The classic reaction to the sight of two parties in conflict, neither of whom is to your liking, is, “Let them fight it out, no matter who wins, and let the neutral parties stay out of it.”
For some, it is tempting to say that about the ever-escalating, ever-uglier confrontations between the protesters and the police in Hong Kong. Both have used violence, both have wrought chaos and harmed the image of this showcase city. Both have gone on too long, seemingly acting without plan or purpose, except to outlast the other side.
But the plague-on-both-your-houses dismissal applies only when both sides are more or less equally in the wrong, both partners in villainy. It is morally defensible to refuse to take sides, to refuse to choose the lesser of two evils, because neither is really lesser.
Such is not the case in Hong Kong.
While it is true that the protesters have vandalized public property and engaged in violence against the authorities, and their movement — lacking leadership or even coordination — seems to be going nowhere and promises nothing but anarchy, hemmed in as much by their own shortcomings as by police tactics, the blame for the current crisis is not equal.
As lethal as a bow and arrow can be (like the one used by a protester this week), it is still not to be compared to the massed might of state power, armed with riot sticks, water cannons and tear gas, and threatening to use live ammunition on students who are mostly carrying makeshift shields and waving umbrellas.
To a certain extent it can be argued that the protesters have brought the police crackdown on themselves. No doubt, a more mature, even-tempered protest movement — as it indeed started out to be several months ago — might have averted the bludgeoning response. But a policy of non-violence and self-restraint is difficult to maintain in the face of persistent provocation. Eventually, the voices of moderation lost out to the hotheads, and now we have what we have.
But if the protesters are to be criticized for their bad behavior, their crimes have still been relatively minor. And in their favor is the irrefutable fact that their cause is just.
As for the authorities’ day-to-day conduct, that appears designed to engender more suspicion, antagonism and outrage, almost to guarantee — if not a Tiananmen-style disaster — at least a sullen capitulation of the democracy forces.
The official pose of a restrained response has been something short of convincing. Much of the violence on the protesters’ side can be understood as acting out of self-defense. Considering that police have shot two teenagers in recent incidents and there was a premeditated attack by anonymous men wielding metal rods at Yuen Long train station while police stood by, there is reason for people to feel defensive.
During the siege of the Polytechnic University campus this week, police were accused of offering the protesters safe passage if they would put down their weapons and gas masks — but then, when unarmed students attempted to leave, police blocked the exits and rushed to make arrests.
As Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters: “The police might not storm the campus, but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run. It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”
The pronouncements of The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party are, to say the least, not helpful, blaring on its front page: “What we are facing today is a struggle between safeguarding ‘one country, two systems’ and destroying it … On an issue involving national sovereignty and the future of Hong Kong, there is no middle ground and absolutely no room for compromise.”
In the true style of communist rhetoric, its assertions are absolutist and the opposite of the truth.
For, actually, it is Beijing and its proxies in the local administration who are imperiling the “one country, two systems” concept by hacking away at residents’ freedoms even before Hong Kong reverts to full Chinese control in 2047. It was, after all, the move to pass a law allowing extradition of suspects to the mainland — a transparent imposition of Chinese authoritarianism — that triggered the protests several months ago in the first place.
Is there a way out of this impasse?
Yes, there is.
Recognizing that the police and protesters are not equally at fault, the rest of the world has to take action.
There is reason to believe that international pressure will prod Beijing to act, to climb down from the crackdown.
Ultimately, the regime must realize that it has too much to lose by clinging to its authoritarian response, and much to gain by showing some flexibility and humane actions.
The leaders of China are pragmatists. They know that another Tiananmen will hurt their international image as a civilized nation. They need not embrace the freedom-loving ethic of Hong Kong to come out of this crisis with their prestige intact. They merely need to respect it, to go back to keeping hands off.