Rioters or freedom fighters?

November 07, 2019 07:32
A black-clad protester hurls a petrol bomb at a police station in Sham Shui Po on Oct. 20. Photo: Reuters

Whether David really defeated Goliath with a single stone from a slingshot depends on how much you believe in this ancient biblical tale. True or not, the story has come to epitomize underdogs overcoming more powerful adversaries against all odds.

Modern history has good examples of weaker opponents winning without the political power that Mao Zedong once said can only come from the barrel of a gun. Gandhi’s power didn’t come from the barrel of a gun when he fought for India’s independence. He used non-violent civil disobedience to defeat the British.

Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Gandhi by using peaceful civil disobedience during the 1960s civil rights movement to overcome official segregation, winning equal rights for African Americans. Nelson Mandela did use violence against South Africa’s racist apartheid policies but later embraced peaceful means to triumph over his powerful oppressors.

A David and Goliath battle is now underway in Hong Kong. It has its roots in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which failed in using civil disobedience to force the central government into giving Hong Kong greater democracy. The current battle began with millions protesting peacefully against a proposed law that would have extradited suspected criminals to face justice in the mainland’s opaque legal system.

When peaceful marches failed, young protesters resorted to violence, which forced Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to withdraw the extradition bill with Beijing’s acquiescence. David won the first round but there are four more to go, including the primary goal of genuine democracy. The Goliath that is China has made clear the biblical tale of David the underdog winning will never happen in Hong Kong.

Peaceful or even violent resistance against a far more powerful adversary can only succeed if the powerful adversary at least tries to understand what is motivating its weaker opponent. The British knew Gandhi’s civil disobedience was unstoppable. Rather than trying to rule a restive nation indefinitely, the British had the wisdom to grant independence.

The late US President Lyndon Johnson knew racial segregation was morally wrong, which gave him the courage to push through equal rights laws. When much of the Western world condemned apartheid as reprehensible, the white-ruled South Africa, battered by global sanctions, had no choice but to let Mandela win.

In each case, political reality was on the side of David in the form of Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Political reality in today’s China is what the authoritarian regime says it is. As the world’s second-largest economy and the global superpower in waiting, communist-ruled China can dictate the shape and form of political reality without fear of sanctions or morality.

We saw that just two days ago when President Xi Jinping told Lam in a Shanghai face-to-face meeting that he had full trust in her and the good work she was doing. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung told the media Xi’s hurriedly-called sit-down with Lam showed the president’s vote of confidence in Hong Kong’s leadership. But the real political reality is that Xi’s confidence in Lam is meaningless. Lam needs a vote of confidence from Hongkongers, not from Xi.

Yet she smilingly reveled in the praises heaped on her by her boss, as if that alone mattered more to her than the 22-year-old university student in a coma fighting for his life after falling from a Tseung Kwan O carpark while reportedly fleeing from riot police. The political reality for Lam is that she is the most unpopular leader since the handover. The political reality for Beijing is that the ongoing unrest goes beyond livelihood issues to a widespread fear that eroding autonomy is destroying one country, two systems.

This is the reality Beijing needs to wake up to in the same way Britain, the US, and South Africa woke up to the reality of Gandhi, King, and Mandela instead of a make-belief reality that Lam’s leadership deserves a vote of confidence.

Hongkongers are not fighting for independence, as Gandhi did, or racial equality, as King and Mandela did. They are fighting for the high degree of autonomy promised them. Self-determination within the context of a high degree of autonomy does not mean independence. Yet the local and central governments have labeled them rioters and terrorists when they resorted to violence after peaceful protests failed.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Mandela’s adversaries labeled him a terrorist but history has recorded him as an anti-apartheid hero. Young black-clad Hongkongers hurling petrol bombs are not rioters. They are freedom fighters fighting for the freedoms promised them. Mainland media and some local commentators have even accused the protesters of looting, which is a bald-faced lie.

Annie Wu Suk-ching, daughter of restaurant chain Maxim’s founder, told mainland media she has written off Hong Kong’s next two generations as brainwashed idiots. It is not for her to lose hope in them, it is for them to write her off. People like her, who made money off the sweat of ordinary people, have stolen the hope of young people.

As for our chief executive, I wrote in a previous column there are five lessons for her in addition to the five demands of protesters. Let me add a sixth lesson. When the time suits Xi, he’ll fire her with the same smile he praised her two days ago. That’s how an authoritarian regime works.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.