Hong Kong 2 9 August 2019.

Revolutionary movements begin as coalitions of conservatives, moderates, and radicals.[1]  As they accomplish early goals, many of the conservatives drop-out and the radicals raise their sights.  The moderates then becoming the trailing group, while the early radicals fragment into moderate and more radical groups.  Rinse and repeat.  Eventually, power passes to the radical minority.  More and more people shift to the ranks of the already-satisfied and the alarmed-by-radicalism.  Eventually the forces of order decide that the balance of power is now on their side.  Disaster then follows for everyone as repression hammers radicals, moderates, and conservatives alike.  We may be seeing the same process in Hong Kong.

In July 2019, groups of young protestors, wearing hard-hats and black T-shirts,[2] began to confront the police.  They broke into the Legislative Council building, surrounded police stations, and pelted the police with bricks.  Generally, cops don’t like this.  On 5 August 2019, demonstrators disrupted transportation and issued a call for workers to stay home.

The government finds itself in a dilemma—for the moment.  On the one hand, it cannot respond too aggressively against a protest movement that claims that Beijing is intruding into Hong Kong affairs.  That would prove their point.  It has to continue the charade.

On the other hand, it has begun to exert counter-pressure.[3]  For one thing, support for Carrie Lam is unyielding.  For another, it keeps issuing verbal warnings that the protests are going too far.  On 6 August 2019, a senior Chinese official said “I want to warn all the criminals to not wrongly judge the situation and take restraint for weakness.  A blow from the sword of law is waiting for them in the future.”  A blow from a piece of rebar is more at hand.  There is a long tradition of Chinese governments co-operating with organized crime.[4]  Sluggers for one or more of the Hong Kong “triads,” armed with sections of rebar, attacked a bunch of demonstrators in July 2019.  For some reason, the police were slow to respond.  Then, the past Spring has seen the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.  Do people in Hong Kong believe that the Chinese government will not, cannot repeat the experience?

Veering off in a different direction, what if one underlying source of the protests is the growing inequality within Hong Kong?[5]  In particular, housing prices have sky-rocketed without any government response.  As on the mainland, powerful economic interests dominate the government.  However, it is claimed that the Hong Kong interests are property development moguls, rather than the Communist Party.

What if Beijing announced that it would allow the development of housing in “brownfield” and farm areas, subsidize rents, and extend mass transit?  How many protestors would peel off?  It seems like a better approach than shooting people.  Almost anything is.

[1] Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (1938).  Sure, it’s old.  So is Thucydides, so is Adam Smith, so am I.

[2] In Chinese culture, “Black corresponds to water and … is the color of heaven, symbolizing the northern and western sky. This color represents immortality, knowledge, stability and power.”  NB: My underlining.  The youthful demonstrators have adopted the cry “Be water.”  But black is also associated with “darkness and secrecy. The word ‘mafia’ translates to ‘black society’ in Chinese.”  https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/lucky-numbers-and-colors-in-chinese-culture.htm

[3] Daniel Victor and Alan Yuhas, “How the Demonstrations in Hong Kong Have Evolved,” NYT, 9 August 2019.

[4] For one example, see Brian Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937 (1996).

[5] Nathaniel Taplin, “Hong Kong Needs Urgent Action,” WSJ, 9 August 2019.

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