Opinion – The Huge Gap between the Hong Kong Protestors and Government

On August 5, the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held a press conference, followed by a press briefing from the Hong Kong Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) on the next day. On August 6, the protestors selected three representatives and held an unprecedented press conference.

On August 7, the HKMAO Director Zhang Xiaoming met the Hong Kong media and members of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Shenzhen. Judging from the three press briefings and Zhang’s remarks, the gap between the protestors and the Hong Kong government on the one hand, and between the protestors and Beijing, remains so wide that continuous confrontations between protestors and police will likely continue and even deteriorate.

First and foremost, Chief Executive Carrie Lam in her press conference criticized the protestors’ tactic of launching a strike on August 5 that could and would undermine Hong Kong’s economy. She criticized the slogan of the protestors for trying to “liberate Hong Kong” in the “revolutionary time.”

Lam’s critique of the slogan of protestors was the same as the criticism levelled by the local pro-Beijing mass media on the anti-extradition movement. She also remarked that the movement turned into another stage by damaging the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, and by plunging the “one country, two systems” into a “very dangerous situation.”

Echoing the Chief Executive, the HKMAO on August 6 criticized the Hong Kong parents for not educating their children properly. The HKMAO spokesperson believed that the Hong Kong youth have lacked national education, while supporting the Chief Executive.

The content of the HKMAO’s press briefing was nothing new, except for the open comment that the young protestors, to Beijing, are not “patriotic” enough and that they lack national and “family” education.

When asked by reporters whether Beijing would deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to assist the Hong Kong police, the HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang avoided answering the question but reiterated that Beijing does not accept the ongoing turmoil that would undermine the “one country, two systems.”

From the remarks made by Carrie Lam and the HKMAO, they both have not excluded the possibility of deploying the PLA to stabilize the Hong Kong circumstances. In fact, the Basic Law of Hong Kong empowers the central government to declare a state of emergency under which the Chinese military’s deployment would be a logical and natural move. Another possibility of requesting the PLA assistance would come from the Hong Kong government.

On August 7, Zhang Xiaoming said that the Hong Kong protests are like a “color revolution,” that Beijing supports both Carrie Lam and the police, and that it is not the appropriate time for the Hong Kong government to consider setting up an independent commission of inquiry to look into the extradition bill controversy.

Zhang referred to the remarks made by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who had said that the central government would have to intervene in Hong Kong affairs if there were any turmoil. The former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung added that even if the PLA were deployed to deal with the Hong Kong disturbances, it would be in conformity with the Hong Kong Basic Law.

Objectively speaking, if the Hong Kong situation deteriorates, there would be three possibilities of intervention from Beijing: (1) the mobilization of the PLA Garrison that is stationed in Hong Kong to assist the local police, (2) the dispatch of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) into Hong Kong to strengthen the local police, and (3) the sending of the Guangdong public security police to help the Hong Kong counterpart.

On August 6, the Shenzhen police conducted an anti-riot exercise apparently in response to the Hong Kong disturbances. Most importantly, the deputy secretary of the Political and Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Guo Shengkun, reportedly arrived Shenzhen. He is also the first party secretary of the PAP in the mainland.

Before he came to Hong Kong, Guo had vowed to fight crime, including triads, in Sichuan province and other places in the mainland. His visit to Shenzhen, according to the Hong Kong media, implied that he would tackle both the Hong Kong protestors and the suspected triad members, who attacked passengers in the Mass Transit Railway in Yuen Long on July 21.

The Hong Kong police arrested 23 suspected village residents for their involvement in the Yuen Long attack, including a few who reportedly attempted to escape from Hong Kong to the mainland.

The responses of the protestors to the Hong Kong government’s position on August 6 showed that the differences between the two sides remain huge.

Three representatives of the protestors said that the Hong Kong government “distorts” the circumstances, that the slogan of “liberating Hong Kong” in “revolutionary time” is by no means accepted by many other protestors, and that the government does not address the five demands.

Namely, the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, the abandonment of the term “riot” to refer to the protests, the call for the government not to prosecute the protestors, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the police handling of all the protests, including the Yuen Long terrorist attack, and the popular demand for universal suffrage.

