of political awakening that uses social media is not unique to HK.
More than once educators in HK and the school curriculum have been blamed for fanning the fuel of unrest in the SAR. It is wrong, however, to assume that all teachers support the protesters' aims or its more violent aspects. Amidst ongoing protests and calls for unity among protesters who have their own philosophies and rules, one western university professor was recorded in late September this year, for example, berating students for their protest tactics.
In this professor's rant he said that their protests had become riots, and that destructive vandalism lacked intelligence. He told them they were playing 'into China's hands', and that their protest actions were not sustainable in the long term. He was especially upset that they had brought their civil disobedience message onto the university campus. Whether the views expressed by this particular professor are valid or not, and whether it was appropriate to speak to student protesters in this way at that time remain open to question. He doesn't sound like a Hong Kong citizen so perhaps he does not really have the mandate to speak so vociferously against the way the protests have gone? If he had spoken more softly in Cantonese to them maybe his criticism and suggestions would have been conveyed more effectively? Noting the clash of police with protesters at City University of Hong Kong and the siege of Polytechnic University (PolyU) it is certain that his advice has gone unheeded.
The professors' concern about student protesters bringing their activities onto the university campuses may seem valid, but we should remember that these tertiary institutes have attached accommodation where some of the frontline protesters live. Wethepeopleofhk have raised the issue previously about the spurious separation of public and private property in HK, and in this respect there has been a debate about whether Police had the legal right to enter the university campuses. It should also be noted that most HK universities are set up with the CE heading their governance structure as Chancellor. Regardless, HK Police have entered private housing estates in HK on the flimsiest of excuses, and that is a sign of the times. There is therefore no safe refuge in HK for anyone deemed to be an enemy of the government.
Still, there is evidence that the Communist Party machine is also trying to identify leaders and organisers of the HK social movement. They are desperately trying to find out where this radical, revolutionary influence is coming from, and to thwart its effects. For some time there has been suspicion that PLA operatives or mainland police have infiltrated the HK Police with the intention of capturing frontline protesters for interrogation (See our blog about mainland infiltration of the HK Police Force). This suspicion has been reinforced in recent claims made by a HK British Consulate staff member who was reportedly held captive for several weeks across the border in Shenzhen and tortured before his final release. In the testimony given to reporters the staffer, Simon Cheng, indicated that while in detention he heard the voices of other people being interrogated, people from HK who had been involved in the protests. He said that his interrogators firmly believed the UK to be one of the foreign powers instigating the Hong Kong protests, that the protesters themselves are well-organised and not truly leaderless, and that he was suspected of being a mastermind and British proxy to incite and organise the protests in Hong Kong.
In social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, many of the pro-Beijing comments made online suggest that the HK protesters are salaried by the American CIA and the NED (National Endowment Fund for Democracy), to attack China and the Communist Party. Similar claims were made during 2014 democracy protest action in HK known as the "Occupy Movement" when protesters blockaded city streets for weeks on end. While the HK Police in August denied any foreign involvement in protests, Beijing pedalled its xenophobic line that foreign forces were fomenting violence in the SAR, going as far as to blame foreign media for contributing to the ongoing unrest. Ironically China's own propaganda media machine exacerbates tensions within HK while strengthening the grip of communist rule on the mainland.
As we look at the large number of people arrested and those charged by police, we must consider that these people are the real revolutionaries. It includes the lunchtime protesters who come out daily in Central, the parents who rushed to PolyU as it was under siege, and the mothers who rallied in support of their children. It includes lawyers and business people, and often it's those who wear black and face masks. They are high school students who have formed human chains, and those who have lost their jobs for expressing dissenting views. They are all of us who support the cause for greater democracy in Hong Kong, who want more open and transparent governance. In HK today the revolutionaries are ordinary people who want to hold our CE, Legislative Council and the Police accountable.