Worsening Hong Kong violence could embolden hawks in China

In this photo taken on July 1, 2019, Lam Cheuk Ting tries to persuade the protesters not to charge inside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - For two nights last weekend, Hong Kong lawmaker Lam Cheuk Ting slept on a fold-out mattress on the floor of his office in the Legislative Council and ate congee delivered by his staff.

One of seven pro-democracy lawmakers who faced arrest for disrupting a legislative meeting in May to stop a Bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, Lam challenged police to enter the complex and arrest him. They never did, and he voluntarily attended a court hearing on Monday (Nov 11) without being detained like the others.

He took the drastic measure to resist what democracy advocates in Hong Kong see as a growing crackdown on elected leaders, one he fears could get even worse as the protests become more violent. Many are worried that Beijing may exert its authority over the city to postpone district council elections set for Nov 24 or even bypass Hong Kong's legislature to pass controversial national security legislation.

Beijing's "strategies are very clear," Lam, a former corruption investigator, said at his LegCo office after his court hearing. "They're trying to adopt the hardline approach."

Hong Kong saw a second straight day of chaos on Tuesday, with police firing tear gas in the Central financial district to disperse protesters who blocked main roads. Elsewhere, they lit cars on fire, dropped heavy objects from bridges, threw marbles and makeshift tyre spikes on the road and even brandished bows and arrows - all a day after a man was set on fire.

"Over the past two days, our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown," Hong Kong police senior superintendent Kong Wing Cheung told reporters on Tuesday.

The increased violence is reigniting a debate among demonstrators over the best strategy to achieve their political goals. Some of the more shocking videos have gone viral in mainland China's tightly curated social media, strengthening the hand of hawks in Beijing.

China's top agency overseeing Hong Kong on Tuesday said it firmly supported Hong Kong's government and police to act more strongly and effectively to punish crimes and restore order, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Last Saturday, Mr Zhang Xiaoming, a top Chinese official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, reiterated that Beijing would ensure only loyal officials take the top political jobs in Hong Kong, including that of chief executive. He also revived calls to enact controversial national security legislation that previously triggered mass protests.

The violent acts could allow Beijing to justify implementing a curfew, bringing in mainland police, imposing national security legislation or other moves that will allow President Xi Jinping to exert more control over Hong Kong, according to Mr Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies who has authored several books on Chinese politics.

"The violence they've displayed, the vandalism and so forth, they risk playing into the hands of Beijing," Prof Lam said. "Instead of liberalising the political system of Hong Kong, Xi Jinping will do the opposite - he will tighten his grip."

The debate over tactics in the pro-democracy camp goes back years, with some saying the peaceful sit-ins during the Occupy movement in 2014 failed to achieve anything. That view was furthered when Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam back in June ignored tens of thousands of peaceful protesters calling on her to drop a Bill that would allow extraditions to China.

While Mrs Lam insisted on Monday that violence wouldn't prompt her to bow to protester demands, she already did so on several occasions - including when she shelved the extradition Bill after protesters besieged the legislature.

Over the months, police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and in some cases, live rounds. Protesters have thrown petrol bombs, vandalised businesses viewed as pro-Beijing, and sometimes violently confronted outspoken opponents or those trying to undo their road blockades.

On Monday, after a police officer shot a protester in a video that went viral, some demonstrators lashed out. A man was set on fire after arguing with protesters, while a truck driver endured a gang beating while trying to remove a roadblock. The images were a far cry from scenes of church groups peacefully singing "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord" when the protests began in June.

Many protesters justify the use of violence as necessary to counter abuses of power by the police. They accuse officers of using excessive force, behaving unprofessionally, obstructing journalists, indiscriminately firing weapons and even committing sexual assaults - all of which police have said are under investigation.

A female Chinese University of Hong Kong student surnamed Lau, 19, who was participating in actions on campus on Tuesday, said protesters tried to use violence sparingly.

"People need to know that we don't attack for no reason, there must be some kind of reason, that maybe you're hurting us," she said. "But if there's nothing happening, or you're just a pedestrian, we won't hit you or attack you like the police would."

Mr Albert Ho, a human rights lawyer and former lawmaker, said both police and protesters were "totally out of control". Still, he said, the protesters who used violence risk helping those who want harsher measures imposed.

"We strongly disapprove of using violence," Mr Ho said. "We are in disagreement with the protesters, that is absolutely not right. We also don't think it is right to have physical confrontations. And we disapprove of throwing petrol bombs."

Pro-democracy lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the violence is "very unfortunate" yet the background must be understood.

"When people get angry, they get radical," he said. "This government has to face reality and understand that only a political solution can resolve everything and calm everybody down."

Lam Cheuk Ting, the lawmaker who slept in his office, said the first step towards a solution would be for the government to meet the demand of setting up an independent inquiry into the protests.

"This is a political catastrophe - you have to resolve it by political means, not by bullets or water cannons," he said. "If we could finally have an investigation, we could find out the truth. We may still have a slim chance to start a new page in Hong Kong."

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