To Carrie Lam and her advisers, however, four of the five demands cannot be met. The “withdrawal” of the bill, to Lam, is the same as its suspension. Yet, the protestors do not see the bill’s suspension as the same as its “withdrawal.” Moreover, once the Chief Executive and the HKMAO denounced the action of protestors, the term “riot” could not be easily withdrawn as demanded by protestors.

In particular, the pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong have kept on using the term rioters to refer to the protestors. In fact, the government must continue to arrest and prosecute those protestors who violate the law. The establishment of an independent commission of inquiry was opposed by four police associations.

Shortly after the Yuen Long terrorist attack, when Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung apologized to the members of the public for the police handling of protests, he was quickly criticized by the police inspectors’ association on July 26. The police commissioner also sought an urgent meeting with him.

The police associations can be seen as interest groups opposing the idea of setting up an independent commission. At a time when the police play a critical role in maintaining the law and order in Hong Kong, any move to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate their action and behaviour would naturally undermine police morale and incur their opposition.

As a Hong Kong member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Tam Yiu-chung, said on August 4, the idea of setting up an independent commission was discussed among the Hong Kong NPC members and the time is not ripe until the disturbances would taper off.

The crux of the problem is when the disturbances would taper off. From the perspective of maintaining the social stability of Hong Kong, all violent activities like arson, any move of damaging the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, and attacks at the police stations, must stop before both sides can sit down to start any possible dialogue. Zhang’s remarks on August 7 implied that an independent commission would be considered by the Hong Kong authorities only after all the violent acts are stopped.

One possibility of breaking the deadlock is that some intermediaries may intervene as the trusted middlemen between the protestors and the government, thus narrowing their huge expectation gap.

Another possibility is that, after the violent acts taper off, both sides may consider mutual concessions, such as the government considering the possibility of an independent commission on the condition that violent confrontations and attacks would die down, while the protestors would perhaps agree to reduce confrontations with the police on the condition that an amnesty to the arrested protestors would be considered by an independent commission. 

Even if an independent commission were agreed by both sides, its terms of reference would likely be a bone of contention, for the police would likely be concerned about the legal consequences on their officers who perform their duty to maintain law and order.

Hence, the terms of reference of any independent commission would have to be skilfully crafted in order to strike a very delicate balance between the political demands of the protestors and the vested interest of the police.

But if the terms of reference include not only just a review of the police action on all the protests and in the Yuen Long incident, but also a comprehensive review of the social, political and economic factors leading to the peaceful protests in June and then the disturbances afterwards, the independent commission of inquiry would perhaps become a useful means of achieving a breakthrough in the ongoing political struggles and searching meaningful solutions to tackle the crisis.

Another way to reduce tensions is for the government to open the public discussion of democratic reforms on the condition that violent confrontations would really be reduced. A committee composed of political reform experts should perhaps be set up to consult members of the public on how to deal with political reform – a painful legacy from the 2014 Occupy Central Movement and a demand from the protestors. 

All these mutual concessions would not be easy unless both sides agree to negotiate, and unless Beijing gives the green light to such mutual dialogue and discussions. If both protestors and the Hong Kong government adopt an uncompromising position, protestors-police confrontations would persist until the time when the campaign period of the November 2019 District Council elections would begin.

Any continuation of the violent confrontations between protestors and police would likely undermine the chance of victory of the pro-democracy candidates. At the same time, the pro-establishment candidates would also suffer as they may be seen as uncritical supporters of the government without playing the role of being constructive intermediaries.

On the other hand, any move by the government to disqualify any young candidates, who may again advocate a platform of “self-determination,” from running in the local election would run the risk of prolonging the confrontations with protestors. Hence, self-restraints and concessions from all stakeholders appear to be very critical in the search for a solution to the political impasse.

Having said that, one complication of the entire chaos in Hong Kong is that while the ruling and the central authorities are politically hard-line, the side on the protestors remains very fragmented and appears to lack “leaders” who would be able to call the shots and to order a termination of violent activities.

As such, the political circumstances will likely remain volatile, uncertain and unstable. Unless intermediaries would emerge to serve as an acceptable and a trustful bridge between the protestors and the government, unless both sides can consider making mutual concessions, and unless Beijing agrees to such concession from both sides, the Hong Kong disturbances would likely persist. If the Hong Kong situation deteriorates, the intervention from Beijing’s military or paramilitary would become a realistic possibility.