Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Hong Kong Protests: It’s more complicated than pro-democracy vs pro-Beijing

There are so many things I could comment on regarding the Hong Kong protests, but many observations would not be new to those who follow the situation closely, and would probably not be of interest to those who do not follow it closely. But there is one observation that non-specialists should know: the dispute is not just between pro and anti-democracy sides, but much more complicated.

The press often speaks of “pro-democracy protesters” (see here and here) but that label masks a great range of opinions, motivations, and factions among protesters. There are indeed many who support universal suffrage, that is, a more direct system of electing the Chief Executive (a position like a mayor) instead of the current system of election by a committee of 1,200 people mostly picked by Beijing. But the protesters also include a small but very determined number of activists who want more autonomy for Hong Kong. Some want autonomy as promised under the Basic Law and “one country two systems.” But some want virtual, de facto, or actual independence for Hong Kong, so great is their frustration with Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.

Many of the protesters, both pro-democracy and the more autonomy/independence minded, are “nativists,” in the sense that they resent the migration of Mainlanders to Hong Kong. They are more motivated by anger at Mainlanders, both those in Hong Kong and those who run Hong Kong, than they are motivated by a love of democracy and human rights. Since the 1980s, 150 Mainlanders are allowed to migrate to Hong Kong every day, and in addition, students from the Mainland who study and earn college or graduate degrees in Hong are allowed to stay and work in the territory. This, plus competition with Mainlanders for real estate and college places, adds an economic dimension to the discontent. This discontent is personified by the parallel traders (peddlers mostly from Shenzhen who cross the border multiple times per day to buy goods in Hong Kong to sell at higher prices in the Mainland) who have become a target of anger for many Hong Kongers. While nativists in the US, Germany and Italy are right-wing, many of the anti-Mainlander nativists in Hong Kong are pro-autonomy and often make common cause with the pro-democracy activists, because they are protesting against the current government and against Beijing. But their nativism is sometimes quite hateful; some say Trump-like things like "go back to where you came from" and they have physically attacked tourists, and many Mainlanders who live and work in Hong Kong are quite fearful.

While the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have marched on weekend protests are very peaceful, there is also a small minority that is convinced that peaceful protest does not work, and that some violence is going to be necessary (see WSJ article on this here). Their theory got some confirmation when Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she withdrew the proposed Extradition Law, as the SCMP paraphrased her, “to ensure there would be no more violence and injuries.” There was a debate as to whether the protest had been a “riot” or a “disturbance”  but in any case, the threat of violence was one of the factors that led to her decision.

The forces arrayed on the other, pro-government side are just as diverse, and are likely be roughly the same number as the protesters, or only slightly fewer, but less visible and energized. There are pro-government people who are center-right in their politics and who prefer order and see no need for protests. There is a small but very dedicated “Patriotic” faction that is deeply offended by the defacing of national symbols like the flag. They are now beginning to call for volunteers to come out to sing the national anthem at the protesters and to take photos of protesters’ faces to turn them over to the police. Many of these patriots are members of long-established communities in Hong Kong that were pro-Communist Party and anti-colonial. They had patriotic schools and read pro-PRC newspapers. Others are more recent immigrants from the Mainland. These patriots are convinced that Hong Kong people still have a colonial mentality, and cannot understand how Hong Kong people can wave the old colonial flag (Answer: it is a symbol of protest more than actual pro-colonial nostalgia).

Among the pro-government forces there are also many people who think protests will never succeed because Beijing will not allow direct democracy, so protest is pointless and even risks undermining the freedoms Hong Kong still does enjoy. They recognize that Beijing is encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy, but think it is foolish to resist. They may be right; if the PLA has to intervene, then Hong Kong really is just another Chinese city. On the other hand, democracy was never given as a gift, it was always struggled for.

Also among the pro-government forces are also people whose livelihoods are impacted by the protests, including people in the tourist trade dealing with the decline in Mainland tourism and travel generally. And of course there are the tycoons and entrepreneurs who have investments both in Hong Kong and Mainland China who do not want uncertainty. They have ways to work around the authoritarian system (having money helps), and see no need for these protests.

The disparate forces in the protester camp would fission if they had to come up with a common set of proposals or demands. Since they are just protesting against the government, they remain relatively united. I’m sure someone closer to the protests could describe the differences in even finer grain, but I believe these broad strokes are already better than seeing just two sides.

The protests are poorly led, because after the protests five years ago (what came to be called the Umbrella Movement), the government charged and convicted the three leaders (one minister and two professors) with “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause a public nuisance.” Benny Tai and Chan Kin Man were sent to jail in late April, and no doubt added to public frustration and anger with the government and with Beijing. This time, protesters have used encrypted social media to communicate, but the movement is acephalous. With no leaders, it is impossible for the government to negotiate an end to the protests. Ironically, lack of leadership and lack of negotiation keeps the protest movement united. It is a measure of public frustration that people are still willing to come out to protests despite differences in opinions and goals.

It is hard to see how this “summer of discontent” will end. The government keeps arresting protesters (420 as of yesterday), hoping the protests will burn themselves out. No one (neither the Hong Kong government, nor Beijing, nor any protesters) wants the PLA to intervene, which puts a break on the level of violence. But one has to worry that the frustration and emotions of protesters or the feeling of disrespect and humiliation by officials, may lead to loss of life and to violence that would destroy the ideas of civility and freedom that Hong Kong represents.


Relief at last said...

Thanks for this post, Joe. I found it very valuable to have a glimpse at the nuances beneath the "government" and "protester" labels which are used so freely. Your information is a lens to use when looking at the ongoing news reports. I don't see how, but I do hope a peaceful resolution of some kind can come to pass.

JB said...

Here is another analysis that makes important distinctions among protesters, and has a good and important analysis of sampling bias in a survey:
Why claims that Hong Kong protesters support escalating violence could be wrong… and dangerous
30 September 2019 Evan Fowler