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13 Dec 2019 17:54
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  •   Home > News > Law and Order

    In Hong Kong, violence is the new normal for protesters and police

    As violence brings Hong Kong to a halt again and again, will support for the city's student protesters wane or is there another way to express dissent? Adam Ni explains.


    Hong Kong's descent into senseless violence is painful to watch.

    The dramatic escalation of force since June, between anti-government protesters and police, has seen the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and molotov cocktails becoming unnervingly common.

    This violence is now a normalised part of the life of the city and the threshold for the use of such force has become ever lower.

    This has been especially grievous in the past week.

    Hong Kong's university campuses have become virtual warzones.

    For two days, police have laid siege to student protesters holding out at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).

    Across the city, protesters and police are confronting each other in a never-ending game of cat and mouse.

    Such violence, in a city that once was known for its safety highlights just how brittle that veneer of civilisation can be.

    Is the protest movement united?

    A popular slogan of the movement translates to something like "climbing a mountain together, make your own effort".

    The slogan expresses the idea that the protesters have a common goal, despite the divergence in tactics.

    The initial fuse that set off the protest movement — a controversial extradition bill — is no longer the central focus.

    Instead, Hong Kongers are now decrying police violence and the unresponsiveness of the Hong Kong government to their demands, including for an independent investigation into the police response to the protests and the implementation of full universal suffrage.

    The violence is asymmetric. It pits well-armed riot police against protesters armed with umbrellas and molotov cocktails.

    The systemic violence of the police is incomparable to the protesters' violence, which tends to be leaderless and at times senseless.

    But palpably, it is the violence of the weak against the strong. It embodies a sense of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming state power.

    Does violent protest help or hinder?

    Regardless of what we think of the justification of violence among the protesters, violent actions are not enough.

    Over the long term, it will reduce public support for the protest movement as violence brings the city to a halt again and again.

    Also, it will give justification for police to raise their level of violence, in a race that protesters cannot hope to win.

    This is well-known, of course. But more radical protesters are increasing turning to violent tactics out of a sense of futility, hopelessness and desperation.

    Who is to blame?

    From the Hong Kongers' perspective, who is to blame for this escalating violence?

    The latest survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute indicates that an overwhelming majority of people lay the blame with the Hong Kong government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam (84 per cent).

    Almost as many (74 per cent) blame the police.

    Less than half of people (41 per cent) blame the protesters for the violence.

    Another earlier survey noted strong solidarity between the moderate and militant wings of the protest movement.

    In that survey, more than 80 per cent of the respondents agreed that to maximise the impact of protests both peaceful and confrontational actions needed to be carried out hand-in-hand.

    It appears that the protesters have learnt an important lesson from the Umbrella Movement of 2014: they can stick together in their cause, or they can hang separately.

    What is the alternative?

    One alternative for the protesters is to redirect their anger away from violent confrontations to peaceful means of civil resistance.

    Over the long term, this would be more effective.

    A democratic revolution does not happen overnight — it can take years and even decades of consistent effort.

    While peaceful resistance is more likely to succeed in the long term, the protesters do not feel that time is on their side as Beijing increasingly encroaches on Hong Kong's political system and way of life.

    There are no signs that de-escalation is on the cards given the hardening of positions on both sides.

    The protesters are increasingly desperate and turning to more violent tactics. Authorities are hunkering down, and doubling down on their hardline tactics that emphasise the use of force designed to batter detractors into submission.

    With Beijing's preference for a hardline approach to the protesters, the likelihood of compromise is exceedingly low.

    Fundamentally, at the heart of the current unfolding crisis are two different visions for the city.

    On the one hand, Beijing wants to tighten its control of Hong Kong and integrate it into China's repressive political system.

    Hong Kongers, on the other hand, are desperately resisting this effort.

    But against China's overwhelming power, the prospects for the protesters — no matter whether they use peaceful or violent actions — are grim. But they are likely to fight on.

    Adam Ni is a China researcher with the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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