Hong Kong’s 15th weekend of street protests was average mayhem. But it confirmed several things about how the HK Police are operating – and the bigger picture.
The police seem to be designing conflict – barring marches and subsequently mounting major operations to suppress them. They seem to have quotas for arrests (and even rounds of tear-gas fired), and are heedless of the impact on passers-by or public opinion. They are using the MTR not only to deny protesters mobility, but as a transport and staging resource. In a sign that something is seriously broken, the cops are visibly collaborating with pro-Beijing thugs.
It’s difficult to squeeze a constructive comment out of pro-establishment figures right now. The nearest to an ‘unofficial official line’ I have heard on this is that the Hong Kong administration, HK Police and MTR are under huge criticism from law-abiding and more militant pro-government groups for being too soft on demonstrators. For example, ‘the MTR is giving free rides to young radicals’, and ‘the old Fujianese guys are the fiercest in accusing the cops of not doing their job’.
An interesting discussion of the street conflicts mentions that the high-profile barricade-burning is a distraction, and the real story is the widespread unpopularity of the cops.
Let’s go further. Perhaps the real story now is that the Hong Kong administration has seriously lost legitimacy – in the eyes of Beijing as well as the people. It is playing only a limited role while its two supposed ‘masters’ are in conflict.
The Liaison Office is now in de facto control of the police (and MTR). The United Front can marshal triads, clan associations and other groups (though their participation so far looks opportunistic). In theory it has all those grassroots voting-fodder in the housing estates (again, not much evidence that they’re being mobilized for counter-demonstrations beyond some patriotic mall-singing). Less dependable local elements of this alliance include the tycoons (who are petrified), and authoritarian/conservative types like Regina Ip voters, retired teachers, Christians, etc.
On the other side: the rest of the Hong Kong people. A glance at big rallies, and Carrie Lam’s approval rating of 17%, suggest that easily two thirds of the population is on-side. These are people who feel strongly about defending their way of life from Beijing. Many are also bitter about longstanding livelihood issues/social injustice. Realization that they are alone – the local administration is essentially out of the picture – and shock at CCP-style police tactics are uniting them.
Maybe this standoff is Beijing’s idea of a holding pattern until the sacred October 1 National Day is over and the CCP can get serious about sorting Hong Kong out. That will mean filling the legitimacy vacuum in the Hong Kong government in some way. (For a clue as to how, ask yourself whether the CCP, after it takes tighter control over something, usually lets it go again later.)
Meanwhile, this situation looks like it’s sliding into some African state in the 1970s where the small minority tribe runs the palace and the military, and the majority ethnic group has had enough.