18 April 2019
Pro-democracy activists need to map out a new strategy as civil disobedience doesn't seem to be yielding results. Photo: Bloomberg
Pro-democracy activists need to map out a new strategy as civil disobedience doesn't seem to be yielding results. Photo: Bloomberg

Will civil disobedience still work?

The police have cleared the last few protest camps in Causeway Bay and outside the Legislative Council complex early this week. With the operations carried out peacefully, the public’s anxiety has waned. Even some protesters who chose to stay on and get arrested noted later that this time they were greatly relieved to see the police perform their duty in a calm and professional manner.

Police Commissioner Tsang Wai-hung, who stayed largely invisible throughout the 70-odd days of protests, convened a high-profile news conference together with other senior police officers upon the completion of all clearance operations.

Tsang said that the duration of the occupation, the vast number of protesters as well as their “radical” acts could not all be anticipated. He stressed that if the protesters had complied with the police advice and avoided charging cordon lines, the police wouldn’t have had to use force on some occasions.

That may be true, but Tsang still owes the public an explanation for firing tear gas on Sept. 28. As for the question as to whether the police’s reputation can be restored, it will depend on if and how the seven policemen who brutally shoved and kicked a handcuffed protester in a dark corner in Tamar will be brought to justice.

Anyway, the police exercised a high degree of care and restraint during the clearance operation, in stark contrast to the all-out, ruthless crackdown on student protesters that September night when Occupy was formally launched.

Now, with a peaceful ending of the street protests, the police can heave a sigh of relief that its image can be partially mended, while the public can soothe their nerves that bloodshed was avoided and all policemen and protesters were safe.

We are aware that members of the police and all other disciplined services have to subject themselves to orders and instructions from above, but if top leaders lack the capability to lead or if they are warmongering or malevolent, then the police will become enemy of the people.

Firing tear gas on unarmed, peaceful protesters is one example and I fail to figure out how the decision was made: was it a reckless order laid down by Beijing or a misstep of local authorities hijacked by hawkish figures?

The mass protests have offered food for thought in many aspects.

After protesters retreated from the street empty-handed, it’s now crystal clear that only in a society based on the rule of law can civil disobedience movement press the authorities. In an authoritarian regime, those in power will never be bothered by any dissenting voices and surely they will suppress and jail all dissidents under the name of treason or rebellion against the party.

Many Hongkongers are advocates of a civil society but there are also numerous locals who worship the kind of governance built on power and repression. That’s why we have seen over the past months that Beijing and its lackeys in the SAR government, in the disguise of law, can indiscriminately label protesters as offenders and criminals. 

A political problem can only be resolved politically. A pullback is far from the end in the campaign and everyone knows that sooner or later there will be subsequent movements or even a more violent showdown.

I doubt whether a civil disobedience movement is still a workable strategy in the quest for democracy in future as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s response throughout the crisis has been nothing more than a slap in the face, and as Beijing is steadfast in backing the highly unpopular Leung.

Zhang Rongshun, vice chairman of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and vice director of the panel’s Basic Law Committee, told a seminar in Shenzhen that “Hongkongers still lack national identity” and need “re-enlightenment and renewed understanding” of the “one country, two systems” and the Basic law.

Zhang’s words are stern and chilly. The logic of these mainland officials runs counter to Hongkongers’ way of thinking. And when the mindset is poles apart, there’s no way to reconcile.

By comparison, LegCo president Jasper Tsang’s comments on the movement may sound more rational and down-to-earth to a Hong Kong ear. He notes that internal conflicts are what propel social movements, and that external forces or meddling, which can be around anytime anywhere, may not be a determinant factor and that their role should not be overstated.

Authorities make a deal about the inconveniences and impact of the protests, with exaggerated claims that the movement has dealt a crippling blow to businesses and people’s livelihood in affected areas. As Hongkongers can be regarded as economic animals, the propaganda war and all sorts of accusations have stirred up deep resentment among some people.

Apparently, the government’s bid to divide public opinion has succeeded. As for the protesters, they have all got stranded by the government’s strategy to wait out the movement.

Student representatives have called for renewed non-cooperation action but I strongly suggest that people’s lives should not be disturbed if the activists want to gain wider support.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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