Hong Kong’s tough strategy against protests — and how it could backfire

Protesters detain a man they say is a Chinese undercover agent during a demonstration at the Hong Kong airport on Aug. 13, 2019.
(Vincent Yun / Associated Press)
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In recent weeks, authorities have ramped up pressure on protesters in Hong Kong, calling their demonstrations “terrorism” and hinting at Chinese military intervention. With Chinese troops hovering just outside Hong Kong, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton has warned Beijing to avoid a new Tiananmen Square moment, a provocative reference to the massacre of Beijing protesters 30 years ago.

What are the tough tactics and could they backfire, locking authorities and protesters in a cycle of violence?

Police use of force
As Beijing has increased its intervention warnings, Hong Kong police have grown increasingly tough. They have grabbed protesters out of crowds, fired nonlethal projectiles at people just a few feet away and hurled tear gas into subways. Last week, a young woman was struck in the face with a beanbag round — a small pillow containing lead shot — rupturing her eye. The same night, undercover police dressed like protesters arrested a young demonstrator named Chow Ka-lok, and knelt on his neck, twisting his arms and grinding his face into the road as he wept.


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern about the level of violence. Her spokesman, Richard Colville, cited evidence that police employed anti-riot measures “prohibited by international norms and standards.”

Activist organizations including Amnesty International and Hong Kong’s Progressive Lawyers Group have condemned excessive use of force, and dozens of medical staffers from Hong Kong hospitals have staged sit-ins to protest police brutality.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for her part, has repeatedly endorsed police actions and dismissed calls for an inquiry. Beijing has also supported the toughened approach.

Threats of military action from China

Early last week, People’s Daily and the Global Times, state-run Chinese publications, aired video of paramilitary police armored personnel carriers and military trucks in Shenzhen, just across the Chinese border, preparing for what was described as major exercises. The People’s Armed Police is a crack unit trained to put down terrorist attacks, rebellions and riots. Satellite photos emerged Wednesday of the vehicles parked in a stadium.

On Aug. 13, President Trump cited U.S. intelligence sources as saying that China’s military was moving toward the Hong Kong border.


And Global Times Editor Hu Xijin tweeted the same day that if Hong Kong failed to control the protests, intervention was “inevitable.”

Action by Chinese military stationed at a garrison in Hong Kong or an anti-terrorism police force in Shenzhen could result in a high number of casualties and undermine freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong by China until 2047, including autonomy, the right to protest, free speech and a free press.

Arrests by undercover police dressed as protesters

Hong Kong police undercover officers dressed as protesters were filmed on Aug. 11 arresting Chow. The police said undercover officers rounded up only core “extremists.”


The strategy fed protesters’ fears, and two days later, demonstrators at the Hong Kong airport confronted the men they suspected of being mainland police: Fu Guohao, who wrote recent Global Times articles suggesting that protesters have lost support internationally and in Hong Kong; and Xu Jinyang, whose ID, protesters said, showed that he is a mainland China auxiliary policeman, a claim denied by Chinese officials.

Images and video of Fu, tied to an airport trolley, went viral in mainland China, triggering a swell of social media outrage. He became an instant hero on Chinese social media for telling the protesters, “I support Hong Kong police. Now beat me.”

Hong Kong protests have led to some clashes with civilians and suspected spies as well as police. Some protesters are rethinking their tactics.

Aug. 16, 2019

Propaganda and contradictory reports

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities and Chinese state media have sought to portray the protesters as a small group of radicals.

China’s media have grown increasingly vitriolic, condemning demonstrations as “riots” and “terrorism” and dubbing them as a “color revolution,” a reference to Beijing’s warnings it will never tolerate protests such as those in Eastern Europe and the Middle East that toppled governments.

Beijing also blames the protests on the United States and other nations, accusing them of using Hong Kong to attack China’s sovereignty.


Amid outrage over police use of beanbag rounds, Chinese state media reported that the young woman was actually injured by protesters, a claim contradicted by witnesses. Other reports not backed by evidence include claims that protesters were paid, and that some fired on police with grenade launchers.

