Where would we be today had Hong Kong people followed the “sage” advice of those who said it was pointless to challenge the might of the Beijing government? Where would we be if people had been stupid enough to listen to those who said that the SAR’s autonomy can only be preserved by making as little noise as possible and working behind the scenes for gradual reform?
The answer is that a toxic new extradition law would be on the books, school students would be on the receiving end of a propaganda onslaught carried out under the banner of national education, and liberty would be undermined by the introduction of draconian anti-subversion laws, enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law.
What stopped this happening? It was an outpouring of people onto the streets in unprecedented numbers defending Hong Kong’s still existent freedoms.
There is a danger that this basic truth about the current situation is being lost in a mass of other considerations.
But there are, of course, a number of other lessons to be learned from the protests. The first is that the struggle for democracy is a prolonged affair with many ups and downs. The so-called defeat of the Umbrella Movement and declarations that it had achieved nothing have been exposed as nonsense, not least because much was learned in terms of tactics but more importantly because they built awareness and support for the longer-term struggle.
A new generation seized the initiative for protest and showed that they were more than capable of sustaining a difficult and, yes, dangerous campaign. And anyone doubting the ingenuity and creativity of Hong Kong people has been reminded that this generation of protesters is on the ball in ways that the ponderous bureaucrats in Tamar can only dream of following.
The adaptability, or flowing like water, that these demonstrations learned from the Umbrella Movement showed that long-term static occupation was counter-productive, that offering up identifiable leaders for subsequent persecution was not a good idea, and that no situation was too challenging for people who refused to be paralyzed by fear.
Arguably the most exciting development has been the migration of protest to Hong Kong’s localities. No longer do people have to gather in the center of Hong Kong: demonstrations are now rolling out throughout the territory. And then there are the glorious Lennon Walls in many districts, inspired by the Beatles’ John Lennon and first seen in Prague Spring following his death in 1980 when citizens defying the Communist regime took to putting their comments, pictures and even poems up on walls to assert their right to freedom of communication.
The narrative initiated in Beijing and closely followed by the well-trained poodles in Hong Kong is that this protest movement is characterized by violence and extremist behavior. However, it is official deafness and unwillingness to bend which explains why extremism is increasingly being understood by protesters as the only language which gets the government’s attention.
Who can forget Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s first reaction to the peaceful march of some one million people: without pausing for breath, she announced that it would make no difference. Once the violence erupted, she started to think again. So, who is encouraging protesters to believe that extreme action is the only way to get results?
While the protests are gaining strength and winning small but significant victories all over the place, the government has effectively lost the plot to an impressive degree. Lam says she will take “concrete action” to change her style of government and points to a review of the advisory committee structure as evidence of this.
When faced with the “unreasonable” demand for an independent inquiry into events surrounding the extradition legislation, she tells barefaced lies stating that this would not work because a committee stuffed full of pro-Beijing personalities is already on the job. Yet independent, usually judge-led inquiries are routine in Hong Kong, indeed one is underway at the moment in relation to the MTR Shatin to Central Link scandal.
Lam has ruled out any possibility of an amnesty for protesters on grounds that it would undermine the rule of law; perhaps she can ask her friends in the police force whether this is so. After all, it was a police “riot” in the 1970s, protesting at the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, that led to a general amnesty for corrupt police officers.
The protest movement may well fade, or worse, Beijing could order a massive crackdown on dissent. But does anyone, any longer, seriously believe that the spirit of the Hong Kong people can so easily be extinguished?
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