Scuffles break out between riot police and anti-government protesters on October 5. Photo: Winson Wong
Gunter Schubert
Gunter Schubert

Hong Kong’s protesters will find that violent action to achieve abstract ideas is a suicide mission

  • Large-scale, peaceful uprisings against specific targets – from ‘patriotic’ education and national security laws to extradition – have succeeded
  • The violent tactics increasingly employed in the past months won’t work, and Western governments will not step in when they fail

It has been more than four months since Hong Kong plunged into its current wave of violent protests against Chinese rule. It started with large-scale demonstrations against proposed amendments to an extradition bill sought by the government, which then snowballed into an all-encompassing struggle for the protection of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong, as embodied by the Basic Law in the eyes of most Hong Kong citizens.

Meanwhile, the hard core of the protest movement pursues a strategy of urban guerilla warfare to engage Hong Kong’s security forces in almost ritualised – and increasingly violent – showdowns, mostly at weekends. These are the actions of several thousand protesters.

Gone are the days, it seems, of millions of people peacefully taking to the streets to speak out against the bill and Chinese infringement of Hong Kong’s guaranteed autonomy. Many are wary of the clashes between protesters and police, which are following a predictable logic of escalation on both sides.

People have been wounded by gunfire and fatalities are likely to follow soon if the stand-off continues. Where is Hong Kong’s protest movement heading? What is at stake for the city’s future? 

When Joshua Wong Chi-fung came to Germany in September, he called Hong Kong the “ new Berlin”, drawing a comparison with the West German enclave within the socialist (and authoritarian) German Democratic Republic during the cold war. He demanded that the German government, as well as the entire European Union, stand firmly behind the people of Hong Kong in their struggle against Chinese oppression.
Joshua Wong arrives for a press conference in Berlin on September 11. Wong and fellow activists visited Berlin to urge support for the Hong Kong protesters and their cause. Photo: EPA-EFE

In the end, no European government stood up and took a firm stance against Beijing. Wong’s attempt to internationalise the “Hong Kong problem” by taking it to the level of a fight between democracy and authoritarianism, between good and bad, has failed. It was predictable.

Although Western governments are sympathetic towards the protest movement, they do not question that Hong Kong is an integral part of China. Nor do they publicly reject the Chinese understanding that the Basic Law is a gift Beijing bestowed on the Hong Kong people in 1997, rather than a source of legal authority that now stands above the Chinese party-state.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statements in the recent past, urging the Chinese government to honour the rights of the Hong Kong people prescribed by the Basic Law, reflects a general stance within the EU: it is a toothless appeal from the perspective of Hong Kong protesters, but probably the utmost that a Western leader can say before having to face “critical attention” from Beijing.

To safeguard Hong Kong’s autonomy, it is necessary for the protest movement to return to a struggle on concrete issues, rather than “abstract” ideals. The past has shown repeatedly that there is space for negotiation, and ultimately success, when specific laws or policies are at stake.

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Some examples include: the 2003 draft of a security ordinance in reference to Article 23 of the Basic Law; the 2012 revision of the middle and high school curriculums to inculcate Chinese patriotism into Hong Kong students; and, most recently, the withdrawal of the notorious extradition bill, threatening critics of China’s political system with persecution on the mainland.

Even the demand for universal suffrage, which has forced the Chinese government to come up with a number of reform blueprints in the past, is an issue which can inspire hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Hong Kong citizens to take to the streets and force central authorities to come up with something – as unsatisfying as these suggestions have thus far proven to be. Peaceful demonstrations on that scale put Beijing’s government under increasing moral pressure.

To the contrary, small-scale violent actions under the banner of human rights and democracy can and do serve to delegitimise the movement, and could potentially justify eventual repression. Many young protesters believe this is the only way to rescue Hong Kong from its ultimate incorporation into the Chinese political system and the loss of their future.

This thinking is understandable, but nevertheless short-sighted. Only peaceful resistance, negotiation on specific issues, and repeated mobilisation of a great many Hong Kong citizens can genuinely protect Hong Kong’s autonomy, as enshrined in the Basic Law, no matter how piecemeal success may be in the beginning.

The current strategy of the protest movement to provoke a showdown with the Hong Kong authorities, however, is a fatalist suicide mission to the detriment of what the protesters are fighting for.

Gunter Schubert is chair of Greater China Studies and director of the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany