Opinion – Hong Kong considers Emergency Regulations to control protests

The Hong Kong government is considering the application of Emergency Regulations to control protests after another serious confrontation between police and protestors on August 25, when water cannon vehicles were deployed for the first time, and when a few police officers who were attacked violently tried to defend themselves by pointing their pistols at protestors.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on August 27 that the government was studying various legal tools, including Emergency Regulations, to control the protests. Her remarks were followed by united front efforts made by the local pro-Beijing media to garner the support from the pro-establishment elites to back up any possible governmental move in utilizing the Emergency Regulations.

A few members of the top policy-making Executive Council (ExCo) voiced their views in support of the use of a stronger legal instrument. Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), said that, in order to stop violence, the government should consider all kinds of legal tools.

According to Xinhua news on August 27, two Hong Kong members of the NPC, namely Priscilla Leung and Maggie Chan, pointed to the possible application of Article 17 of the Public Order Ordinance to tighten the control over protests and rallies.

Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development of the Hong Kong government, remarked that the international communities would understand the possible use of the Emergency Regulations to control protests in Hong Kong. His remark was echoed by Executive Council (ExCo) member Ronny Tong, who added that, if Emergency Regulations were used, the government would need to consider how to implement it.

Another ExCo member Regina Ip remarked that, if masks were disallowed and banned under Emergency Regulations, the government would also have to ponder how to deal with those people who would still wear masks.

The idea of taking stronger legal measures to control protests has been criticized by the pan-democrats as a move toward “authoritarianism.” Some democrats argue that if Emergency Regulations were used, the move would be tantamount to a curfew, thereby undermining not only “one country, two systems” but also Hong Kong’s international status.

Indeed, pro-Beijing hardliners contend that tougher legal measures, the deployment of People’s Armed Police (PAP) from Shenzhen, and the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be in conformity with the Basic Law and in protection of the “one country, two systems.”

The idea of using Emergency Regulations demonstrates that the Hong Kong leadership is under the pressure from the central government in Beijing to “stop violence and control disturbances.” 

There are at least three interpretations of Beijing’s current attitude toward the Hong Kong disturbances. The first one sees Beijing as internally united, consistent and “hardline,” as shown in the remarks made by the official Chinese mass media, the position of the Hong Kong Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO), and the move to send the PAP to conduct exercises in Shenzhen.

The second interpretation sees Beijing as politically heterogeneous. From the recent remarks made by the HKMAO and the Defense Ministry, they can be seen as the “hardliners” or the “hawks” in the Chinese policy-making on the Hong Kong disturbances.

However, given the fact that President Xi Jinping reportedly ordered in July that there should be no bloodshed in Hong Kong, the “soft-liners” may even come from Xi himself rather than those Chinese authorities surrounding the Chief Executive.

One report in the Chinese version of The Epoch Times claimed on August 23 that President Xi had asserted the need for Hong Kong to tackle its own problems in the Beidaihe meeting, that 2,000 mainland intelligence agents had been sent to observe and look into the Hong Kong protests on August 18, and that Premier Li Keqiang had doubts on not only the ability of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam but also the pro-Beijing united front led by the HKMAO, the Hong Kong Liaison Office and the Hong Kong Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

It is difficult for observers to verify the accuracy of this report, but the second interpretation points to the likelihood of varying views in the mainland Chinese leaders toward the Hong Kong disturbances. If such report was perhaps partially accurate, then Premier Li might be the “dove” in Chinese policy toward Hong Kong.

Interestingly, the second interpretation shows that the discussions in the Beidaihe meeting among the top Chinese leaders were intentionally or unintentionally leaked out to the outside.

It is not known whether such a move was deliberately “false news” or not. But given the tradition and tendency of factionalism in mainland Chinese politics, the division between “hawks” and “doves” or the dichotomy between “hardliners” and “moderates” remain relevant in our study of Hong Kong’s complex relations with mainland China.

One thing is certain: the Beijing leadership may not be really homogeneous in its thinking over the Hong Kong disturbances. Judging from the mainland Chinese media, the propaganda machinery has remained relatively “hardline,” while the military sector appears to be an “interest group” with a much stronger interest and drive in settling the Hong Kong disturbances through intervention – a point actually made by a number of retired and existing military generals in the mainland.

In fact, if President Xi emphasized the need for the Hong Kong people to manage their own affairs – a point that he had made to the Hong Kong leaders in 2018 – then the Hong Kong government is clearly under tremendous pressure to handle the protests effectively and promptly, especially before the national day of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam met some Hong Kong elites and youths on August 24 and 25, but she remains reluctant to set up an independent commission of inquiry to look into the causes of the entire disturbances. On August 27, she asserted that the intention of not establishing such an independent commission did not come from the police pressure, but it stemmed from the government’s own assessment.

Still, some local commentators, such as Siu Yuk Yuen, have claimed that her reluctance to do so was due to the police opposition. Professor Anthony Cheung, a former principal official, has advocated the need for the government to set up the independent commission and he criticizes some people for wearing “colored glasses” in seeing this proposal after his closed-door meeting with Carrie Lam.

The third interpretation on Beijing’s attitude toward the Hong Kong disturbances is that while President Xi Jinping is a moderate who made the decision of moving the PAP, rather than deploying the PLA, to Shenzhen, he seems to delegate the tasks of handling the Hong Kong chaos to his subordinates, including the “hardliners” from the HKMAO and the Hong Kong Liaison Office.

Partly because the HKMAO and the Liaison Office have been adopting a relatively hardline attitude toward Hong Kong issues since the 2012 anti-national education movement, and partly because Han Zheng as the head of the Coordination Committee on Hong Kong has appeared to entrust the “hardliners” to deal with Hong Kong matters, the overall political atmosphere in China’s policy-making on Hong Kong is naturally “hardline.” This can perhaps explain why the Hong Kong leadership has to consider tougher legal measures to tackle the protests.

Yet, any tougher legal measures would entail the risks of implementing them, encountering greater resistance and opposition, and plunging Hong Kong into a deeper and longer crisis. 

As a matter of fact, the guerilla-style protests in Hong Kong have far-reaching repercussions for Hong Kong from now to 2047. Whenever some popular and populist demands cannot be met by the government, protests would have the danger of being divided into peaceful and violent factions. The peaceful protests would usually end with potentially violent ones.

Peaceful protestors mobilize their supporters through social media, participate in parades and marches, and express their views through the Lennon Wall. The violent faction, however, is characterized by the swift blockage of roads, the usage of self-made petrol bombs, the sudden attacks on shops, and the fierce confrontations with the police.

The guerilla tactics employed by the violent protestors run the risks of forcing the police to adopt a more hardline approach to defend themselves, as evidenced by a few police officers who showed their pistols to protestors. Any death incurred on the side of protestors would lead to further public outcry.

Conversely, any death caused to the police side would perhaps turn the tide of protests in favor of the pro-establishment forces. The political dynamics of the ongoing protests remain fluid, but they would likely characterize Hong Kong’s political development in the coming decades.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing protests, the Hong Kong police appear to be the biggest loser. In the past, most Hong Kong citizens viewed the police performance as highly satisfactory. Yet, public expectations of the police performance have remained so high that the Yuen Long terror on the night of July 21 undermined the police legitimacy significantly.

By objecting to the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry and by labeling protestors as “cockroaches,” a minority of police officers perhaps ran the risks of unintentionally not only violating the principle of political neutrality but also prolonging public anger at the problematic police performance on the night of July 21.

Although thirty people were arrested and four of them were prosecuted for rioting over the Yuen Long terror, the serious damage could not and cannot be repaired.

From an objective perspective, the police appear to be the biggest loser in the entire Hong Kong disturbances, although they have been playing a crucial role in maintaining public and social order amidst a very difficult political environment in which they are perhaps the victims of hyperpoliticization, ideological struggles, confrontational populism and the controversial political decisions of the Hong Kong leadership.