Hong Kong’s Liquid Protesters and Beijing’s Strategy of Corrosion

“Hard as ice, flow like water, disappear like smoke. Be Water”  Source; © KitDaSketch,

[An edited and shortened version of this essay was published on the Guardian website on 14 August 2019].

As Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) movement enters its third month, a resolution or simply a de-escalation dynamic still seems far off. However, the past week brought some clarification of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ strategy in dealing with the protests.

The movement achieved early success with the suspension of the bill by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 15, further to unprecedented peaceful demonstrations that brought out up to 2 million people, and police violence on June 12. After a small group of protesters broke in to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on July 1, inflicting targeted material damage to the chamber, the five demands voiced by the occupiers (withdrawing the bill, withdrawing the government’s characterization of the protests as a riot, ordering an independent investigation of police violence, granting an amnesty to the arrested protesters, and implementing universal suffrage) continued to enjoy widespread support in society. The movement’s innovative “be water” technique, moving occupations, “Lennon Walls,” outreach to mainland tourists via “airdropped” flyers, and leaderless coordination through Telegram groups and the LIHKG Forum were all seen as lessons learned by the protesters to avoid the pitfalls of the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Beijing authorities, having distanced themselves from the bill, seemed to be lying low.

But after protesters were attacked by suspected triad members on July 21, the same evening as protesters spray-painted the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, police authority was questioned and the Hong Kong government practically disappeared from public view for two weeks. People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a first page commentary on Hong Kong on July 22, followed by a first-page editorial on August 5, in which it comprehensively reaffirmed its strategy. The gist of the editorial was repeated in press briefings by the Hong Kong Chief Executive, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing, and its director, Zhang Xiaoming, in a meeting with 300 members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elite in Shenzhen on August 7. The editorial drew a distinction between violent extremists who have used the bill as a pretext for other goals and the vast majority of the HK public, called upon to unite against the violent elements.

Zhang Xiaoming further pointed out that Beijing cannot rely on compromising with the opposition and should make no concession to the five demands. In particular Zhang was quoted as saying that “full withdrawal of the bill would imply that the stated intention of preventing Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives was wrong” and that an inquiry could only take place after the unrest had ended. Instead, Zhang argued, Beijing should rely first and foremost on the Chief Executive, the Hong Kong government, and One Country Two Systems, second on the Hong Kong police and judiciary, third on patriotic forces in Hong Kong, and fourth on the overwhelming majority of HK people who desire peace and stability. Zhang’s statement lays out a multi-pronged strategy. The Hong Kong police have been tasked with suppressing demonstrations at any cost. A previous commander was brought back out of retirement, in an implicit acknowledgment of previous missteps, but presumably to enforce even harsher methods. On August 12, police were forced to recognize that plainclothes offices had infiltrated protesters. Similarly, the judiciary will come under further pressure from the prosecution, using politicized charges and expedited procedures.

Next, patriotic forces will be mobilized to reunify the extremely disunited pro-establishment camp: businesses will face disproportionate retaliation or boycott if they do not actively oppose the protests; universities and public institutions in Hong Kong will be brought back under control through internal discipline. This will raise the cost of sympathizing and participating for ordinary protesters. Indeed, pro-establishment politicians immediately lined up behind Beijing’s wording, putting an end to calls for Lam’s resignation or an independent inquiry. Finally, Beijing has engaged in a battle to turn public opinion in Hong Kong against the movement and isolate the “violent extremists” from the “patriotic silent majority,” especially by highlighting the economic impact of protests. Depictions of the protests as instigated by “foreign forces” were stepped up.

This “strategy of attrition” served Beijing quite well in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the same time, Beijing also continues to “breathe fire” and release videos hinting at the possibility of a military crackdown. Beijing’s position is no doubt driven by fear of contagion to the mainland and geopolitical anxiety about Hong Kong’s loyalty, at the same time as by the need to maintain Hong Kong’s “stability and prosperity” and mainland influence in Taiwan. The protesters’ challenge will therefore be to avoid responding to police provocations with violence, and to keep public opinion on their side, even as surveys show the public’s concern about the level of violence. Support for at least two of the claims remains above 95%, as another recent survey points out. However, the leaderless “be water” strategy has also emerged as liability of the movement, as there is no forum to coordinate a return to non-violent tactics or possible negotiations. Finding an exit strategy is almost always the most difficult part of a mobilization and it remains unclear how the spiral of escalating violence can be halted.