When it comes to be written, the history of the 2019 Hong Kong Uprising will recount a succession of government decisions that each provoked greater public hostility. (By ‘government’ we mean whoever was exercising control at the time – the Carrie Lam administration being increasingly usurped by Beijing officials behind the scenes as weeks and months went by.)
The list would include: the high-handed rejection of criticism of the extradition bill; the contemptuous response to the first mega-march in June; the deployment of paramilitary policing; the police collusion with triads; the reluctant suspension of the bill; the tear-gassing of residential areas; the eventual pitiful withdrawal of the bill; the refusal to acknowledge police excesses – up to the recent contrived-panic and semi-curfew, with the shutting down of the MTR, closure of supermarkets and the use of emergency powers to impose a ban on masks.
Amateur analysts are having a field day trying to explain it all. One theory is that those making the decisions are so stupid that they believe more mayhem can turn public opinion against the protesters. Another is that Beijing is deliberately trying to create more and more chaos to justify a major clampdown. A third, I would submit, is that under the CCP system, lower officials opt for greater force for fear of repercussions if their superiors or rivals accuse them of being too soft. A fourth, perhaps quaint, one is that valiant local officials are seeking to spare Hong Kong the full Beijing Wrathful Vengeance scenario.
The truth is – it doesn’t matter, because in all cases the end result is the same: the aforementioned major clampdown.
The use of emergency powers to ban masks has promptly boosted the strength of public opposition from the defiant ‘add oil!’ to the pissed-off ‘resist!’ It seems some local officials are actually noticing that they have lost the community. Carrie has pleaded directly to the rabble not to support the protests, as has Security Secretary John Lee. (Interestingly, this coincides with a sudden surge of SCMP columns seeing the light. The pro-CCP editor-in-chief laments that citizens are not blaming protests for the semi-curfew conditions; a staunchly pro-police editor rants about how everyone apart from him is OK with lawlessness; a mild-mannered op-ed writer notes ‘all walks of life’ hate the government. I’ll spare you at least three other examples from the last few days.)
It should be clear to all by now that piling on more force will not solve the problem (which, lest we forget, is the lack of government legitimacy – fairly easy to fix if the sovereign power had the imagination). But there are no signs that anyone in charge thinks a new approach is needed. Beijing loyalist Ip Kwok-him is openly pondering Internet censorship. And the police yesterday saw fit to do their martial-law thing in Ma On Shan – a harmless, not to say mind-numbing, sort of high-rise Discovery Bay strip that stretches on for miles northeast of Shatin.
As the weekend passes, so does yet another ‘tipping point’.
One SCMP columnist says the use of emergency powers might prove to be a red line – for the markets. There is little evidence for that, judging by property and stock valuations. There is even less evidence that Beijing gives a damn.
Remember that whether the cycle of more-force-provoking-more-alienation is through stupidity or design, it ends with the same result. This outcome is summarized in an FT column (paywall) on how ‘Beijing will have its revenge’. This has aroused some excited chatter, but as forecasts go it is not especially daring. Where else, if the CCP manages to get its way, can we be heading?