Bill Durodie is Professor in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
Protestors launched fire-dipped arrows at police outside their university campus in Hong Kong on Wednesday, as the continuing impasse with the authorities there moved up a gear, shifting from an Occupy-style stalemate to looking like a Game of Thrones farce. We may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of this phase of the revolt.
All schools and kindergartens were closed following a night of pitched battles that left campuses strewn with bricks and rubble. No doubt, the authorities there are alert to the symbolism such actions will send to a watching world. The latest police shooting and the tragic death of another protestor who fell from a car park ledge have effectively been bypassed in the melee.
Social media is now awash with evidence of pointless and puerile acts by protestors, including hurling Molotov cocktails at metro carriages. There may be agitators among them, but that is insufficient an excuse. Rather, many appear to have willingly gone down the socially-disconnected and self-destructive route that UK rioters pursued eight summers ago.
Then, it became clear that not all (and maybe not even that many) of those protesting came from the marginalised communities these initially appeared or claimed to support. And the police had largely stood by as well-to-do kids from middle-class homes tore a swathe through their own high-streets and city centres.
Of course, not all are bourgeois fantasists who act in such a way. The Professor in Joseph Conrad’s increasingly relevant 1907 classic, The Secret Agent, is but one archetype at such times. Many will act in good faith or with honourable intentions. Some out of naivety. Others are too readily distracted from their goals.
And, considering the confusion about, and chaotic responses to, the emergence of so-called populist groups across the Western world, we ought to remain alert to the possibility that when change eventually comes in any society it is not always from where the more polite and effete expect it to. As the Russian revolutionary Trotsky noted in his magisterial history of those events a hundred years ago, radical change actually derives from deep conservatism.
In the current circumstances in Hong Kong it behoves those who are more politically astute to rein-in the destructive tendencies of those who – by, for instance, pushing away mainland Chinese students – have shown themselves to be ineffectual at building a movement, let-alone being able to win the argument for democracy where it matters most – in Hong Kong itself, as well as its surrounding hinterland.
Last month the leadership of this fledgling movement delighted in obtaining the apparent support of the US House of Representatives. As I noted at the time, the reality – were the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 to obtain Senate approval and be signed-off by a President embroiled in a significant trade dispute with China – is unlikely to match expectations.
The real losers are likely to be the 2 million or so locals who initially supported the protestors’ actions and demands. And the ability to have mobilised so many was a significant feat for a movement with its origins in a not inconsiderable element of petty-separatist and anti-nationalist tendencies.
But the earlier stand-offs with police at Hong Kong airport, together with the more recent, and increasingly directionless acts of rage, points to a movement unable to build-on, let-alone sustain, its initial gains and momentum.
Looking to outsiders for vacuous endorsements was the very opposite of what really needed doing – to consolidate their arguments and base at home, as well as reaching out to mainland Chinese citizens in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and beyond for genuine solidarity and support. Now they appear instead to be acting to force external intervention into their own affairs.
But the virtue-signallers and career-oriented politicians in Washington who seek to push their legislation through, have helped to conceal its true, trade-related, content, and, ultimately, the students will discover these have little interest in championing anti-government riots either. Both parties may also be increasingly disconnected from evolving mainstream opinion on these matters.
Of course, freedom and democracy have never been gently handed down to people by those in positions of power and authority. The British, the French and even Americans and Chinese all bear the scars of civil wars and revolutions to prove this. That is what made each of those nations great in the first place.
Those secretly hoping that Beijing would wade-in heavy-handed have been sorely disappointed thus far. This restraint may be testament to the importance Hong Kong still has to a regime unable to establish its own currency in world money markets. Or, it may be that, now especially – sensing the end-game for this particular round of protests – the Communist Party knows it can simply sit and wait, as even those who supported them in their initial phase grow weary of their growing imbecility.
Worse, if this is what the protestors advertise as being the pursuit of democracy, far from having to conceal it all from the masses across China, Beijing may never tire of putting it on display. The public inquiry into police brutality the protestors call for could also be granted – but to cover all sides and, as with all such processes, designed to take years, as countless witness statements are sought and recorded, while the heat and energy that formed this phase of protest fades further and further from view.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), nor of the University of Bath.