Why We Should Not Condemn Violence by the Hong Kong Protesters

Chu Chia-An, December 1, 2019

Photo: CNN

Some people think that if we hold the Hong Kong police to account in using violence, we must also place the same standards on the use of violence by the protesters. I oppose this argument, and my reasoning is as follows: Saying “both sides should be equally condemned” unfairly favors the police, and ignores the fact that ultimate responsibility for the violence lies at the feet of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.

During the protests, the Hong Kong police have used batons, pistols, and tear gas to beat back the crowds. According to later rumors, even a sonic weapon would be deployed. On the internet, you can see video clips of police firing guns, as well as reports confirming that Hongkongers have been severely injured in these shootings. One youth fell from a building to his death upon allegedly being attacked by police, and other reports have surfaced accusing the Hong Kong police of sexually abusing and beating detainees.

A number of mysterious deaths have surfaced in Hong Kong over the past few months in which the corpses were suspiciously found in the water, unclothed, or without identity. Hong Kong government officials have acknowledged that the rate of suicides and discoveries of dead bodies has increased. At press conferences, the authorities have acknowledged that some police officers had impersonated protesters, and some officers who left the force said that police behavior had gotten out of control.

On the other side, the protesters have thrown bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Over the last few days, protesters at some universities in Hong Kong have dismantled public facilities to make roadblocks, and set fires to impede the advance of police. According to reports, a policeman was hit in the leg by an arrow fired by a protester, and others had their masks hit by steel pellets.

Some people think that while the police have caused injuries and abused their power to commit violence, the protesters have also engaged in violent acts such as damaging public facilities, throwing bricks, and setting fires, so if one agrees that the former should be condemned, the latter must also be held responsible.

I don’t see things this way. I think there are a number of factors that make it easy for us to overestimate the seriousness of violence by protesters, as well as factors that place most responsibility for the violence on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

Real violence doesn’t need to look “violent”

Many times, some people appear very violent precisely because they were not all that violent. 

When the protesters set fires to prevent police from advancing, the damage pales in comparison to the persistent effects on the human body and general environment caused by tear gas grenades fired by the police. The average person, however, will consider setting fire to be an act of violence, and shooting tear gas to be stopping violence. On the one hand, the officers’ identity as police helps to legitimize their violence; on the other, the police have tear gas grenades to use, and don’t have to fashion Molotov cocktails. The irony is clear: protesters lack sophisticated equipment for carrying out violence, so in being forced to resort to Stone Age technology, their methods of resistance seem more violent.

By the same token, the protesters seem violent and chaotic when they tear down fences to make roadblocks. However, if ready-made roadblocks and gabions like the ones used by the police were available to the protesters, who would want to tear down fences?

To reiterate, those who are well equipped can choose to perform violence in a “civilized” way that doesn’t appear violent. If a Hong Kong policeman asks you nicely to “go with me” while carrying a gun in his hand, will you go with him or not? In a civilized society with established rules, it is easy to treat “system violence” that often occurs as not being violence, which leaves us powerless when those in power begin to abuse the rules.

Finally, the people who are supported by the police and government authorities can commit violent acts without anyone seeing them do it at all. Reviewing the recent news, look at how the detained Hongkongers were abused and sexually assaulted by the police. If dismantling fences and throwing Molotov cocktails can keep people I know from being arrested by the Hong Kong police, I would go for it too.

Human judgment does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by culture and conceptions. Those who hold political power can not only influence what you see, but also how you understand what you see. For this reason, I hold the view that criticizing the protesters for their violence, or highlighting the need to “condemn violence committed by both protesters as well as police” are statements that ignore the elephant in the room.

If violence were avoidable, who would want it?

In condemning violence, one question to ask is whether the actor has non-violent options available. As concerns the Hong Kong situation, we may consider the following: which side has the greater margin of “options other than violence” with which to resolve the problems?

When compared with the protesters, the answer is the Hong Kong government. Had the Hong Kong Government adhered to the “one country, two systems” promise and democracy, Hong Kong people would have no need to take to the streets in the first place.

When compared with the Hong Kong government and the protesters, the answer becomes the Chinese government. Had the Chinese government not forced everyone to accept its authoritarian rule, the Hong Kong government would not find itself under such pressure to violate the spirit of democracy, and neither would the people of Hong Kong need to protest.

The Hongkongers did not choose violence from the beginning, with the 2014 Umbrella Revolution being a typical case of non-violent protest. However, judging from the history of Chinese rule, Hong Kong may become the next Xinjiang if the Hongkongers do not put up strong resistance. Regardless of whether the object of comparison is the Hong Kong police and government, or the Chinese government, the Hong Kong protesters don’t have any meaningful options apart from violent resistance, unless you consider submitting yourself to abuse, surveillance, and repression to be a meaningful course of action.

There is not much point in criticizing the Hong Kong protesters for their violence. If anyone should take responsibility for the violence, it is China. The Chinese government hardly provides for the security and livelihood of its own people, yet always wants to rule over others. This is the source of all violence in the Hong Kong protests.

*Thanks to Lai Ten-Herng (賴天恆) for consultation and advice on the first draft of this article

Chu Chia-An (朱家安) is a young philosopher in Taiwan. This commentary was published on Nov 18 on the TaiSounds website.

朱家安專欄|為什麼抗爭者的暴力不值得譴責?

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