Phillipian Commentary: The Protests Fall Apart

In China, where I visited over the summer, every piece of media is censored and doctored by the state. Even so, when the headline of local the newspaper one day read “Radical Hong Kong Rioters Terrorize City with Violence,[b]” I was shocked. As the TV droned on about how the protesters were “vicious” and the police “disciplined,” I opened my phone to videos of these officers viciously beating elderly passerby, pepper-spraying injured journalists[c], and firing canister after canister of tear gas into buildings packed with panicked civilians[d]. And the “savage” protesters? They returned at midnight to clean[e] up the debris once it became clear that those in charge would not do so. I thought I knew then which side to support; through their nonviolent resistance, the protesters had demonstrated their conviction for their cause. However, recent events have taken a worrying turn. As fringe extremist groups begin to scale up their violent tactics, they risk losing domestic and foreign support for their cause.

Over the summer, the administrative region of Hong Kong has become embroiled in a series of protests. According to “The New York Times,” these protests stemmed from an extradition bill proposed by the government to prosecute a Hong Kong resident suspected by the police of killing his girlfriend while in Taiwan[f][g]. Many were critical of the bill as it would extradite criminals to the mainland and expressed their concerns about the impartiality of the Chinese court system. Even the Taiwan government, after questioning whether the case was “politically motivated,” had clarified that it would refuse to ask for the extradition of the murderer, rendering the “raison d’etre” of the bill null.

The Hong Kong government, however, seems to have not noticed. Persisting with the bill, they led many citizens to feel as if the act would further degrade political freedom in the country—hence the reason for the demonstrations. All this contributed to the public’s aversion towards Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

The crux of the animosity towards Lam, however, was her callous and insensitive response to the protests. In a TV interview given soon after the protests, she analogized the protesters to her son and declared that if she “let him have his way every time,” he will “regret it after he grows up.” Her overbearing, condescending attitude already having been criticized by many, citizens were further aggravated when she suggested that the protesters were in the wrong for the violence. Describing the protests as an[h] “organized riot,” she asserted that “violence will not be tolerated.” Given all the unnecessary and excessive force with which the Hong Kong police acted, the irony was not lost on the public.

In recent weeks, however, the protesters’ increasingly extreme tactics have made me reconsider my stance. Even if they might have been justified given how commonplace police brutality is there, it’s dangerous for protesters to expend their frustration by incapacitating airports and vandalizing shops perceived as pro-Beijing. In one particularly extreme example, a group of protesters attacked a mainland Chinese journalist; no matter the justification, by restricting the press freedom of others they will become the very thing they sought to destroy.

By employing these tactics, protesters further endanger their self-image. Although they remain supported by most of their compatriots, they are despised by most mainland Chinese citizens. The state media there has successfully capitalized on the most extreme cases of violence to antagonize the uninformed; those who have resorted to attacking police with gasoline bombs and repeatedly blocking subway stations risk discrediting their cause.

Residents are fighting an uphill battle, one where defenseless citizens must stand up against a government that suppresses their freedom and censors their speech. In a rare moment of unity, almost a third of the region has turned up in a single demonstration. Over the last few months, protesters have shown time and time again their restraint and moderation in remaining peaceful even against brutality. For their movement to truly succeed, they must continue to do so.