By Bernhard Zand in Hong Kong
Beijing is mobilizing troops at the border and the protest movement is hoping to attract thousands of demonstrators following the occupation of the airport this week. The threat of a military intervention appears to be growing in Hong Kong.
Carrie Lam applied for high office herself, and Beijing ultimately granted her the appointment. These days, though, it must be a kind of living hell.
It’s Tuesday morning, and Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, walks out into the garden of her official residence dressed in a blue suit. The oleanders are in bloom and birdsong fills the air. An opposition group is there to give her a petition protesting police violence and she walks up to one of the men, who immediately grabs her hand and won’t let go. “Hong Kong is being governed by lies!” he yells. “Corrupt police!” the others chant. Members of her security contingent rush up to free Lam from the man’s grasp.
Unsettled, she returns to the air-conditioned government residence where the Hong Kong press corps is lying in wait. The journalists assail her with questions, some yelling at her without waiting for an answer. “Don’t talk about ‘the police’ and ‘the people.’ What is your own responsibility?”
“Don’t lecture reporters. Do your job and answer the questions!” “Are your hands tied by Beijing?” “Yes or no? Precise answers.”
Lam offers evasive, formulaic responses and a rather weak performance. At one point, she fights back tears and the cameras begin clicking.
When she abruptly ends the press conference after half an hour and turns to leave the room, as the South China Morning Post newspaper has reported, a journalist asks: “Mrs. Lam, many residents are asking when you will die!”
Peering into the Abyss
The frustration and aggression that have built up in Hong Kong over the last 10 weeks have made their way into the civil rituals of daily public life. Demonstrations and counterdemonstrations have become an almost daily occurrence, along with bloody police operations and violent altercations. The city, which was long on par with Singapore as an Asian example of efficiency, discipline and cosmopolitanism finds itself facing the threat of societal and political disintegration. On Tuesday morning, Lam warned against allowing the city to fall “into an abyss where everything will perish.”
Peering into that abyss is a terrifying experience — and not just for Chief Executive Lam and the pro-Beijing business and financial elite, who have much to lose. Many critics of China have also begun to recognize the risks of these leaderless, decentralized demonstrations which have rocked the city — risks highlighted by the increasing amount of rioting on the fringes, even though the protests have managed to attain some successes.
The abyss China’s leadership has in mind became clear with the more aggressive language it has adopted since the occupation and temporary closure of Hong Kong’s airport earlier this week. The protests are showing “the first signs of terrorism,” a spokesman for the government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said on Monday, following up on Wednesday with a statement denouncing “quasi-terrorist” acts. It’s the kind of language that was used just before the deadly crushing of the protests on Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.
That, in fact, is what Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China, is warning against: a second Tiananmen — and he doesn’t generally have the reputation of being a man prone to exaggeration. In contrast to U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday announced on Twitter the findings of American intelligence agencies that Beijing was amassing troops on the border to Hong Kong. Since then, the armada of vehicles has been documented by satellite images and even Chinese propaganda photos. It is enough to quell any remaining doubts that the crisis has global implications.
But what demands are the demonstrators pursuing and what tactics are they employing, 10 weeks after the protests began? How far are they willing to go to push through their demands and how far is Beijing willing to go to stop them? What might an agreement between the Hong Kong government and the opposition have to look like in order to prevent Chinese intervention? And what role, if any, might Chief Executive Lam play?
There is no doubt that Lam bears the lion’s share of the blame for the current crisis. It was her government that needlessly introduced an extremely controversial law this spring that would allow Hong Kong to extradite crime suspects to China. She even refused to back down when millions of protesters took to the streets of the city in June. But it was Lam’s masters in Beijing who, five years ago, had laid the foundations for the current massive uprising by rejecting demands for democratic elections from the Umbrella Movement without making the slightest concession.
Now, the opposition is even more insistent on pushing through the Umbrella Movement’s demands. They are also insisting that the chief executive step down, though that stipulation, like the demand for the complete revocation of the extradition law, has largely taken a backseat to the central aim of the demonstrations: universal suffrage. Only half of the Hong Kong parliament is elected democratically, and the chief executive is chosen by a group dominated by Beijing loyalists.
