Explainer

Hong Kong’s Violence Will Get Worse

Police brutality has pushed protesters to extremes.

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters in Hong Kong
Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong on Nov. 11. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong’s protests have seen their first death, and there will be more to come. After months of demonstrations over Beijing’s growing influence tore the city apart, a protester who fell several stories under dubious circumstances died on Friday, while another is fighting for his life after being shot at close range by police on Monday while unarmed. Another man, meanwhile, was set on fire by protesters for shouting pro-Beijing slogans and is in critical condition. Mass tear gassings of Central, Hong Kong’s business district, caused many professionals to stay home, while clashes between police and protesters—previously mostly restricted to weekends—raged through the city on a Monday morning following an attempt to declare a general strike.

So violence is worsening on both sides?

Yes, but it’s disingenuous to compare police and protesters. For one thing, the protest movement is deeply decentralized, and protest leaders—who have repeatedly called for a commitment to nonviolence—have no power to control or discipline individual extremists. That’s not the case with the police force, and accountability for the police is a significant part of the protesters’ remaining demands. Take today’s violence: Protesters have nearly universally condemned the fire attack, while the police are defending the shooting.

Polling shows that Hong Kongers are more likely to blame the police than the protesters. While around 41 percent of respondents as of October said protesters had used excessive violence, 69 percent said police had done so. Eighty-eight percent backed an independent inquiry into police violence. As with the government as a whole, the police’s reputation is at historic lows in polling.

Why are the protesters getting more violent?

Police brutality is brutalizing its victims. Young Hong Kongers, in particular, see the police as the enemy, and police officers caught off guard are often attacked by protesters—especially in the aftermath of police attacks on crowds. That’s been worsened by violence from triad gang members, very likely at mainland Chinese instigation, including mass attacks on protesters and targeted brutality against pro-democracy politicians. Crowds regularly accuse the police of being gangsters themselves.

Peaceful protest has also become harder and harder to achieve. The MTR, Hong Kong’s superb metro transport system, is now regularly closed down around protests, while permits are increasingly rarely granted by the authorities. Property violence has become a tool of protest; it’s aimed at businesses seen as supporting the mainland or at city infrastructure, such as the MTR, seen as a tool of control. Despite Hong Kong’s image as a hub of free trade, the actual goods and services supplied to Hong Kongers are largely controlled by a handful of billionaire families who have been enthusiastic supporters of Beijing.

There’s also a harder edge to the movement. Hong Kong nationalism is becoming a potent force—and the early days of new nations, even ones that may never materialize, are always bloody. There’s always been racism toward mainlanders and a contempt from mainlanders for Hong Kongers’ sense of identity. Today, the divide is sharper than ever.

It’s worth remembering, too, that young Hong Kongers grew up—like most people of Chinese descent—with the stories and images of violent resistance to Japanese occupation. Those stories often highlight the role of collaborators and the need for vengeance against them. The rhetoric of “traitors” (often hanjian, meaning “race traitor”) deployed by the mainland media against protesters is now echoed by a growing belief among hard-line protesters that anybody who takes the mainland side is betraying them. Some of the most frightening violence by demonstrators has been against people seen as infiltrating the movement or against journalists working for mainland propaganda outlets such as the Global Times or Xinhua. That’s been fueled by real police attempts to infiltrate the protesters and act as provocateurs; there were some suspicions that a recent attack on the rabidly pro-Beijing politician Junius Ho was a fake.

How bad is the police violence?

Tear gas is being deployed with shocking regularity, including in dangerous or enclosed situations. That appears to be what caused the first death, and videos of children or old people suffering from the effects of tear gas are widely shared. Beatings of protesters—even when they are already restrained or on the ground—are common. In another incident on Monday, a police officer crashed into a crowd on a motorcycle. There are many reports of sexual violence against female protesters.

The use of live fire, however, is a severe escalation. Previously, the police have been limited to rubber bullets—though even that has produced devastating injuries. Another video circulating online on Monday showed the police breaking into a church and beating a helpless man—that’s a particularly provocative gesture in a city with a strong Christian population, where the protesters often have church backgrounds.

Why is this so shocking?

Hong Kong has traditionally been seen as an extremely peaceful and stable city. That’s always been a bit of a misconception; the city also has a long history of protest, and the 1967 riots and police violence went far beyond anything that’s happened so far this year. But the Hong Kong Police Force was also seen as professional and disciplined, especially after the 1974 Independent Commission Against Corruption cleaned up endemic bribe-taking and prosecuted senior officials.

It’s hard to imagine that eight months of this level of protesting in a U.S. city wouldn’t have resulted in far more deaths and police violence. Police in Ferguson, Missouri, were deploying rubber bullets and tear gas within the first day of protests in response to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager and the decision not to indict the police officer who killed him. But Hong Kong has no guns in civilian hands, use of firearms by the police is traditionally highly limited, and violence is rare; the murder rate in 2016 was 0.4 per 100,000 people—less than 10 percent of that of the United States.

Why would the police attack their own people? Aren’t they Hong Kongers too? 

Because they’re cops. Hong Kong might lack the full-blown militarization or racism of U.S. policing, but the basic dynamic of police brutality is similar the world over: an us-against-them mentality mixed with impunity for violence, mixed with an overstretched force being deployed as a law enforcement tool for a basically political problem. Consider the mass violence deployed against miners in the U.K. by police who often came from the same communities—using, as it happens, techniques developed for colonial control in Hong Kong. There has been a real lack of reporting from inside the police force, however, in part because of their growing hostility toward journalists.

The Hong Kong Police Force also seems to be getting advice, training, and equipment from the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary force. The Chinese forces are regularly used to brutally put down protesters, especially in ethnic minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang; it’s no wonder that their techniques are filtering through to Hong Kong’s police. There are persistent rumors that People’s Armed Police personnel are being mixed in among the Hong Kong Police Force itself.

Is there a way back?

In theory, yes. In practice, probably not.

A real, committed, public inquiry into police violence, combined with an amnesty for all but the most severe crimes committed by protesters, could potentially de-escalate the situation. That would involve setting up an independent committee along the lines of the anti-corruption commission, and probably the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. That would leave only one demand left for protesters: universal suffrage. People would still take to the streets, but if the police reined in their behavior and the public believed justice might be done, things could quiet down.

But that would be a bitter pill for Beijing to swallow, and it’s running the show. Chinese state media have doubled down on portraying the Hong Kong Police Force as heroes and protesters as villains, and shifting that narrative would be hard—although it might be possible, largely through simply ending reporting on the situation at all. The political courage needed to suggest it means the idea would have to come from the very top of the Chinese system, which is run by politicians increasingly given to using force, not persuasion, against dissident populations.

It appears more likely that Beijing will follow the course outlined following the recent Fourth Plenum leadership meeting: greater control, the implementation of vague “national security laws,” and perhaps even martial law—almost certainly enforced by Hong Kong’s police bolstered by mainlanders, rather than by the Chinese army. It’s unlikely that this death will be the last.

James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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