Protesters of Hong Kong, I think I can safely say that I am one among many millions of people around the world who admire your bravery. And support your cause of preserving liberty, even extending it to full electoral democracy.
But I fear that the tactics of the most aggressive among you are going to doom your entire movement and seal Hong Kong’s fate.
When the inevitable crackdown comes, there is only one way that you can win this struggle. If the Beijing authorities decide to use force to end the protests and restore calm, they will not hesitate to crush 5000 radicals on the streets. Or even 50,000.
Some of your spokespeople appeal for help from the international community. This is a false hope. People in other countries will make a great deal of noise but no one will intervene to help you. How can we be so sure? Two precedents answer. First, look at what happened after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When Beijing sent the army to murder hundreds, perhaps thousands, of peaceful student protesters in the square in 1989, some countries protested, some even applied some token sanctions, but within a couple of years it was business as usual. At that time, China was a minor economic force that accounted for 2 per cent of the global economy. Today is 15 per cent, the major trading partner for most countries on earth, and the source of hundreds of billions of dollars for Belt and Road projects in at least 68 nations. If the world was craven in confronting a much weaker China, who will dare alienate it now? Donald Trump is happy to apply tariffs to Chinese goods in pursuit of his own trade interests. He is not interested in using them to pursue the rights of the Chinese people.
Second, look at the world’s response to Beijing’s apartheid policy in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang. The regime has locked up a million citizens, perhaps more, for the sole crime of belonging to the Uighur minority, mostly Muslims. They are deprived of their rights and held indefinitely for “re-education” in a system of gulags.The big intervention by the world’s democracies? Twenty-five countries including Australia wrote a protest letter in July, which China ignored. A bigger group of countries – 37 authoritarian states led by Russia – quickly published a counter-letter defending Beijing.
People of Hong Kong, don’t put your faith in the international community to preserve your freedoms. And no group of radical protesters can fight off the determined use of force by the Chinese Communist Party. it is the expert. It took China by force. It holds it by force. It has overwhelming force on hand. Of course, you can’t expect Beijing to be restrained by any moral concerns. As you know, China’s Defence Minister, Wei Fenghei, boasted to a Singapore audience three months ago that the Tianenmen Square massacre was “correct policy”. For the CCP, the crushing of unrest in Hong Kong will not be a question of principle but of public relations.
Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong says that Chinese President Xi Jinping “isn’t even going to consider” sending in the army before October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. “Any deployment of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] in Hong Kong before that date would spoil the festive atmosphere,” says Lam, and Xi would “lose face”. Besides, it suits Beijing to wait because the most aggressive of the protesters are growing more violent, week by week.
Using violence is not only doomed to fail, it also puts you on the same moral plane as Beijing. Worse, a violent protest movement means that you are handing Beijing exactly the pretext it seeks. If you are violent, you justify Beijing’s use of violence.
So what is the way to win against these odds? You, the resistance movement, cannot win with 5000 violent protesters, or 50,000 or even 500,000. You can only succeed if you have 5 million Hong Kong people in the streets with you. That is the only way to paralyse the CCP’s machinery of repression.
Hong Kong’s greatest strength so far is that the ordinary people, young and old, the workers and the families, the professionals and the pedlars have turned out by the million to oppose Beijing’s attempts at repression.
Crowd estimates are difficult and contested, but its seems likely that at least a million Hong Kongers have turned out on at least three separate occasions in the last few months. This strength risks being squandered. The mass of the people will stay home if the movement has been taken over by aggressive “shock troop” violence. Yet this is exactly the danger we see growing week by week. The most aggressive protesters, the ones wielding poles and Molotov cocktails, need to desist. They are doing Xi Jinping’s work for him.
Opinion polls in Hong Kong show a rising public distaste for violent protest tactics. The more violent the radicals, the stronger Beijing’s case to intervene, the weaker Hong Kong public support for the front-line resistance.
I’m not asking you to stop protesting. The right to political protest is one of the liberties at stake in this confrontation. But I am suggesting that you use a more disciplined approach. If you want to win, the resistance must be non-violent. Sit-ins, marches, and civil disobedience, yes. Trying to out-thugs the thugs, no.
The obvious objection? The police and the Beijing-sponsored gangs will be free to strike protesters without fear of retaliation. Exactly. Let them. Every time they do, they lose the argument and the public relations contest. It takes more courage to accept pain for a high cause than to succumb to the natural instinct to stike back.
To win, the protesters of Hong Kong need the overwhelming support of the vast mass of Hong Kong people. And for that, they need less Guy Fawkes and more Gandhi. After all, Gandhi won against the most powerful empire in the world at that time. “Non-violence,” said Gandhi, “is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”
Protesters of Hong Kong, the mass solidarity of the people, clothed in that great force, is your only hope.
By Peter Hartcher
Sydney Morning Herald