Demonstrators march during a protest against the Yuen Long attacks in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Opinion – Populist movements, political violence and Hong Kong’s future

If populism is a term used by social scientists to refer to political movements mobilizing public opinion against the elite rule, it did and does contribute to political violence in Hong Kong.

Populism can exist in two different ends of a political spectrum, ranging from left to right. It can be found in democracies and authoritarian regimes. In the case of Hong Kong, populist political movements have become far more prominent since the anti-national education movement in 2012, when the Hong Kong government clumsily put forward its national education policy, and when tens of thousands of students, parents and intellectuals succeeded in opposing it and portraying it as an attempt by the regime to “brainwash” school children.

After 2012, more populist movements have sprung up, including the 2014 Occupy Central movement, the so-called “Fishball Revolution” in Mongkok in early 2016 and most importantly the 2019 anti-extradition movement.

All of these populist movements have shared one thing in common: the strong appeals to public opinion against the elitist rule in Hong Kong. Elite rule has been seen as undemocratic, non-consultative and at worst socially exploitative.

The populists in Hong Kong have evolved very rapidly and significantly from 2012 to 2019 in two aspects. First, the populist movements in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2019 have carried a very strong anti-mainland ideology. The 2012 anti-national education movement saw the education curriculum as being reformed in favor of the good image and the “rewriting” of the history of the mainland regime in power.

The 2014 Occupy Central movement aimed at changing the democracy deficit in Hong Kong to a democratic system akin to the West, intentionally democratizing the special administrative region but unintentionally threatening the national security of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The 2016 “Fishball Revolution” aimed at protecting Hong Kong’s cultural and social heritage but carrying a very strong anti-mainland overtone. Similarly, the 2019 anti-extradition movement has remained anti-mainland, trying to retain the “purity” of Hong Kong’s existing lifestyle and civil liberties. De-mainlandization is the hallmark of the pro-democracy populist movements in Hong Kong.

Second, all of the aforesaid populist movements were orchestrated by pro-democracy activists, but the side-effect was to simulate the emergence of an opposing nationalistic and pro-Beijing populist movement. The corresponding emergence and consolidation of the pro-Beijing nationalistic populists have begun to clash with the democratic populists since the Occupy Central movement from September to December 2014.

The outcome was that the police had to separate the two types of populists in Hong Kong. Indeed, not all populists favor a violent path of confrontation, but some extreme populists tend to see not only politics as a zero-sum game but also their political foes as undesirable elements who should be eliminated. If political tolerance is a feature of democratic politics, the extreme populists lack such democratic spirit.

With the passage of time, political violence erupted between the democratic and nationalistic populists. Brawls between the pro-democracy and nationalistic populists took place in Hong Kong last Saturday and Sunday, when fights among citizens could be seen in the Amoy Plaza and on the King’s Road outside the Fortress Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station. The nationalist populists sang the national anthem in the Amoy Plaza, triggering disputes with some democratic populists.

Some nationalistic populists even went so far as to remove the stickers and posters on the Lennon Wall in different districts, leading to confrontations and violent encounters with the democratic populists. On the King’s Road, some nationalistic populists chased the black shirts and tried to beat them up, bringing about an immediate retaliation from a minority of black shirts.

Interestingly and consistently, the nationalistic populists support the police, as could be seen in all of the pro-police rallies in the past three months, while the democratic populists tend to be critical of the police performance in the entire anti-extradition movement, especially the Yuen Long terror attack on the night of July 21.
Clearly, political violence has been directly stimulated by the clashes between the democratic and nationalistic populists in Hong Kong.

With the benefit of hindsight, the escalation of conflicts between these two types of populists in Hong Kong could be seen from 2012 to 2019, as both camps have been utilizing strong and extremist language to attack the other side verbally and fiercely. Their verbal attacks and criticisms could be seen on Internet television programs and social media.

Verbal violence gradually developed into deep-rooted political hatred and physical violence, which culminated in the 2014 Occupy Central movement and which resurfaced in a far more prominent, visible and serious way in the 2019 anti-extradition saga.

The populist groups in Hong Kong are quite complex and diverse. Among the democratic populists, some of them are socialist in ideological orientation. The socialists, or democratic-socialist populists, believe that Hong Kong is an exploitative capitalist society where social welfare and public housing are insufficient, social mobility is difficult, the tax system is biased in favor of the rich, and the political system is oligarchic and undemocratic.

In view of the failure to push for a Western-style democratic system for Hong Kong, especially in 2015 when a political reform model proposed by the government was regarded by an overwhelming majority of democrats as pseudo-democratic, a minority of democratic and socialist populists increasingly see a peaceful path of fighting for democracy as politically useless.

Gradually, a “valiant front” among the radical populists emerged and resorted to political violence to make their voices and demands heard. These radical and extreme populists believe that Hong Kong’s political system fails completely and that the mainland government’s intervention in local matters has damaged the autonomy of Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the nationalist populists also have a complex composition. Some village people and clansmen have been under the influence of China’s united front work. They are politically nationalistic, seeing both peaceful and violent protests as socially disruptive and naturally harmful to the business and economic prosperity of Hong Kong.

A minority of nationalistic populists also resort to violence to attack and beat up the democratic and socialist populists, as could be seen in the Yuen Long tragedy on the night of July 21 and the violent encounters in the Amoy Plaza and Fortress MTR area on September 15.

While violence should be condemned, as it destabilizes any society, it is doubtful whether those who resort to violence can and will contribute to Hong Kong’s democratization. Democracy entails not only a political system characterized by mutual checks and balances among the three branches of the government and competitive elections in the public choice of political leaders, but it also embraces the spirit of political tolerance.

Disturbingly, the populist violence growing out from the anti-extradition movement has long-term repercussions on Hong Kong’s political landscape from now to 2047.
First, Beijing sees the violence in Hong Kong as a serious menace to its national security and is preparing to replace Hong Kong by utilizing Shenzhen.

If many Hong Kong people are so anti-mainland and anti-PRC, Beijing is simply grooming Shenzhen as the “socialist model” that would sooner or later replace Hong Kong as the main metropolitan city in South China. Shenzhen’s economic growth has remained impressive and it has become a technological hub that attracts many talents from all parts of China.

Shenzhen is well-positioned to replace Hong Kong in the rapid development of the Greater Bay Area (GBA), regardless of whether Hong Kong can and will integrate with the GBA in the coming years.

Many democratic and socialist populists in Hong Kong, who are also localists with strong Hong Kong identities, see the territory’s economic and social integration with the GBA as a process of deepening its mainlandization. Yet, in the eyes of Beijing’s policy planners, Hong Kong’s economic utility is gradually declining with the rapid economic rise of the mainland.

As such, Hong Kong is no longer be a window of China to modernize its domestic economy. The PRC has taken off economically and it is Hong Kong’s economic competitiveness that would suffer in the midst of the rapid economic growth of the Greater Bay Area. Although some Hong Kong people believe that the territory’s rule of law is unique, unlike Shenzhen and Shanghai, the reality is that the mainland’s version of the rule of law is different from Hong Kong’s.

The mainland concept of rule of law is more like rule by law; law is a tool of the regime to stabilize society and speed up economic development. The rule of law in Hong Kong, however, is to protect civil liberties and to challenge governmental authority rather than to buttress the regime in power.

Second, political violence in Hong Kong will unlikely fade away quickly. At present, it occurs on Saturdays and Sundays. The vandalism targeted at the MTR and public places will likely leave a deep imprint on the political development of Hong Kong from now to 2047. Whenever some radical political elements are “alienated,” some of them will likely resort to extremism, violent actions and vandalism.

Yet, the transport corporations in Hong Kong, notably the MTR and Airport Authority, have remained resilient in the midst of the ongoing disturbances. Overnight and urgent repair work has been conducted in many MTR stations, resuming operations on Mondays when people go to work. Originally, the Airport Authority tolerated protestors occupying the airport, but later, in view of the hindrance to travelers, the utilization and implementation of the court injunctions has at least reduced the adverse impact of protests at the airport.

The pattern of weekend protests punctuated with public vandalism and police-protestors confrontations on Saturdays and Sundays, and of a relatively swift return to normalcy on Mondays, has become a hallmark of the Hong Kong disturbances in 2019. This “new normal” may become a feature of Hong Kong’s populist protests and political violence.

Third, while both democratic and socialist populists hope to democratize Hong Kong and maximize its autonomy, the nationalistic populists toe the line of Beijing to retain the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory. As such, a kind of permanent confrontation between the democratic/socialist populists on the one hand, and nationalistic populists on the other hand, would likely persist.

This phenomenon will likely become the most important indicator shaping Hong Kong’s social and political stability in the coming decades.

Fourth, the populist politics and political violence in Hong Kong are benefiting the pro-independence movement in Taiwan. Presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party is enjoying a relatively high degree of popularity. If so, unless President Xi Jinping’s think tank ponders a more flexible model of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan in the future, the Hong Kong disturbances in 2019 strengthen the opposition of many Taiwanese people to the PRC gestures of dialogue and negotiation in the short run.

Fifth, and finally, populism in Hong Kong has become a chess game of the US-China trade negotiations. The US is trying to play the Hong Kong card and exert pressure on China to make concessions on trade-related issues. On the other hand, China resists US interfere with Hong Kong affairs. The international politics of diplomacy have heightened in China’s foreign relations, as the Hong Kong disturbances and their related populist politics have become an international concern.

In short, populism has not only brought about political violence in Hong Kong, it will also have profound impacts on Beijing-Hong Kong relations from now to 2047, on Beijing-Taipei relations and on the international politics between China and foreign countries.