Tough justice

The handover agreement that governed Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from Britain to China guaranteed Hong Kong citizens the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest action. Since protests broke out 10 weeks ago, nearly 750 people have been arrested, 44 of whom were charged last month with rioting, a crime that could result in up to 10 years behind bars.

After the airport blockade, Assistant Police Commissioner Mak Chin-ho announced that convictions for endangering people’s safety at the airport could result in life imprisonment.

Those charged with rioting include a Cathay Pacific pilot, a nurse, a 16-year-old student and a 41-year-old woman. A student leader was charged with weapons possession after laser pointers were found in his bag.

China’s official media support a harsh line from Hong Kong police and judges: “Strict law enforcement from the police force is the first step, and harsh justice from judges in Hong Kong is the second step. The police and judicial system share the same mission of combating rioters,” a People’s Daily editorial said.


In response, independent lawyers in Hong Kong staged a protest march against political prosecutions. And a group of anonymous prosecutors in the territory published an open letter accusing Hong Kong Justice Minister Teresa Cheng of sacrificing legal principles for politics.

Pressure on business

Hong Kong businesses are under increasing pressure from China to show loyalty. Besides the arrest of a pilot charged with rioting, Cathay Pacific airline crews have been banned from joining or supporting future protests. Beijing has also ordered staffers at state-owned enterprises to avoid flying the Hong Kong-based airline.

The airline responded by declaring its strong support for Hong Kong authorities, condemning the rallies and warning that any staff who supported or participated in “illegal protests” faced dismissal. It announced Wednesday that it had sacked the pilot arrested during protests who was charged with rioting, and a second officer who “misused information” related to the protests. The company earlier fired two ground staffers for leaking passenger information.

The actions of airline staff triggered a Chinese social media campaign to boycott the airline and Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg resigned Friday in the wake of the pressure.


Last week, Chinese officials addressed more than 500 Hong Kong business leaders and pro-Beijing politicians in Shenzhen, calling on them to support local authorities. They also asked them to organize “positive energy” Hong Kong rallies. Days later, businesses associated with three powerful Hong Kong tycoons, including real estate billionaire Peter Woo, released statements condemning protests. Woo accused some protesters of purposely stirring up trouble while Swire Pacific and Sun Hung Kai Properties called for protests to end.

Could the strategy backfire?

Facing turmoil, China and Hong Kong authorities could crush resistance, but it would be at the risk of long-term alienation of the young protest generation and of an economic downturn caused by capital flight.

It could also fuel additional support for the protesters and more anger toward political officials and police, once described as “Asia’s finest.”

A key reason for the protests, as well as “Occupy” demonstrations in 2014, analysts say, is disquiet over China’s creeping intrusion into Hong Kong’s political autonomy and freedoms — such as the arrests of booksellers and a tycoon in Hong Kong, who later showed up in the hands of police on the mainland.

“Really the seeds of the current conflict is largely sown by Beijing’s own policies. And I would make the same point, that its current actions sow the seeds for conflict down the track in five years’ time or 10 years’ time,” said Adam Ni, China analyst at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “There are steps the Hong Kong and Beijing government could take to ramp down the current escalation, by turning back police violence. Beijing could dial down its rhetoric. But I think now it’s very much about antagonism and these ‘radicals’ who are beyond the pale. We have a hardening of positions on both sides.”


The crisis has already frayed Hong Kongers’ trust in politicians and police. According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, only 20% said this month that they would support Lam if an election were held the next day. More than 75% supported an independent inquiry into police brutality during the protests. The level of satisfactionwith the police force fell to 39%, the lowest level since the organization began polling the issue in 2012.

While some might argue that compromise could risk an escalation of future democratic demands, a further crackdown could imperil relations with young Hong Kong residents.

A recent study by three prominent academics found protesters were mainly young, well-educated people or students with at least some tertiary education, more than half of whom who view themselves as part of the middle class. Moreover, only 3% of Hong Kongers ages 18 to 29 think of themselves as Chinese, according to a 2017 survey by the University of Hong Kong.