Francis Moriarty: Hong Kong: A case of fight and flight

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WILLIAMSTOWN — More than nine weeks of increasingly violent and expanding conflicts between protesters and police have been rocking Hong Kong with no end in sight. The confrontations are increasingly ominous and the world should pay heed. Protesters — sometime as many as two million — have been blocking subways, filling the streets, demonstrating at the airport and seeking global support.

Worse, from Beijing's point of view, this time the demonstrators are getting sympathy from different sectors of society. Almost unheard of backing for the protestors is coming from both local and international business sectors. Lawyers worried abut the rule of law have engaged in silent processions. As if governance were not hard enough, there are civil servants openly siding with the protests.

Hong Kong's ostensible leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, apologized for her governance failings then disappeared from view for two weeks. Lam has no popular mandate beyond the so-called "mandate of heaven," that is, Beijing. But she has not yielded to the demand that she permanently withdraw a proposed extradition law that would permit prisoners to be sent to China — the proposal that triggered the latest demonstrations. But the issues have greatly expanded since.

LAM'S DILEMMA

Lam came to office through a selection process controlled by China and is theoretically the Central Government's chief representative in Hong Kong, appointed by President Xi Jinping. The few demonstrations of support for her come from groups controlled by Beijing's United Front department, which is run through Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

At least some of these organizations have links to criminal gangs (triads) whose members have taken part in public beatings of people — including journalists and commuters— as revenge against the protesters. The police (also internally split) seem to have difficulty finding the culprits, despite online videos showing their faces.

In short, Lam has all the responsibility, but little authority. She is beholden to the pro-Beijing front groups, even when distasteful. That's why some anti-government demonstrators gather outside the liaison's office's compound on Hong Kong Island, where they toss eggs and ink at the national emblem to show their feeling about being part of China.

For now, Lam has Beijing's backing, but as her predecessors learned, that support cannot be taken to the bank. She may hold the top job, but by no stretch is she Hong Kong's leader. She has little credibility, no political capital and even the civil servants upon whom she relies — some of the best-trained anywhere — openly side with the protests that have lasted nine weeks with no sign of letup.

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This has become a different Hong Kong. It is not so much a city divided as a city fractured — splintered along fault lines of social class, economic status, politics, aspiration and, most deeply, identity. It is a place where people grew up believing that with hard work and sacrifice success was possible and everyone's boat rises with the tide. Now it's poverty that's rising, the hope of home ownership is vanishing, glass ceilings favoring mainlanders are falling into place, amd the native language (Cantonese) is being replaced by the national language (Mandarin).

It's a classic case of flight or fight. Those who can fly might choose to go. Those who cannot or will not emigrate, remain. For now, they are choosing to fight, even at the airport.

MISHANDLED IN 2014

These protests are strikingly different from the 79-day occupation of Hong Kong's that paralyzed the city in 2014. That demonstration was focused on demands for democracy, and though that event was the precursor to what is happening now, it had a softer, somewhat New Age aspect to it — a kind of Woodstock, albeit with with a hard edge.

But the government handled that situation badly, subsequently seeking to isolate and punish those it deemed responsible. The administration was unrelenting in its efforts to drive the leaders of the protest out of electoral politics — disqualifying some from standing as candidates, tossing out those who managed to get elected, attacking the right to speak of anyone who dared to argue for independence from China.

In short, Lam's administration slapped a kind of a kind of gag order on dissent, choking off the avenues of disagreement, inflaming emotions and fueling the hopelessness beneath much of the rage now spilling into the streets. Unrest now rocking the city of seven million people has incorporated that demand into something deeper and broader: This is a people rising up in a heartfelt assertion of their own identity.

Worry is mounting not only there but also overseas. A group of concerned scholars has begun circulating a petition calling on the U.S. to pass legislation aimed at showing support for the protection of the liberties promised to Hong Kong people when the former British colony reverted to China's sovereignty in 1997.

Beijing has been making ominous statements about the confrontations and releasing videos of China's army and security forces engaging in exercises aimed at quelling civil unrest. The city's police have begun showing off imported anti-riot vehicles capable of spraying protesters with water at a force easily able to knock them off their feet. They have already been using tear gas, pepper spray, bean bags and plastic bullets, further fracturing the city.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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