How police high-handedness fuels popular anger

August 19, 2019 18:41
A protester holds a flag bearing the acronym RIC (Citizens' Initiative Referendum) during a Yellow Vests march. The French movement, which had been waning, gained some momentum recently after an incident of suspected police brutality. Pic: AFP

Some international media outlets have drawn a parallel between Hong Kong's anti-extradition bill movement and France's Yellow Vest protests, both of which have been continuing for months.

Although I don't agree that one can draw a simple comparison between the two movements, given their different nature and original intentions, what is true is that both protests picked up momentum due to escalated police tactics.

On the night of June 21 to June 22, police in the French city of Nantes raided a local music festival and dispersed the crowd with tear gas, resulting in the death of a 24-year-old white French man. The man's body was found in a river, apparently having drowned while fleeing the violence after the police raid.

The French police, however, insisted that the man's death had nothing to do with the operation on that day.

The indifference of the law enforcement to the tragedy immediately became a shot in the arm for the Yellow Vest protesters, and prompted them to align themselves with members of the colored community in Paris suburbs, who have been at the receiving end of police brutality over the years.

Some commentators have suggested that the incident was being used by political figures for their selfish ends. Whatever the truth, one fallout has been that the Yellow Vest protests suddenly gained momentum again.

Maxime Nicolle, one of the Yellow Vest leaders, has been found having close ties with the far-right National Rally led by Marie Le Pen.

Yet despite the manipulation by politicians, the reality is that the Yellow Vest protests are now evolving from a resistance movement against a single and isolated policy issue into a mass campaign against police brutality and the entire political establishment, a development that bears a striking resemblance to what has been going on in Hong Kong in recent months.

If even France, a country that has democratic elections as a pressure-release valve, still has so much difficulty trying to resolve incessant public grievances, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the situation in Hong Kong where people can't bring in changes they want through electoral means.

As for authorities, unable to meet the demands of the public, they find themselves resorting to the use of force in order to quell the street protests, making things even worse.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 15

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal