Chang Ping, November 15, 2019
Everyone knows that if the Hong Kong government and Beijing cannot offer an affirmative response to the protesters’ demands, and if the abuse of power by the police does not end, the conflicts will only escalate and result in more violence. However, the authorities are with full knowledge allowing Hong Kong to turn into a battlefield. To help stop the violence, the international community should not stay idle or fall into the trap of victim-blaming.
A mantra that some people use without second thought is “violence is unacceptable under any circumstances.” When these people repeat this mantra, are they including the police in their statement against violence? No. Quite the opposite, when they say it, they want the police to use more violence to crack down on the people who are putting up violent resistance. The Party media in China have repeatedly exhorted that “the broad masses of Hong Kong people should be united in saying ‘no!’ to violence.” The literal meaning of these words is almost the same as what the people of Hong Kong are calling for. However, the two sides represent two totally opposite viewpoints: first, the view that the police should be prevented from using violence, and second, the view that that in order to end the violence, the police must apply more of it.
The vast majority of Hong Kongers believe that police no longer have a legitimate monopoly on violence
However, this still fails to address the basic question: why is it that the police can use violence? Or put another way, what is the legitimate premise for police violence? The answer is that they receive authorization from the people as represented by an elected government. When opposition to the government reaches a certain scale, the proper thing for the government to do is to concede power. Under these circumstances, directing police to suppress the people is an illegal use of violence.
In mainland China, control over public opinion has been very successful in slandering the Hong Kong protest movement, raising sentiment against it to a peak. However, whether or not the Hong Kong police have engaged in wanton violence is not a judgement for the people of mainland China to make, despite the fact that control over public opinion theoretically provides a force of “1.4 billion people.” Nor do those overseas Chinese who “freely express their patriotic sentiment” have any say in either. In fact, the vast majority of Chinese do not have the freedom to openly oppose the Chinese Communist Party. Those whose opinions truly matter are the people of Hong Kong.
According to the results of a poll released by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Communication and Public Opinion Survey last month, 51.5 percent of respondents had “zero trust” in the Hong Kong police, and 59.2 percent were highly dissatisfied with the force.
Of particular note is that only 1.6 percent of those who answered the survey agreed that “attacking the police” is unacceptable under any circumstance. That is to say, 98.4 percent of all respondents believe there are situations in which attacking the police is justified. From this, it’s not hard to wonder: what kind of legitimacy do such police officers have?
For some people, this may seem confusing: even if the legitimacy of government power is in question, can people go to the streets to burn and smash things at will? First of all, this assumption does not hold water. Even without the police presence, people would not just go out to cause chaos without reason. Since the beginning of protests in Hong Kong, the only ones who really engaged in indiscriminate violence against the public have been the police and the underworld thugs who are suspected of cooperating with the police. Second, authoritarian regimes are also obligated to maintain social order; even if they do abuse their power and engage in corruption, but for some relatively clear-cut cases of justice, such as returning a wallet stolen by a petty thief to its rightful owner, this is an action you can definitely choose to recognize and accept, since in this case the police are playing the neutral role of third-party arbitration. However, when the general public rises up to protest the government, the police no longer play this role when they accept government instructions. The problem of whether their authority is legitimate thus assumes particular importance.
Placing unrealistic expectations on the Hong Kong protesters
Since the twentieth century, owing to the doctrines advocated and put into practice by individuals like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela, nonviolent civil disobedience has gradually became the mainstream ideology of political protest movements around the world. In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution establishing October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, as the International Day of Non-Violence.
Whether by coincidence or inevitability, the Hong Kong people have become the best inheritors of this political legacy. From the candlelight vigils held annually in Victoria Park for the last 30 years to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre, the July 1 parade for more than twenty years, to the Umbrella Movement five years ago, and now the ongoing anti-extradition bill protests, all have caught the world by surprise with their peaceful and orderly nature. It’s precisely because of this that both observers and the protesters themselves have harbored unrealistic fantasies about “non-violence,” thinking that this kind of peaceful and orderly resistance can continue no matter how callous, thuggish, or violent the government is. Once the possibility arises that it’s hard to keep things going this way, what the protesters face is the accusation of being “rioters.”
Gandhi and others strongly argued and proved that non-violence not only allows protesters to reduce their casualties, but also discourages the oppressors from committing even more brutal sins; it is a huge force unto itself that can subvert unjust systems and deflect evil tyranny. However, no one can ever ensure that there will be no violent incidents in large-scale protests when the authorities being protested against not only refuse to respond positively, but also resort to threats and suppression. When this protest has gone on for a long time without subsiding, it will naturally develop into a violent movement, like a kettle of water boiling on the stove. Anger is a natural human attribute and and also one of our basic human rights.
Those who use the precepts of non-violence to make demands of the protesters in Hong Kong should know what Gandhi himself did, such as organizing people to collectively burn residents’ certificates, leading people to the sea to make salt to resist the British salt tax, and calling on everyone to boycott taxes, British goods, and public activities like school, court, public office, and so on. Protesters also burned the British flag, and killed over 20 police officers during one of the most violent confrontations. If similar incidents were to occur in Hong Kong today, the entire movement would have been condemned as a “riotous disturbance,” and would not be an episode of nonviolent disobedience in history textbooks, right?
Gandhi himself was of course heartbroken over the violence that resulted from his movement, and even went on hunger strike in an attempt to have the angry people see reason. But he never asked them to give up the fight because of the possibility of violent behavior, and he did not accept give in to suppression for the sake of restoring order. On the contrary, he said that “ordered anarchy” is worse than “real anarchy.” In the face of stubborn and brutal regimes, he called upon people to do or die.
Looking back at the history of human resistance, including the various demonstrations that have recently taken place or are currently ongoing, we will find that there is no long-term struggle that remains completely peaceful when the government does not respond positively. But this is the implausible delusion with which many people judge the Hong Kong people’s struggle.
The Venezuelan turmoil, the Iranian protests, the Albanian protests, and the Romanian protests since the end of last year have all caused regrettable violence. The French “yellow vest” movement, a repeated point of reference for the Chinese-language media, is the same in that it quickly saw violent action and was quickly infiltrated (and “made use of”) by outside groups. Were the Macron government to have only condemned the violence and sent police and troops to suppress the protests, the violence would only intensify. The power that ended the protests was not the police or the army, but the government’s willingness to compromise with popular sentiment, engage in immediate and comprehensive review, open a national debate, and carry out systematic reforms and reflection.
I believe that readers will not think that the purpose of this article is to incite violence, but to expound the fact that the current response of the Hong Kong government is to encourage and even participate in the violence that happens in association with the protest movement.
Some western journalists must take care to avoid victim-blaming
In the face of the abuse of power by the Hong Kong police, backed by the strength of the CCP, the international community is showing weakness and helplessness. This is not surprising. Their policies of appeasement toward the communist Chinese regime have lasted for 30 years. The paradox that complements this appeasement is victim blaming.
Victim-blaming is a social and psychological defense mechanism. When people are not able to provide help to the weak, they are not willing to own up to their own embarrassment and incompetence, and they are not willing to give up their just-world hypothesis, so they play the role of being “rational, neutral, and objective,” thinking that the truly innocent have nothing to fear, and that a victim must share some responsibility. A typical example of this mentality is in cases of rape, where people become more interested in discovering faults in the victim after half-heartedly condemning a few rapists. If the victim does not resist and the rapist succeeds, she will be questioned, “Why didn’t you resist?” If the victim resists and causes the rapist to use more violence before he succeeds in committing the act, then her actions would also be questioned: “why did you overreact [and bring more injury upon yourself]?”
public opinion is criticizing the indifference and stubbornness of Beijing and
the Hong Kong government, but many people take it for granted that this is just
a fact of life. More interest is used to scrutinize the protesters and impose
upon them the requirement of being “perfect victims,” or the “ideal
victim.” The resistance must be impeccable and elegant in all ways. For many
years, the Hong Kong protesters have always handled themselves with strict
self-discipline. The streets were clean after the protests. I am very wary
about the public’s preoccupation with this, because it implies that they expect
the Hongkongers to be “perfect victims.”
As I wrote previously:
“I believe that Hong Kong people can continue to set a good example of running an orderly protest movement, but I also want to say to you: even if your rallies are a bit messy, even if you did not clean up your garbage, failed to make way for an ambulance, did not offer hard hats to foreign reporters … you still deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for this great movement against tyranny and totalitarianism.”
Chang Ping (长平) is the former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周刊》) and the former editor in chief of iSun Affairs (《阳光时务周刊》) in Hong Kong, now closed. Denied a work visa out of pressure from the Chinese government, he immigrated to Germany in 2011, and has been a columnist for Deutsche Welle.
This translation combines Chang Ping’s two articles published in Deutsche Welle Chinese: