The horrific shooting on November 11 of an unarmed protester, video of which has burgeoned across social media, has intensified Hong Kong’s slide into daily disruption, punctuated by sporadic confrontations between heavily armed and armored police and demonstrators mostly armed with broken bricks and the occasional Molotov cocktail.
Unwilling to even talk about the public anger which has caused five months of protests, the administration has left all governing in the hands of a police force being steadily expanded by recruiting from other departments and bringing back retirees, with attendant discipline problems that result in gruesome footage widely published on the Internet.
Policy, insofar as it exists, is made in Beijing, which praises Chief Executive Carrie Lam despite the disregard with which she is held in Hong Kong, even among pro-government sectors. The Chinese government has also been praising police “restraint” in spite of the daily abundant video evidence of indiscriminate stormtrooper attacks on demonstrators and bystanders using vast quantities of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets – and a few live rounds.
Escalation by the police has been in evidence but has met with a remarkable degree of resistance, some of equally violent. Dozens of demonstrators have been badly injured, most by tear gas canisters fired directly at them. But numbers are unknown because many decline to go to public hospitals where they are liable to face arrest by police. In turn, such hospital intrusions have turned doctor and nurses into critics of the police.
The pattern of escalation over the past five days has been particularly illuminating. Last week Lam was in Beijing in the wake of the party plenum to receive orders, and probably criticism, from Xi Jinping. Back in Hong Kong, she further stirred anger with the weekend arrest of seven pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council on charges relating to a scuffle back in May when dubiously legal maneuvers ousted the pro-Democracy chair of a panel. Popularly elected democrats have long been the target of government abuse of the law to remove them from office or ban their re-election.
More emotion was stirred when a student demonstrator died in a fall from a building. This may or may not have occurred as a result of police action but gave impetus to weekend demonstrations at various points around the territory eventually broken up by the customary clouds of tear and rubber bullets, often in confined spaces of shopping malls and narrow streets in heavily populated areas such as the Mongkok area of Kowloon.
Monday was set to be relatively quiet apart from some transport disruptions. But that morning the police shot the demonstrator, who carried no arms or even a helmet and was some two meters away from the shooter. That has ignited a storm of action which paralyzed the financial center and saw widespread demonstrations and destruction of property, in particular of Beijing-associated banks and businesses.
Protestor violence itself hit a new peak with the torching of a pro-Beijing bystander. But generally, protestor violence has been focused on objects, not people, although there has been enough of that to stir widespread criticism.
Not content with letting things cool, on Tuesday the police launched an invasion of the large campus of the Chinese University of HK, allegedly to arrest unnamed people. This sparked massive resistance by the students which lasted through the day and into the night, with even the vice-chancellor being tear-gassed while trying to mediate between the police and students.
Meanwhile, the government continues to insist that it will not move in any direction except to exert more force against troublemakers, the “selfish” people making life difficult for Hong Kongers in general. Yet the fact is that there is wide, cross-class tacit sympathy for the students and other frontline activists putting themselves in danger in an effort to get more accountability, as well as democracy and subject police behaviour to independent scrutiny.
Beijing has been huffing and puffing about all the mess being stirred by foreigners and demanding implementation of a national security law as required by the Basic Law.
However, while Lam, supposedly a devout Catholic, appears willing to do or say whatever her Communist masters demand, institutional resistance is stubborn.
Trying to convince the public that its Independent Police Complaints Council was adequate to deal with complaints of police behaviour, in September the council appointed a five-member panel of foreign experts to advise. It has yet to produce an official report but one member noted on November 9 that it currently was a “light touch” investigator.
To be credible the panel needs to enhance its “capability to assemble facts, identify and secure witnesses” from all relevant sources. As it is, the IPCC not only has little power but a membership of dominated by persons known to be trusted pro-government allies.
The judiciary also seems unlikely succumb quickly to efforts to remove its independence and make it a branch of the government. On November 6 China’s vice-premier Han Zheng told lam that stopping violence is the “common responsibility” of Hong Kong’s executive, legislature and judiciary. The judiciary is not supposed to be independent.
To which one judge evidently responded in a judgment of a case brought by the government: “I do not think any judicial officer in Hong Kong requires anyone, whether from in Hong Kong or beyond, to tell him or her how to perform his or her role as part of the independent judiciary” as guaranteed under the Basic Law.
The judge went on to criticize the government for asking for an injunction against “doxxing” – publishing identifying information on the internet – of police officers but not extending it to peaceful protesters who were also subject to this form of online harassment. He added that social unrest needs to be dealt with through political means.
It remains to be seen how the judiciary in general will now deal with the vast number of cases due to come before it related to the demonstrations. By actual count, more than 700 college student have been arrested. Offenses range from rioting (which can carry long jail terms), assault on police, resisting arrest, criminal damage, unlawful assembly and incitement to case a public nuisance.
The police have effectively created a vast new class of criminal by declaring most recent demonstrations illegal, even though peaceful assembly is supposedly guaranteed under the Basic Law. So even if other spurs to protest die down in the next few days, without some form of amnesty or dropping of all but the most serious charges, occasions for demonstrations will be around for months if not years.
In the shorter term, the public at large may gradually tire of the disruptions and loss of business caused by the demonstrations and resign themselves to being ruled by Beijing’s puppets. But even if that proves the case, the damage done by Lam’s robotic response to unrest will be long and deep. Trust in Hong Kong’s separate status is undermined every time Beijing officials speak about the territory. As for the flower of Hong Kong youth, their anger and contempt will remain in their hearts. The desire to emigrate has risen dramatically. And for those studying overseas, the hope for a future back home has been badly dented.