HONG KONG — How and why have Hong Kongers managed to keep going for months, and in such large numbers, waging wave after wave of protest to oppose encroachment from China, despite the vast differences among them?
One major point of contention concerns whether to resort to nonpeaceful action and how close to skirt with violence. Take the occupation of the Hong Kong airport early last week. The sit-in, supposedly a peaceful initiative, devolved into clashes with the police and was marred after some protesters roughed up two mainlanders they suspected of being infiltrators sent by China. (One of the two turned out to be a reporter with the much-disdained Global Times, the hard-line media face of the authorities in Beijing.) Amid fears that the movement’s unity might unravel, some protesters then apologized, saying they had committed inappropriate acts in the heat of passion.
But the turnout at a student-led rally on Friday and then at another more traditional and peaceful huge march on Sunday proved those concerns wrong.
The rally, at which I spoke, was organized by the student unions of a dozen postsecondary schools, in conjunction with an influential internet protest group whose name in Cantonese slang translates ominously as “I Want to Perish Together” (meaning together with my powerful oppressor). The name reflects the prevailing sentiment, especially among the younger generations, that Hong Kong has just about exhausted all peaceful means to defend itself against China’s systematic efforts to chip away at the city’s semi-autonomy. The rally’s organizers called on the British government to declare that China, in so interfering, is violating a 1984 treaty with Britain that anticipated Hong Kong’s special status after Britain handed it over to China in 1997. They also urged the United States Congress to pass a law that would punish Hong Kong officials who blatantly violate the democratic and human rights of the city’s citizens, by freezing their assets in the United States and denying them visa privileges.
The Sunday march, for its part, focused on recent police brutality, such as the point-blank use of rubber bullets against retreating protesters. (A paramedic volunteer at the front line of a recent protest was hit in the eye by, it is widely believed, a projectile shot by the police.) Again and again, participants in Sunday’s march would cry out, “Wicked police!” and the crowd would respond, “Pay back the eye!” None too Christian, perhaps, but entirely understandable.
Ahead of these two events, worries had grown that a longstanding cleavage within the pro-democracy movement would reopen and might blunt or even derail it. After the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the so-called courageous-militant camp, a younger and more radical group with strong separatist sentiments but few adherents, split from an older and more traditional group, the so-called peaceful-rational camp, formerly known as the pan-democrats. For several years, the split was so bitter that some members of the peaceful-rational camp suspected leaders of the courageous-militant camp of being agents provocateurs paid by Beijing to sow discord.
It was easy to demonize the radicals when their numbers were small, as in 2014, but their ranks have grown enormously since. Suspicions about the courageous-militant camp began to subside when post-2014 repression disproportionally fell on it.
Now the two camps have reconciled.
When front-line protesters stormed the Legislative Council on July 1, there were hundreds, even thousands, of young supporters right behind them, acting as a buffer against any police intervention — and there have been in many not-so-peaceful street actions since.
Over the course of the summer, the older camp has realized that these more militant youngsters are their sons and daughters. A group of elderly Hong Kongers even organized a rally of the “silver-haired tribe,” as they called themselves, in support of the younger vanguard.
Sharing the goal of wanting a free and democratic Hong Kong has created a unity across methods, outlooks and generations, and this is a major reason the protests are enduring and will continue to.
There are other reasons as well. The courageous-militant camp has burned the boat with its daring street actions since July: If the movement cannot succeed in forcing the government to fully withdraw the unpopular extradition bill — which it has only suspended — and the bill eventually passes, frontliners could be among the first to face extradition to the mainland. And so they must fight on.
Many members of the movement also hope that at some point their perseverance and resistance will persuade the international community to come to its aid. With the embattled Hong Kong police apparently struggling to gain the upper hand against the more radical protesters, the Chinese authorities in Beijing have indirectly threatened to let loose the People’s Liberation Army on Hong Kong. That prompted President Trump — who until then had seemed unmoved by the protests — to warn last week that any violent intervention by China would complicate efforts to strike a trade deal. Leaders and officials in Britain, Canada and Europe and at the United Nations have issued similar statements.
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has also promised to give Hong Kong protesters humanitarian assistance, including by granting them refuge, if necessary. (Upward of 30 protesters reportedly had sought and been granted entry into Taiwan by mid-July.) That pledge, too, may encourage more Hong Kongers to fight harder and longer.
As they do, the Hong Kong government will struggle to stop the movement by decapitation, a strategy it employed in recent years — for example, by sending them to prison or forcing them into self-imposed exile, the leaders of organizations or parties calling for full-fledged independence for Hong Kong. On Tuesday, Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, suggested that she wanted to open a dialogue with the protesters as soon as things calm down. But with whom exactly would she communicate since the movement has no recognized representatives?
That an apparent weakness such as a lack of leaders could be an asset must be a thrill for protesters. So, too, must be holding one’s own with minimal, often homemade, equipment against police officers armed with sophisticated anti-riot gear and now three new huge water-cannon vehicles.
Back in 1938, Mao called for a “people’s war” against the imperialists — for the broad and, if needed, protracted mobilization of the people in the countryside, with whatever makeshift means, to support his ragtag collection of Communist soldiers. Today the protesters in Hong Kong are using the same idea and trying to garner strength in preparation for Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist regime in China.
So in the weeks ahead, expect the peaceful-rational wing of the protest movement to keep up the pressure on the Hong Kong authorities with low-attrition activities — such as industry-specific rallies or strikes and international lobbying — while the courageous-militant wing takes a break to strategize and organize.
The people’s war is coming again, with a surreal, postmodern twist: this time, in one of the world’s leading financial centers and against a Communist juggernaut.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.
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