This was not quite June 4, 1989 in Beijing, but the attitude behind it was the same. Clear the streets at any cost. So phalanxes of police armed with helmets, shields, visors, batons and supported by an artillery of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullet launchers advanced on huge crowds armed at best with paper masks, umbrellas and plastic bottles. They were protesting against a bill which would in effect extend mainland jurisdiction into supposedly autonomous Hong Kong by providing for extradition to it.
The bill was to have been rushed through a tame legislature, starting today. It has had to be postponed but if today is any guide, Chief Executive Carrie Lam will resort to any amount of force or money to get it passed regardless of public sentiment in Hong Kong, and the views of foreigners and mainlanders who bring huge business to the territory.
In more than 50 years of journalism, including May 1968 in Paris, this journalist has almost never seen such unnecessary use of force – or experienced such dense clouds of tear gas as to worry for his ability to breathe, let alone see.
The videos show far more than a writer can describe the blatant disregard shown by the Hong Kong police for its citizen who in some cases faced point blank range discharges. A writer can however bear testimony to the way the crowds withdraw after the tear gas volleys but then returned again to face yet more volleys.
Eventually, most of the roads were cleared for now but nothing will clear the conscience of the person who ordered all this in the name of “law and order,’ Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the inflated balloon of a bureaucratic who, despite claims to being a Catholic, was chosen by Beijing as Chief Executive.
Lam started her career as chief executive claiming to want to heal divisions supposedly created by the pro-democracy Umbrella movement of 2014. In practice, she has used every legal and administrative trick at her command to punish the Umbrella movement’s proponents and disbar various pro-democracy individuals from politics.
Lam had been deaf to previous demonstrations, deaf to the appeals of chambers of commerce and foreign diplomats not to proceed with this bill. But she did listen to local business groups worried that they might suffer by offering some amendments to business related crime allegations. So much for her faith in the mainland judicial system.
This was not surprising given that half of Hong Kong’s legislature is composed of “Functional Constituencies” which are mostly fiefdoms of commercial interests and partly explain why the territory’s domestic economy is the preserve of well-connected oligarchs.
But the problem of Hong Kong’s mass disaffection with its leaders will not go away. The youth, in particular, have been aroused. But behind lies a mass of the old and middle-aged who were on the streets in their hundreds of thousands last Sunday.
This is all very bad news. Autocratic president Xi Jinping is doubtless furious at Hong Kong’s defiance. Yet he is likely equally furious at Lam for her gross mishandling of the extradition issue. She can ram it through her tame legislature eventually but at what cost to Hong Kong’s position in the world, and to China’s search for soft power when all it can demonstrate is hard power?
The biggest losers from all this are obviously Hong Kong people – other of course than the elite with their foreign assets and right of residence But next on the list are the mainland companies and individuals who have seen the city as a safe and autonomous destination for their money and themselves. Foreigners like Hong Kong. But they can move most easily.