Illustration: Stephen Case
by Victoria Tin-bor Hui
by Victoria Tin-bor Hui

Hong Kong protesters must renounce violence to keep US support for democracy and human rights

  • Hongkongers lobbying for US support should be aware that when police are stabbed and home-made bombs set off, it weakens their case and could play into the hands of agents provocateur looking for an excuse to crack down

Hong Kong protesters are engaged in a teenagers-vs-superpower struggle. The movement needs international support to tilt the balance. To mobilise international support, protesters should refrain from violent escalation.

Hong Kong people have been lobbying the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The act was passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday. It remains uncertain when and if it will be passed by the Senate.
Yet, when US Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley visited the city last weekend, they were greeted by news of a police officer being stabbed in the neck and the detonation of a home-made bomb for the first time. Both senators urged protesters not to respond to police violence with their own violence.

Protesters should heed this advice. The act, when signed into law, would impose sanctions against police officers and government officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong. Its passage would help rein in police brutality.

Protesters believe the city’s population is sympathetic to the escalation of violence. True. Even my sister, who did not support the 2014 “ umbrella movement”, has come around. She said in our phone calls: “The authorities were blind to peaceful demonstrations of up to 2 million people!”; “The police are arresting and beating up kids!”; “When we walk down the streets we could be beaten up by police officers or thugs with impunity!”
International support is a different matter. Congressmen and administration officials do not live in Hong Kong or experience the vanishing “freedom from fear”. They only see black-clad people beating up other people, setting fires and smashing up MTR stations and property.

This is probably what the authorities – whether Beijing leaders or Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – want them to see, to undermine international support for the protests.

The furious actions of the past two weeks reflect the backfire from the police shooting of an 18-year-old with live ammunition on October 1 and the imposition of a mask ban on October 5. Yet, this “backfire” could well be officially orchestrated to justify an emergency to curtail freedoms and cancel elections.

Why invoking draconian emergency laws won’t solve Hong Kong protest crisis

It is a time-honoured authoritarian strategy to use police violence to provoke opposition violence to justify a harsh crackdown. Beijing has been calling the protests “riots” with “ signs of terrorism” for some time. Are these accusations turning into reality?
Indeed, why did the police relax guidelines in the Force Procedures Manual on how officers should use lethal force on the eve of October 1? The updated guidelines removed the provision that “officers will be accountable for their own actions”.

Why have riot police beaten up protesters in plain view of live-streaming media, if not to incite such “backfire”?

Why have the authorities blatantly ignored gangsters and thugs who attacked protesters, organisers, journalists, and elected councillors, if not to arouse pushback?
Why have police officers dressed as protesters? There is speculation that the massive vandalism on October 5 was committed by people other than protesters. The Hong Kong-Guangzhou through train does not normally stop and people wondered why the train under attack would stop at Fanling.
Yet, the question of who did what is lost on an international audience not glued to protest news like locals are. Protesters hurling petrol bombs open up opportunities for agents provocateur.
Against the authorities’ provocation, the best counterstrategy is to maintain non-violence, to decapacitate agents provocateur and focus the world’s attention on regime violence.

Research on political movements shows that confrontations with a high-capacity authoritarian regime, like in Hong Kong, usually ends in bloody repression. The way to beat the high odds is not to fight the police when they enjoy an overwhelming superior advantage, but to use nonviolent means to render lethal weapons useless.

Protesters have spray-painted the slogan: “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless.” But non-violence is more than just marches. The Lennon Walls represent “creative ways” to mobilise like-minded people.
Another very effective action was the August 7 laser show after Baptist University student union president Keith Fong Chung-yin was arrested for possessing laser pens as “weapons”. Where laying siege to police stations has often led to more arrests, after the laser show, Fong was released.
Protesters also argue that they use violence to protect themselves from police and gangster attacks. But violent clashes have only resulted in mounting arrests, including of children as young as 12.
Experiences from other movements as difficult as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa suggest that dispersed nonviolent protest methods are less vulnerable to regime brutality than concentrated marches and rallies.
In Hong Kong, rallies and marches require the police’s no-objection permit or become unlawful assemblies, easily descending into bloody confrontations. Dispersed methods, including Lennon Walls, targeted boycotts, strikes and calling out protest slogans at 10pm every night, are less risky.
Are boycotts and strikes effective? In South Africa, armed resistance saw Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment. The sporadic youth violence then, which bears an eerie similarity to Hong Kong’s today, produced only pitched battles, with losses all on one side.

What brought a negotiated transition was not violence, but consumer boycotts that compelled white business leaders to put pressure on the regime.

Hong Kong people have compiled lists of pro-regime businesses for targeted boycotts, and pro-democracy entities for targeted support. They have also developed apps to connect pro-democracy employers with employees. These efforts will help to sustain the movement to 2047 and beyond.

Hong Kong people ask that the US Congress stand with Hong Kong because they stand for universal values. It is therefore important for protesters to uphold those same universal values in their goals and methods.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a native of Hong Kong, is associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame