Violence by Hong Kong Protesters Won’t Advance Their Cause

Like many international observers who have closely followed recent events in Hong Kong, I have watched with growing concern as violence has intensified. I have been deeply dismayed to see escalating police violence, which has fundamentally damaged the reputation of a police force once known as among Asia’s best. The police are entrusted with enormous power—in effect, the power to engage in state-sanctioned violence, if necessary, in order to maintain public order. Misuse of this power can be especially pernicious; it can create deep-seated resentments that last for generations. In Hong Kong, we are witnessing just such a moment of history-shaping excess.

And yet, I have been saddened to see some protesters themselves embracing violence. Some are apparently looking for a way to fight back against increasing repression. Others believe that violence will force the Hong Kong government to accede to their demands. Only a small minority of the millions of protesters has committed violent acts, but it is setting the tone for the protest movement as a whole. Over the weekend, protesters allegedly set a 57-year-old construction worker on fire, after the man argued with protesters who had vandalized an MTR station. This came just days after a 30-year-old assailant allegedly stabbed pro-Beijing politician and high-profile provocateur Junius Ho while Ho was campaigning for a district council seat in the Tuen Mun district of Hong Kong.

Violent protest is, among other things, a form of communication. In their dismissal of the pro-democracy protesters, the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing have fundamentally erred in their political analysis, failing to grasp the depth of frustration and even rage that the people of Hong Kong feel. Based on what I’ve heard from local activists, this rage is driving both the protesters’ peaceful demonstrations and their acts of violence. Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing don’t need to condone violence by protesters. But they do need to understand the outrage that is driving the protest movement as a whole, and that the half-measures and economic band-aids they’ve offered up thus far won’t work. Instead, the government should immediately start meaningful negotiations with representatives from the protest movement.

I think it’s a mistake for pro-democracy protesters to abandon the moral high ground of non-violent, peaceful protest. Acts of violence are a tactical mistake: Each attack on a police officer, or on a counter-protester, makes it more difficult for the pro-democracy movement to hold onto its political support in the international community. As several Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders have themselves pointed out, international support is vital; without it, Beijing has an even freer hand to tighten its control over Hong Kong.

An embrace of violence also keeps the fight on government turf. The Hong Kong SAR government has an overwhelming advantage when it comes to force. The government controls the police, and it can use the criminal justice system to punish violent protesters. Protesters have embraced the slogan “burn with us” as their mantra, and the desperate slogan does speak to the anger and alienation that many protesters feel. That said, at some point, the protests will end, likely with many protesters behind bars. But the senior officials in Hong Kong and Beijing who are spearheading the government’s response will face no such punishment, save for what the history books will say about them.

At this point, it’s also safe to conclude that no amount of violence will force the government’s hand. The Hong Kong SAR government is taking its marching orders from Beijing, and Beijing has made clear that in order to avoid meaningful compromise it is willing to pay a high price—in terms of bloodshed, in terms of damage to Hong Kong’s social fabric, and in terms of the destruction of the public legitimacy of core political institutions in Hong Kong.

In other words, more acts of violence will only make the situation worse. They will stiffen Beijing’s resolve, and give the Communist Party the propaganda fodder it needs to delegitimize the protest movement in the eyes of mainland Chinese citizens, who are, after all, the Party’s core audience. At the risk of stating the obvious, Beijing will allow any amount of damage to Hong Kong in order to avoid steps that it sees as validating this movement’s tactics in the eyes of mainland Chinese. A message that sustained, violent protest can in fact be successful is simply too great a threat to the Party’s hold on power.

The embrace of violence by some in the movement muddies the core compelling contrast that has captured the world’s attention: ragtag pro-democracy protesters up against the world’s strongest authoritarian regime.

Better, then, to fight it out in the realm of ideas and in the court of public opinion, which is where the protest movement’s true advantage lies. The people of Hong Kong are fighting for some of humankind’s best ideas: human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The other side has no coherent response to these ideas. The embrace of violence by some in the movement muddies the core compelling contrast that has captured the world’s attention: ragtag pro-democracy protesters up against the world’s strongest authoritarian regime.

Strategic concerns aside, there is a clear moral argument in favor of renouncing violence. Acts of violence wound both the perpetrator and the victim, and even those who embrace violence in pursuit of a just cause can be warped by it. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself no stranger to state-sponsored violence, made clear that non-violent resistance was both an effective strategy and a moral calling. King wanted progressive activists campaigning for civil rights to avoid not only external physical violence, but also what he called the “internal violence of spirit” that infects those who engage in violent acts.

“Always avoid violence,” King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

The people of Hong Kong are engaged in a long-term struggle for democracy, and the protests of the past several months are but the latest chapter in that struggle. It’s impossible to know when this chapter will end, and when the next chapter will begin. And yet, under the current circumstances, it may be time for the protest movement to call an end to this phase in order to make way for a new one. It may now be time for the protest movement to pause and regroup, and to reconsider both its short-term tactics and its long-term strategy. Efforts to regroup are neither a retreat nor a surrender, but they do entail a recognition that the current course is neither sustainable nor effective. I would call such a recognition, painful though it may be, both brave and wise.