The disturbances that continue to convulse Hong Kong have roots which go way beyond the original cause, opposition to a law which would have allowed extradition to the mainland. They are found in the unrepresentative nature of the political system, the above-the-law behavior of top officials, and the domination of the domestic economy by a tiny group of mega-rich oligarchs who own and develop land, own the utilities, the major retail outlets and who are widely suspected on buying the favors of multiple more officials than have ever been charged with corruption.
Add to that the scarcity of housing, prices far beyond affordability for the younger generation and government spending of tens of billions of US dollars on rail and bridge projects to please Beijing rather than relieve an overcrowded local network.
Rather than dealing with these issues, the government has given the Hong Kong police license to declare war on the demonstrators. But peaceful demonstrators have hit back, with thousands assembling at Hong Kong International Airport in their demands for an end to police brutality. The airport was closed for departures – but this seemed more of a ploy by the authorities than necessitated by the situation on the ground.
The demonstration followed a Sunday night which saw police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in a mass transit railway station – Kwai Hing in a working-class district of Kowloon. One young woman was hit in the eye with a tear gas canister and may lose her sight. Police were also shown on camera beating up demonstrators.
Plainclothes police dressed like demonstrators have been found cooperating with uninformed ones to seize demonstrators, many of whom are being accused of rioting, a serious offense carrying long jail terms. But the reality is that most of the violence is initiated by the so-called forces of law and order, or by their surrogates, members of criminal gangs known as triads and Beijing-friendly community groups.
These activities have given some credence to the suggestion that the police have been using agents provocateurs throwing bricks and otherwise damaging the image of the mostly peaceful protesters.
This increase in already well-documented police brutality is seen as the work of former deputy commissioner Alan Lau, who was brought out of retirement – clearly part of Beijing’s demand to Chief Executive Carrie Lam for tougher action, punitive measures rather than law enforcement.
Blame for these events thus cannot readily be aimed at the rank-and-file police, obeying orders under difficult circumstances. But their commanders, who themselves seem divided about tactics, have a lot to answer for.
Meanwhile, the rank and file may wonder why they are doing all this in the name of an administration that spends most of the time in hiding and refuses to acknowledge its own faults or offer any sign that it has learned anything from two months of relentless mass protest. Maybe protests should focus less on police brutality and more on the government which put them in this position as de facto rulers.
While some demonstrations have been accorded “no objection” status by the police, others have been declared illegal, which has given an ever-more-aggressive police the “right” to take any action it feels inclined, whether or not the police themselves are in any way threatened.
The government itself remains largely silent, merely condemning demonstrators for disrupting the economy. A group of Hong Kong’s richest companies was wheeled out to join this chorus. That the local government and Beijing should believe that the word of the property oligarchs who have, in cahoots with government officials, been milking Hong Kong for decades would impress local people is bizarre.
It is now five years since the Umbrella protest movement demanding full suffrage. After weeks, that finally ran out of steam. But instead of putting the Umbrella movement behind it, a government bent on retribution and punishment pursued the matter for years, only recently having one of the organizers of what was always a peaceful – if sometimes inconvenience-causing – event jailed on the flimsiest of charges – conspiring to create a public nuisance. Meanwhile, top officials continue to escape prosecution despite strong evidence of misconduct.
Hong Kong is becoming an increasingly divided society. Although Beijing supporters still are strong among older, grass-roots groups, organized through the well-financed DAB, the alliance of Beijing with the plutocrats and a clearly incompetent government of bureaucrats is straining solidarity. Meanwhile youth groups – which include most under 35 – are alienated and in some cases visibly angry.
Unless the government can find an approach beyond brute force to calm the situation, the impact can only be to propel people and money to look for the exit from a Hong Kong ever more under the heel of a nationalist and short-tempered Beijing. Unable to blame itself or its incompetent stooges heading the Hong Kong government, it blames the troubles on foreigners. Xenophobia rules in China, a reminder of its traditional contempt for “barbarians,” be they brown or white.
Major foreign companies will already be getting the message from the treatment of the two best-known colonial-era local companies. Cathay Pacific was forced to grovel because some of its employees had had the temerity to support the protests. Even so, Chinese state enterprises called for a boycott of Cathay. Meanwhile, HSBC has been in trouble for allegedly helping Canadian authorities in the Huawei case. Conceivably this contributed to the shock departure last week of its chief executive after less than two years in the job.
The businessmen wheeled out by Lam know perfectly well that the tight grip of Beijing is more a problem for them than short-term losses from demonstrations. So watch what they do, not what they say.