“From the very beginning, I haven’t understood what is driving Carrie in this crisis,” says a person who has been closely monitoring Lam’s rise over the course of several years. “Yes, she has always been determined and ambitious. But she was also smart.” Her prudence, that person says, seems to have abandoned her this year.
“A month ago, her resignation could still have had an effect,” says the opposition politician Avery Ng, 42. “Either way,” says protest leader Wong Yik-mo, 33, “she no longer has enough political energy to push anything through.”
For people like Ng and Wong, another question has become more important: How can the protest movement remain visible and relevant globally without scaring away the citizens of Hong Kong or provoking an intervention from the central government in Beijing? Ng is the leader of the League of Social Democrats party and took part in the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. His role models are classic resistance figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. “We continue to believe in non-violent resistance,” he says, adding that the movement should curb the influence of “fringe elements” that seem to prefer violence — both to protect the young radicals themselves and to avoid endangering their overarching goals.
Wong, who is a member of the organization Civil Human Rights Front is one of the organizers of the recent protests and says: “We need both, the peaceful ones and the radicals.”
‘We Make Mistakes, But We Learn from Them’
The 2019 movement has drawn on the lessons of the 2014 failures, says Wong, and is leaderless and decentralized, more mobile and more innovative. “We vote on our positions in anonymous online forums,” he says. “What matters is how many ‘likes’ an individual proposal receives, not the name of the member who made it.” The demonstrators of today are also technically savvier than their 2014 predecessors. For communication, they rely on a constantly changing slew of apps and issue warnings to each other of police operations and looming offensives. “We make mistakes, but we learn from them,” he says — such as deciding on Wednesday to issue a public apology to airport employees and travelers for the inconveniences they encountered as a result of the occupation.
Such methods, of course, don’t allow for the precise control of the movement, as Wong himself admits. According to the principle of swarm intelligence, the number of possible decisions is just as large as the number of members in a certain chat group, with the corresponding consequences.
Avery Ng believes that this structure represents a danger, particularly given that many of the demonstrators are young and, he believes, underestimate the risk of violence. Shortly after the most recent wave of protests began, Ng was arrested and locked away for several weeks, thus missing the largest of the demonstrations. In jail, he says he met student leader Joshua Wong, the icon of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Condemned to inactivity, the two eagerly followed the events on television, with Ng saying that he became increasingly uneasy the more he observed “our techniques” and “incoherent strategies.”
Calls for Restraint
Even Edward Leung, the founder of the radical independence movement who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence, recently issued a call for restraint. In recent weeks, his motto has become something of a battle-cry for the young demonstrators: “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our times!” In his open letter from prison, Leung called for moderation: “I earnestly call on you not to be dominated by hatred — one should always stay vigilant and keep thinking when in peril.”
The protest movement’s relationship to violence has not been completely established. Positions run the gamut from strict non-violence to the so-called Marginal Violence Theory, which holds that certain provocations of the police are acceptable. Nobody, though, is supporting any kind of “terrorism,” as the movement has been accused of by Beijing propaganda.
On the contrary, two incidents in recent days have strengthened those calling for restraint. Last weekend, a young woman on the fringe of a demonstration was struck by a projectile and apparently lost her right eye. At the same time, a video began making the rounds of a protester being brutally pinned to the ground for several minutes despite bleeding heavily from his mouth and begging for help.
“Images like that frighten many people,” says activist Wong Yik-mo. “They now need to see a peaceful demonstration.” It’s a point on which both Wong and Avery Ng agree.
After weeks of one-off actions that often escalated into street battles, a major protest is now planned for Sunday of the kind seen at the beginning of the movement in June, when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets. Both Ng and Wong are hoping that the rally will end peacefully and send a clear message to the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing that the majority still supports opposition demands. And that the opposition does not condone violence.
Such a message would be much more difficult for Beijing to counter than the riots of the past few days. Particularly damaging to the protesters’ image is the fact that some of them beat up an alleged spy at the airport on Tuesday who then turned out to be a journalist with the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid. Even before that, images of an attack on the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong stirred up considerable anger in mainland China.
