[Occupying Central Series] Beyond Teargas Spectacles and blame-slogans: What we actually mean when we confront the police/Elton Chan and Mona. C

(Written by Elton Chan, edited by Mona C.)

*This article is written by a friend of mine, inspired by an Open Letter to Hong Kong on http://warewhulf.wordpress.com/. We wish to contribute to a fruitful exchange of opinion by outlining a series of events leading up to the current situation. Please understand we do not belong to any political camp, and wish to achieve nothing beyond promoting mutual understanding. 

Link to Mona’s Blog: http://goo.gl/MQ0T8Q


(Photo courtesy: Joey Kwok Photography)

            How has Hong Kong come to this? A city with GDP per capita ranked 25th in the world, one may find in Hong Kong nearly any sort of comforts and benefits of a well-developed society. And yet angry protestors have taken their demands to the street and confronted the full force of the HK police on the 28th Sept. Throughout the day, the protestors have braved the baton, shield, pepper spray, and tear-gas. They even insist to stay on the scene after the Hong Kong Federation of Students asked them to leave due to reports of gunshots by police officers (online video shows that one or two random shots might have been fired). What is really happening? Is it really a fight for democracy, or is it just what a commentator would call ‘a social contagion’ of protest that has no clear direction other than throwing random anger at the police?

Indeed, the news coverage and social media have been largely attracted by the spectacles of tear gas and the corresponding outrage at the allegedly excessive use of force by the police. In front of the camera and behind the scene, it seems that the people of Hong Kong have placed much, perhaps too much, emphasis on the police’s violence. Indeed, the manner of the crackdown has impacted HK people almost as a shock to their conscience. If we put these two days under a magnifying glass, even important issues such as democracy and freedom seem to have been sidelined. It is entirely conceivable for one to find the movement having lost its focus. Rather than delivering any positive message, the occupation movement appears to be a vent-out of anger against the police. This is obviously the case, if we consider only the eye-catching events of the past two days.

Yet, the political significance of the people’s anger at the police extends far beyond the simple moral outrage once we view it in a larger context.  Since the late colonial era, there has been a basic understanding between Hong Kong government and the people: although the government holds all the decisive political power, the people will recognize the government so long as it will take into consideration of the people’s voices. In the past few years, however, this mutual understanding has been dwindling as the government has reversed the logic of this governance philosophy: since the people have no real political power, she shall push through any policy so long as she gets enough support from the undemocratically formed Legislative council. Protests and demonstrations may continue, but without the backing of any hard power, they can essentially be ignored. This new attitude becomes increasingly apparent under CY Leung’s government. In various major political controversies such as the promotion of national education, licensing for HKTV, the North East New Territories development project and the current battle for political reform, the government has been determined to stay uncompromising so long as she can. In the case of national education, the government has refused to compromise even after a demonstration of 150 thousand people and days of ‘besiege style’ protest outside government headquarter. It is only until the civil society threaten a full fledge class boycott that the government eventually back down. Under this new governance philosophy, the former understanding has been voided. In its place, on the one hand, the civil society begins to learn that the government will only respond to force, not reason, while on the other hand, HK government has adopted a much harder line: if you express opinion, I can ignore you; if you use force, I can respond in kind, and more.

It is in this light that the police is unwittingly being thrown into the turbulence of politics. The police is being viewed as the government’s iron fist for squashing any resistance beyond mere talking. If protesters wish to demonstrate, the police can limit their location of demonstration; if the protesters organize sit-ins, the police can remove them from the site by sheer strength; if the protesters refuse to walk out of the demonstration site, the police can apply force to hurt the protesters so that they will succumb; and if the protesters clash with the police, it will be even more legitimate for using higher level of violence against the protesters. Indeed, Hong Kong civil society has been increasingly frustrated by a sense of helplessness which is constantly reinforced by the police: voicing out reasons alone will be ignored by the government while backing reasons with strength will be suppressed by the police force.

In hindsight, on 26th September, the frustration has reached its tipping point. After a week of class boycott, a group of students charged into the civic square at the government headquarter. Since the square was empty at the moment, the charge only caused a few minor injuries on both sides. Yet as the citizens began to gather to support the students on site, the police decided to take proactive measures to disperse the crowd. Multiple reports confirmed that the protestors at government headquarter did not use any violence; all they did was staying on their ground, obstructing the police from going through to disperse the students. Yet, unprecedentedly, this mere standing was greeted by the police with repeated use of pepper spray, baton and charging with shields. Indeed, it was the police who escalated violence that night. This escalation provoked serious backlashes from the citizens not only because it has targeted a group of unarmed students and citizens, but more because it has clearly signified the willingness of the government to use violence in a ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’ manner so as to break any resistance. This only reinforced image of the new governance philosophy as received by the public–Hong Kong is now governed by force, not reason.

On 28th September, when the police use tear gas against a large crowd of protesters who were again merely standing (with occasional throwing of water bottles which was immediately stopped by other protesters), the image of the government’s willingness to govern by force reaches its clearest expression: anyone who refuses to obey shall be subdued with force. I am not saying it is wrong for the police to enforce the law, far from it. The police is not a legislative or even an executive body; its role is to enforce whatever laws that are in place without exercising any preference or prejudice. Yet, in an objective sense, the police is the forefront of this new governance philosophy. Therefore, the anger of the protesters is ‘political’ rather than merely ‘moral’. When they refuse to leave even under attack of tear gas, they were not merely protesting against the excessive use of force; instead, they are refusing to be subdued by mere force. The confrontation was politically symbolic more than anything else, and the message is a simple one: “for what is rightfully ours, we will brave your brute force."

What do these protesters find to be rightfully theirs? Setting aside all the complex historical and political history and development, this rightful entitlement is unexpectedly simple: “No domination, self-determination."


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