By invoking the term “terrorism” to describe protesters’ behavior, Beijing is trying to legitimize the use of escalated force — not by Chinese troops but by the Hong Kong police. Internationally, Beijing hopes that countries that have curtailed civil liberty in the name of their own war against terrorism will find it hard to criticize China’s turn to repression in dealing with the situation in Hong Kong.
For China’s 1.3 billion people, the rhetoric of terrorism places Hong Kong in the same category as restive Xinjiang or Tibet, making it clear that tough measures are needed to maintain stability. State Council officials also have strongly criticized the “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution Now” protest slogan for promoting the agenda of Hong Kong independence. To Beijing, this is a threat to national territorial integrity and sovereignty — and a nonnegotiable issue.
2. Beijing has let Hong Kong’s police play the heavy hand
With a full mandate from Beijing and the Hong Kong government to suppress “riots,” Hong Kong police have resorted to escalated violence. Statistics tell only part of the story: 1,800 rounds of tear gas, 160 rubber bullets, 150 sponge grenades and 420 arrests over the past two months, according to news reports.
The Hong Kong Police Force has escalated its tactics from crowd dispersal to “kettling” — large cordons of armed police contain protesters and deny safe escape routes, with the intent of physical assault and/or psychological intimidation. Police armed with batons have struck an increasing number of journalists, first-aid workers on the front lines and even residents in neighborhoods where police have chased their targets.
Police officers have started to fire tear gas at close range and in enclosed spaces such as shopping malls and transit stations. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the practices of the Hong Kong police are in violation of international norms, leaving protesters and bystanders at “considerable risk of death or serious injury.” An added concern is the use of expired tear gas canisters, with unknown health effects.
3. Police brutality becomes a new flash point and a rallying cry for more protests
Anti-police sentiment is running high. Condemnation of police brutality has become a major unifying grievance in Hong Kong’s recent demonstrations and assemblies, transforming the movement’s focus from a single piece of legislation — the proposed extradition bill — to a fundamental questioning of the government’s moral legitimacy. The five demands are: the withdrawal of the extradition bill; the removal of the characterization of the protests as riots; the release of arrested protesters; the launch of an independent inquiry into police conduct; and universal suffrage.
4. The Hong Kong government seeks to buy its way out of a political crisis
The Hong Kong government, for its part, is trying to spin the island’s political crisis as an economic one. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, held a news conference Aug. 13, describing how weeks of protests had crippled Hong Kong’s economy and warning that further disruption could send it into an abyss. Hong Kong’s government also promised $2.4 billion in relief measures for small businesses, students and low-income households in a bid to appease the public.
But one cannot spin a political crisis out of existence, not in this day and age of round-the-clock social media, and not in tech-savvy, cosmopolitan Hong Kong. For the past two months, daily live footage captured by independent news outlets and citizen journalists has provided powerful evidence that more terrorism is perpetrated by the police, sometimes assisted by thugs, than by protesters.
The moment Hong Kong’s financial secretary warned that its current economic distress was more serious than during the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2008 financial crisis, netizens waged an online fact-checking campaign to refute his claims, citing economic data about growth rates, unemployment rates, housing costs and the Hang Seng Index.
5. What’s ahead?
High school and university students are almost certain to stage class boycotts come September, and a “bye buy day” campaign is in the works. This is a consumer boycott to target pro-Beijing businesses and create further pressure on a government sensitive to economic slowdown.
To broaden its international appeal, the movement has allied with the Hong Kong diaspora to urge the U.S. lawmakers to fast-track the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which will establish punitive measures — including asset freezing and U.S. travel bans for government officials in China and Hong Kong who suppress basic freedoms in the city.
A large-scale survey suggests the public will stay the course. Eighty percent of demonstrators polled agreed that the movement should continue if the government does not make further concessions; 50 percent supported escalating action, while 50 percent favored maintaining the current form and scale of the protests. There was very little support for suspending protests.
The bottom line? Overall, the official rhetoric from either Beijing or the Hong Kong government has failed to turn public opinion around: 68 percent of Hong Kong citizens in one poll thought the police had used excessive force, while 39 percent said the same about the protesters. Fifty-seven percent of respondents blamed the government’s handling of the extradition bill controversy for Hong Kong’s economic distress, while 8.5 percent blamed protesters.
Both sides appear to have dug in for a prolonged and proliferating struggle for Hong Kong’s future.
Ching Kwan Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a visiting professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, chairs the Society for Hong Kong Studies.