Even the leadership in Beijing would need a valid, obvious pretext to justify a military intervention in Hong Kong to its own people. Images of angry, masked demonstrators would clearly be better suited for such a justification than those of hundreds of thousands of silent marchers or protesters singing church hymns.
At the moment, it is impossible to tell whether China will intervene in Hong Kong. Willy Lam, 67, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a leading China expert who lived and worked in Beijing until the Tiananmen uprising, considers a military assault unlikely. “They won’t use the garrison,” he says. “Deploying the People’s Liberation Army would antagonize the United States too much.”
Still, this assessment should not be seen as an all-clear. Lam sees a Chinese plan unfolding in Hong Kong that began before the recent protest movement and is likely to last for some time to come. He says Beijing is pursuing a strategy in Hong Kong that is similar to its approach in the Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions — creeping integration that is taking place at many levels, including the political realm, the economy and the police.
“We have, for example, strong evidence that police officers from the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong have already crossed the border and changed uniforms,” he says. “This will be the pattern of the future,” he says — police and intelligence service activity along with the arrests of hundreds of protesters. “By September or October, you will see Beijing installing tighter control, and even more so in the years to come,” he says.
Beijing already exercises tight control over local politics, the media, the police and security services through its Hong Kong Liaison Office. Lam says the Chinese infiltrated the protest movement some time ago. “We have evidence that police have camouflaged themselves as demonstrators,” he says. Such a thing is more difficult to prove when it comes to intelligence agents, “but even among the protesters, some wonder whether it was agents provocateurs who may have radicalized the movement.” That alone, though, wouldn’t be enough to explain the escalation of violence in recent weeks. The activists themselves crossed the threshold of “marginal violence,” he argues. But the agents’ actions also played an important role. “In principle, the protesters are responsible for their own actions, but the agents are exacerbating the situation,” Lam says.
It seems doubtful at the moment that a protest movement guided by digital networks is much of a match for China’s tightly organized security services. The Communist Party, which itself began as a conspiratorial movement, has a long tradition of infiltrating opposition organizations — and it undoubtedly now has a high level of digital literacy.
The influence of Beijing’s secret services in Hong Kong also seems to extend to criminal networks. There have been three attacks on protesters in recent weeks, but also attacks on bystanders who were completely uninvolved. They have been attributed to the “triads,” organized crime groups with some mafia-like characteristics. At times, the police took suspiciously long before intervening in fighting in the Yuen Long, North Point and Tsuen Wan districts, some of which resulted in serious injuries.
China expert Lam doesn’t want to dole out advice to any of the parties involved, but he does say that he personally doesn’t think the occupation of the airport for days on end was a good idea. On the other hand, he believes Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam could deescalate the situation significantly, even at this point, by allowing an independent inquiry into police violence, as the protest movement has demanded.
But Lam says it will be difficult to get Chinese President Xi Jinping on board, because he considers the events in Hong Kong to be a “color revolution” — a term used by Beijing for the uprisings in the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East, which the Chinese regime believes are the influences of “Western forces,” meaning the United States. “The problem,” says Willy Lam, “is that China’s leadership may believe their own conspiracy theory.”
On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump surprised his Chinese counterpart with a strange tweet. He praised Xi Jinping as a “great leader” and wrote: “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Later, he added that Xi should meet with the protesters.
Trump appears to be as flippant in his approach to the situation in Hong Kong as he has been in his dealings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In contrast to his predecessors, Trump has so far shown little interest in the human rights situation and “humane solutions” in China.
But this also underscores a misunderstanding: Trump views the situation in Hong Kong as an opportunity to link, at least in the near term, the current crisis with another China problem — the trade war between the world’s two largest economies, even alluding to that notion in a tweet directed at China’s president. It’s the only subject that really seems to interest him in this context.
For Xi, on the other hand, Hong Kong is the setting for the realization of a long-term plan: the final subjugation of a city that remains rebellious today.
But for the people of the city, Hong Kong is their home. And they fear for its future and for its identity.