Another month, another huge political street protest in Hong Kong. Last Sunday the territory's residents marched again, this time against the planned but so far unscheduled Occupy Central sit-in. Just as July's pro-democracy marchers comprised a broad cross-section of Hong Kong society, so did the counter-demonstration this weekend. The coalition against Occupy Central included members of the business community worried about commercial upheaval (which, presumably, is the whole point of Occupy Central), establishment moderates opposed to civil disobedience, and pro-Beijing patriot groups.
The events have been peaceful, reflecting the restraint of both Hong Kong's citizens and its police force. Yet there is an edgy aspect to this back-and-forth mass mobilisation which is worryingly reminiscent of Thailand.
I disfavour the Occupy Central movement because I believe, as my previous posts make clear, a reasonable nomination and voting process for the position of Hong Kong's Chief Executive is probably the preferred option for the 'silent majority' of Hongkongers. To expect more ignores the reality of the city's constrained political identity. Occupy Central's campaign to threaten deliberate disruption is unduly provocative and self-harming; Sunday's march can be interpreted as a backlash by pragmatists who rationally fear the wrath of both Beijing and financial markets.
There are, however, some really worrying aspects about what happened on Sunday.
For a start, nobody can agree on the number of participants. This might seem unimportant, but it reflects a lack of objectivity, and perhaps of trust, in society. Invariably when a rally occurs, there are wildly differing claims from each side about how much support they have. But even purportedly neutral institutions like the police and University of Hong Kong's respected public opinion program differ. Sure enough, we're 'tangled up in the numbers game' again.
There are strong suspicions of 'rent-a-mob', voiced here, here and here. Mainland tourists were reportedly directed to the event with PRC flags. Chinese state-owned companies ordered local employees to attend. Well organised friendship groups kitted out in smart uniforms helped out with meals and maybe cash. Their placards brandished slogans like 'stability' and 'harmony', terms often used by China's authorities.
The covert marshaling of Beijing-friendly crowds outside China is something foreigners witnessed before the 2008 Olympics. As Andrew Browne notes in his essay this week, the Overseas Affairs Office organising them 'puts established overseas Chinese communities at risk by raising the issue of their national loyalties.' But Hong Kong is within China itself and the Liaison Office has unlimited resources at its disposal here. Its website openly features pictures of 'harmony' protesters and 'anti-suffrage' messages. In the crowd-on-crowd game, Beijing will prevail. The state itself, if necessary, could numerically overwhelm its own citizens for 'popularity.'
Indeed, that is the most troubling prospect. For years Hong Kong's government was goaded by liberal civil movements, but 'since at least 2012, pro-government groups, such as Voice of Loving Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have increasingly relied on disruptive protests of their own to neutralise the opposition', as the Oxford sociologist Larry Au writes. Whereas a powerless opposition resorts 'by necessity' to silly stunts, the Government's aim is to wear them down. In Hong Kong's twisted political pathology, people now protest against protest. Those who support a restricted nomination committee rather than free suffrage are, consciously or not, choosing against choice. At its nihilistic extreme, they will be voting against voting.
Even a pro-business conservative like myself can recognise the danger of voluntarily self-restricting political choice. The next thing to go will be the independent media, then the rule of law, and then after that Hong Kong will empty. Meanwhile the street parades go on. As Au puts it, 'unfortunately, countering one protest with another only goes so far. The forces of necessity and fatigue will only perpetuate — if not worsen — the current state of affairs. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to rework the political structures that spawned this insanity.'
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.