Thursday, 5 December 2019

Hong Kong protest paradox: can a democracy movement backed by bigotry and vigilantism succeed?

Click to enlarge, and read caption. An alternative caption might be:
“Protesters beat the living crap out of a mainland tourist”
for this has happened often; rarely the other way around (7.21 aside)
Attentive readers will know that I’ve criticised the bigotry amongst many of the protesters, so I’m totally on-board with the sentiments expressed here by Philip Cunningham, author of Tiananmen Moon. He’s correct: there are many bigots in the protest movement and many vigilantes too [Webarchive version of the article].

Cunningham’s piece responds to an article in The Times a few days ago, by Richard Lloyd Parry. That article is behind a paywall and so, with thanks to The Times, I’ve put it for free here.  For subscribers here.

The Parry article is the latest from the “but brigade....”. As in: “I don’t agree with violence, but....” and finishing most commonly with “... but it’s understandable” or “... but you made me do it”. Parry supports the violence because -- he believes -- it's done in the name of Freedom and Democracy, yay! Cunningham doesn’t agree with this, and neither do I.

My own comments on the Parry article are below. (One-word comment: nonsense.  Two word comment: dangerous nonsense.  Three-word comment: uninformed, dangerous nonsense).
My comments are flush left, Parry article indented...
We like our moral heroes to be cuddly, as well as brave, and for the first few months the democracy protesters of Hong Kong met both of these requirements. There were those immense peaceful processions in which dear old men with walking sticks marched alongside mums with pushchairs. There were the touchingly young and skinny leaders, such as Joshua Wong: earnest, bespectacled and well behaved. A million Davids stood up against the Goliath of the Chinese state and people around the world cheered — until, in the past few weeks, it all started to turn nasty.
PF: It wasn’t “the past few weeks”. The violence started back in July.
Banned by police from holding mass demonstrations, the wholesome family groups have yielded to a smaller corps of increasingly violent young protesters. They hide their faces behind masks and helmets. They began by throwing stones but have graduated to petrol bombs, catapults and bows and arrows. One bystander was killed by a lobbed brick, another man is critically ill after being set on fire by a group of young protesters with whom he got into an argument. Sympathy towards the protesters has begun to ebb away.
PF: “Banned by police” is misleading. They were not banned at all by police at the beginning. It was only when they became violent that the police decided on a case-by-case basis. Some they agreed to, some not. In some cases they gave permission on a commitment by the organisers that there would be no vandalism, only to have major damage occur unpaid by the organisers. 
Nevertheless police have continued to permit demos, as recently as last Sunday, and this week. It too turned destructive. So.... is it fair just to baldly state “banned by police”??
Also worth noting: London recently banned demos by the Extinction Rebellion folks because they were too disruptive to working Londoners.  And they were nothing like as violent and disruptive as ours have been. But no outcry of “dictatorship” there.
It is not surprising to hear the Chinese government denouncing its opponents in Hong Kong as “thugs”; it is more striking to read front-page news reports in a respectable Australian newspaper describing the protesters as “zealots”, “bandits” and “masked terrorists”. A columnist in the Financial Times compared the situation to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies and deplored the way in which “obscene violence” was tearing off the veneer of civilisation. But to take the violence at face value, and to see an equivalence between the acts perpetrated by the protesters and the power ranged against them, is grossly to misunderstand the situation in Hong Kong.
PF: But... but.... “zealots”, “bandits” and “masked terrorists” in the “respectable Australian newspaper", are fair descriptions! (though I wonder about “bandits”...). It’s a while (55 years...) since I read Lord of the Flies, but I do remember that the boys descended into violence when it became clear they could, and could with no repercussions.  They were giddy with the freedom to be violent, with no adult to say “no". Many of the protesters interviewed have said the something similar “It’s fun”, they say.  Of course it is! Breaking out of the daily grind of school and homework, trashing something you think represents the mainland “locusts” and no blow-back, because you’re masked.
As for the “equivalence”: it’s mostly the police who are outnumbered, by protesters fully riot-clad and carrying metal bars, bows, arrows and petrol bombs.  Often there are literally no police in areas being trashed. I’ve seen it.  And the police are attacked by protesters. Again, I’ve seen it, though the media often chooses to look the other way.
The police have guns, sure; they’ve used them precisely four times (iirc, I may have missed some cases). Their go-to control tools are tear gas, which seems pretty ineffective to me, and rubber bullets, about which I have no view. In any case, to write it up as if there’s a major “power ranged against them”, is to misrepresent the situation.
Final pedant-point: look at that carefully, clumsily un-split infinitive there: “is grossly to misunderstand the situation...”.  Ugh. Much better to freely and with wild carefree abandon split that verb, Lloyd!
Let there be no doubt, there is no excuse for beating up people who disagree with you, or who arouse your suspicion because they are speaking mainland Chinese. But these crimes are nothing compared with the institutionalised violence bearing down on the protesters from all sides.
PF: There it is: the charge of the “but brigade...."
Hong Kong is deceptive, at least on superficial acquaintance. In all the obvious ways, it is a rich, healthy, highly educated, law-abiding and tolerant society in which you can work, study, eat, shop and form relationships with the same freedom as people in other great world cities. But the freedom has iron limits.
PF: I’ve said many times on this blog that Hong Kong has every freedom of a free, liberal, tolerant society.  Parry’s implication that it’s all somehow “superficial”, because it’s “deceptive” is obscene.
The only “iron limits”, mate, are the iron bars carried by those “zealots” and  “masked terrorists”.
Hong Kong people are not allowed to choose their chief executive, can only pick some of their MPs and are banned from standing in any election if they are suspected of supporting independence. Despite limited autonomy, they are part of China, a one-party dictatorship with a history of murderously oppressing those who challenge its authority.The bludgeoning conduct of the once respected Hong Kong police is not the biggest or the most sinister problem. Hong Kong is a city where people periodically vanish from the streets after saying or publishing things that the Chinese government doesn’t like. The most recent of them was Simon Cheng, an employee at Britain’s consulate in Hong Kong, who was deeply involved in the protest movement. Accused of being a spy, he was abducted, beaten, hooded and shackled to a cross before being released after 15 days.
PF: There are more than one reason a person can be banned from standing in a UK elections. It’s clear from the Basic Law that calling for “independence” is not on, and would in many jurisdiction be viewed as a for of sedition. I see nothing wrong in that.  Moreover, in the US, the candidates are routinely vetted by their National Committees: eg Bernie was shunted aside in 2016, and there are mutterings about the same happening in the DNC for 2020. Many on the left -- including Parry? -- lambasted Boris Johnson for not having been chosen by the people.  I don’t want to make too much of this equivalence, but it’s not as clear-cut a case as Parry makes it. Moreover, there were moves to universal suffrage offered in 2015, rebuffed by the pan-Dem parties because they were not the full bag.
Simon Cheng was detained in China, for solicitation, a crime in China; he was not “abducted” from Hong Kong as Parry appears to think.  People do not “periodically vanish”.  Three booksellers were kidnapped in what became clear was a rogue operation, subsequently returned to Hong Kong.
For all the visible trappings of civilisation, this is not London, New York or Tokyo. The protesters throwing firebombs at the police at the Polytechnic University are not to be compared to anti-war protesters or climate change demonstrators, or any of the activists on the streets of western cities. People in those places have no cause to resort to violence. Whether or not they get what they want, they have multiple means of articulating their grievances in print, on television, via the internet, as well as at the ballot box.
PF: Again the sneering from Parry: we may have the “visible trappings of civilisation”, but we’re not really, are we? Civilised, that is.  Just as we’re not really “rich, healthy, highly educated....” as he sneers above. Obscene.
In Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, people can express themselves freely but have no means to choose leaders who reflect the popular will. (The elections on Sunday, in which pro-democracy candidates won so overwhelmingly, were for district councils with only petty powers.) In June over a million people took to the streets and they were ignored by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. They have been ignored ever since. In such circumstances, throwing firebombs becomes, if not praiseworthy, then understandableAll of us of the right-thinking persuasion pride ourselves on “deploring violence”. But very few of us are true pacifists. In extreme circumstances, faced with a direct threat to the physical wellbeing of ourselves or our loved ones, many of us would raise a fist or something worse. Most people agree that against a threat like that posed by Nazi Germany, for example, even war can be a dreadful necessity.
PF: He mocks the district councils as having only “petty powers”, just after they have been lauded by his colleagues as being a “landslide” for democracy. It’s one or the other. In fact, the DC’s hold almost half the voting block, around 500 votes in the 1200 seat selection committee for the next Chief Executive, and should not be lightly dismissed.
Firebombs “understandable”?? I’m just not there, sorry.
Note he sees himself as one of “us of the right-thinking persuasion...”  a.k.a. “self-righteous wankers”....
Many of us too would compromise our habitual respect for the authority of police and government if it were wielded in an oppressive and undemocratic way. Imagine some fantasy version of Britain, without genuinely elected leaders, in which a one-party state was encroaching on already limited freedoms. Faced with such a reality, thrown bricks would be the least of it.
PF: No need for us to “imagine some fantasy version of Britain”, mate.  Your fantasy version of the “brave freedom fighters” is quite enough for one day, thanks.
Re the allegedly “limited freedoms”, I’ve said innumerable times on this blog that we have every freedom of an open, tolerant and vibrant society.  Not imagination, not trivial, but real freedoms.  And the only ones threatening it are the protesters and their cheer leaders, like Parry.
We are lucky that we will never have to face such oppression. We should not be quick to judge those in Hong Kong who do. Far from condemning them as thugs, we should support them in their struggle, recognise their courage and salute them for their continuing and remarkable restraint.
PF: The only “oppression” we suffer is at the hands of the very “freedom fighters” Parry so tightly praises.

God spare us from well-meaning ignoramuses like Richard Lloyd Parry.