West Bank's lesson for Hong Kong protesters

Support could be lost in the blink of an eye if pro-democracy groups lose the moral high ground through serious violence
West Bank's lesson for Hong Kong protesters

An injured man who was suspected by pro-democracy protesters of being an undercover police officer is taken away by paramedics at Hong Kong’s international airport on Aug. 13. Hundreds of flights were cancelled or suspended as protesters staged a second disruptive sit-in. Beijing has sent further ominous signals that the 10 weeks of unrest must end, with reports of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops massing close to the border. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

As Hong Kong police fired tear gas at protesters at point-blank range on Aug. 11, I crossed a checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

As I did so, I caught sight of graffiti on the famous wall that divides Israeli territory from the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, near the Walled-Off Hotel, initiated by the British street artist and activist known as Banksy. Most of the graffiti focused, naturally, on the Palestinian struggle, or general messages of love and peace, or “Make hummus, not walls.” But one surprised me. In English and Chinese, it read: “We love Hong Kong.”

The tragedy is that Hong Kong is becoming more and more like the West Bank by the day. And while the wall in the Holy Land divides not only Israelis and Palestinians, but in some places Palestinians from each other and from their land, churches and communities, the firewall that was meant to protect Hong Kong from direct interference from the Chinese regime is dissolving before our eyes.

Reports of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army massing troops close to the border with the supposedly autonomous territory of Hong Kong are alarming, but even more concerning is the almost wholesale takeover of Hong Kong police. The army might not need to march into Hong Kong if it has co-opted the Hong Kong police force. To make matters worse, triad gangs appear to have been recruited as well. Why march in when local cops and gangsters can do the dirty work for you?

For over two months now, Hong Kong has been at an impasse. It all started with the proposed law to allow the extradition of suspected criminals from the territory to mainland China, effectively allowing for the transfer of suspects — potentially political dissidents as well as criminals and just people Beijing dislikes — from a judicial system that has, until now, prided itself on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, fair trial, the presumption of innocence, a professional police force and basic human rights, to a judicial system based on rule by law, with no such concepts of fair trial or judicial independence, with widespread torture, forced confessions, televised confessions and executions.

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That bill drew a million Hong Kongers from across society to the streets on June 9. Three days later, a further demonstration was met with shocking scenes of police brutality, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons. At least 72 people were injured that day.

A few days later, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam announced she would “suspend” the bill. That was not enough for the protesters, who demanded the complete, unconditional and permanent withdrawal of the bill. A week after a million marched, their number doubled, with two million taking to the streets.

Since then, the movement has evolved. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but her refusal to completely withdraw it has angered many demonstrators and led to their continued protests. But Lam’s handling of the whole crisis has epitomized a much deeper problem, which is Hong Kong’s system of governance itself, and the movement has grown into a campaign for democratic reform.

Pro-democracy protesters wearing gas masks and goggles use umbrellas to shield themselves in Tsim Sha Tsui district during a demonstration against the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on Aug. 11. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

 

Triad gangsters

Hong Kongers have many grievances, economic and social as much as political, which have festered over recent years. Their feeling of complete disenfranchisement, of having no stake or say in the way they are governed, has led to the dramatic and drastic actions we see today.

Perhaps even more than a desire for democracy, people are outraged at the police response. A police force that used to be regarded as professional now finds itself accused of being in league with triad gangsters and of infiltrating the movement disguised as protesters. Journalists have been threatened with guns, beaten with batons, sprayed with tear gas and pepper spray, and beaten up by triads. When gangsters rampaged through protesters beating anyone in sight with sticks, the police failed to respond to calls for help.

Worse still, a previously respected police force is now the subject of a statement by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who said this week: “Officials can be seen firing tear gas canisters into crowded, enclosed areas and directly at individual protesters on multiple occasions, creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury.” Her office “urges the Hong Kong authorities to act with restraint, to ensure that the rights of those who are expressing their views peacefully are respected and protected, while ensuring that the response by law enforcement officials to any violence that may take place is proportionate.”

All of this has fueled anger towards the police among Hong Kongers. Protesters have occupied Hong Kong’s international airport, causing it to shut down and cancel flights. A police officer set upon a peaceful female protester, infuriating the crowd and provoking a near-lynching, as a protester grabbed the officer’s baton and started to beat him with it. In response, the officer drew his gun, though mercifully no one was killed.

Tempers have escalated far beyond the admirably peaceful protests of two months ago. And while most protesters remain non-violent, there are a few who are in grave danger of undermining their cause by overheated language of revenge and hatred.

On Aug. 8, 1,200 Catholics held a candlelit vigil at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and marched through the streets of Hong Kong’s central district praying for peace. Hong Kong’s Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing has emerged as a quietly courageous defender of peaceful dissent, but has appealed for non-violence. “Violence will only create violence,” he said recently. “Hatred will only produce more hatred. Injustice will never achieve justice. History will prove that only peace and reason can establish a long-term peace.”

Bishop Ha is right. Until now, protesters are winning hearts and minds around the world. But that moral support could be undermined or lost in the blink of an eye if the protesters lose the moral high ground through serious violence. The example of the Palestinians, with whom I began this article, shows that.

A policeman secures Terminal 1 after a scuffle with pre-democracy protestors at Hong Kong's International Airport on Aug. 13. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

 

Creative non-violent resistance

Two days before I saw the Banksy hotel and graffiti at the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, I met a remarkable Palestinian Christian called Daoud Nasser, who founded an inspiring organization called Tent of Nations.

His philosophy is summed up in the following simple words, which might offer some inspiration to Hong Kongers facing a long struggle to defend their freedoms. Nasser says: “Don’t sit down and cry, and don’t be a victim — it won’t help you. We refuse to be enemies. We reject violence because violence just creates more violence; we reject the victim mentality; and we reject the third option, which is to run away and leave. Who is leaving? The best educated Palestinians and the Christian Palestinians. The Holy Land will one day be a place without Christians if this continues. So what to do? There is another way. We refuse to hate, because with hatred we destroy ourselves. Everyone is made in the image of God. So we must act differently and find ways for creative non-violent resistance. We must empower people to stand up and act. We must channel our negative energy in a positive way. We must make the land a healing place. Peace should grow from the ground up, like an olive tree.”

For Hong Kongers those words may sound too lofty, given that they are only at the very beginning of their struggle, unlike the Palestinians who risk growing weary. And it is difficult to talk of peace when police officers spray tear gas in your face, smash your head with a baton or shoot a rubber bullet or a flying beanbag in your eye.

For that reason, if Hong Kong is to have any chance of pulling back from the brink, its leaders — starting with Lam — must reflect on the actions they have taken that have led to this situation. For while the protesters have not all been exemplary, it is the Hong Kong government’s failure to listen, failure to lead and failure to defend Hong Kong that is ultimately responsible for this crisis. Police brutality must end, the world must demand accountability, and a serious dialogue about political reform in Hong Kong must begin.

For the past week, I have lit candles and said prayers for Hong Kong in some of Christianity’s holiest sites, including at the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the birthplace of Christ and the tomb of the shepherds in Bethlehem, the birthplace and tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus agonized over his fate and then was arrested.

I will go on lighting those candles and saying those prayers for Hong Kong, wherever I am and for as long as it takes, until Hong Kong’s leaders stop simply condemning the protests and open their ears and eyes to their cries.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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