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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

Why Hongkongers are divided over lessons from American unrest

Scenes of US streets engulfed by tear gas have led many to compare the protests with those in Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing figures say the Trump administration should fix its domestic issues before pointing fingers at Hong Kong but opposition activists disagree

Just blocks from where Hongkonger Eric Cheung lives, protesters have in the past few days taken to the streets and clashed with police officers, as looters vandalised shops and traffic ground to a halt.

Cheung, 23, is not in Hong Kong. He is in Chicago, with a front-row seat to the mass protests that have gripped the United States since the death of George Floyd, a black man who last month died after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparked demonstrations across the country.

“There might be some similarities in all protests across the world, but I must say protests are more extreme here compared with those in Hong Kong, both in participation scale and violence level, while the police’s handling has been more forceful too,” the emigrant accountant said in a phone interview.

Following the May 25 death of Floyd, peaceful demonstrations often degenerated into violent protests, prompting police to respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray.

Scenes of US streets engulfed by tear gas – as happened in Hong Kong after the anti-government protest movement erupted in June last year – have led many to compare the demonstrations between the two places.

At least five people have been killed in the US unrest, and more than 4,400 arrested. Journalists have complained about assaults and arrests while covering the protests, while a CNN crew was last week detained during a live broadcast before being released about an hour later.

Social media has been flooded with videos of police misconduct, including two New York police vehicles driving into a panicked crowd, and journalists getting hit by police projectiles.

Policing experts have called for reforms in the US. They said officers must be trained to address their racial biases, avoid unnecessary use of force and be held accountable in a transparent manner in cases of misconduct.

Hong Kong has been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between China and the US. Ties took a further dive last week after China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), passed a resolution for a national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong, which would outlaw acts and activities of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city.

Trump subsequently announced his administration would begin eliminating special policy exemptions it grants Hong Kong as a way to punish China, which it deemed as having deprived the city of its high degree of autonomy.

The mainland Chinese and Hong Kong governments have accused the American authorities of “double standards”. Mainland officials also hit out at the US for praising protesters as heroes in Hong Kong but labelling demonstrators in their own country as rioters.

Pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong said the US protests had shown the country was no better to live in and that local demonstrators should stop raising American flags at their rallies to beg Washington for help. The Trump administration should mind its domestic troubles before pointing fingers at Hong Kong’s affairs, they said.

But opposition activists and protesters disagreed, saying there was at least an accountability system in US politics and Americans could vote officials out of office. The US authorities charged the police officer who knelt on Floyd with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, they said. Several other officers involved in the arrest were fired.

Hongkonger Cheung, who witnessed the protests in Hong Kong last year, was afraid of what he saw near his home in Chicago. The city’s mayor Lori Lightfoot on Saturday imposed a 9pm to 6am curfew after shops were looted and vehicles vandalised.

“The Chinese are more like bystanders here. But as minorities, we are worried about our safety,” he said.

Michael Davis, an American and a former University of Hong Kong law professor, said a key difference between the American and Hong Kong protests was that the US outpouring of anger was a result of racial injustice, which was rooted in slavery and had existed there for hundreds of years.

“Both places have in common a problem of violence in both the protest and the police behaviour,” he said. “Of course, a big difference in the US is, if this government fails to address the problem adequately, it can be voted out of office. A national election is approaching and local elections, as well.”

Hong Kong officials could not be held accountable the way they could in the US, he added.

“This does not lead to a perfect response but it does ultimately matter that the government has to be responsive or it may lose power,” he said.

But Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of a semi-official mainland think tank, said no US presidents had ever been able to solve the country’s deep-rooted problems, such as racism and unemployment. Instead of correcting mistakes, Trump was sitting on his moral high horse “to lecture China on what it should do”, Lau said.

“Will the democratic camp in Hong Kong stand up and criticise the United States on how it treats the protesters? Trump even asked for the shooting of civilians when necessary,” Lau said, referring to a remark by the president that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.

Lau, of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said while Trump blamed the violence on the anti-fascist group Antifa, it clearly was not the force behind the demonstrations.

Trump had also brought in tens of thousands of troops from the National Guard – an arm of the military that deals with domestic emergencies – to quell the unrest, after earlier telling China not to mobilise the People’s Liberation Army to tackle the violence in Hong Kong during the height of the protests.

Ip Kwok-him, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, echoed Beijing’s criticism of American “double standards”.

“Violence should be condemned when it happens, but instead the United States has beautified protests in Hong Kong as an attempt to seek justice, while they are suppressing protests back at home. This is totally unacceptable,” he said.

He urged Hong Kong protesters to rethink whether the United States would really help them.

“If they believe the US is a better place to live, maybe they should make up their minds to move there, instead of raising an American flag in local protests,” he said.

Although the pro-Beijing camp criticised protesters for looking to the US for assistance while Trump was under fire for his handling of domestic troubles, local democracy activists insisted there was nothing wrong with seeking American help.

“There is indeed the problem of police violence in the US like in Hong Kong, and that both the US and Hong Kong governments are dealing with their own social problems,” said Nathan Law Kwun-chung, founding chairman of the opposition party Demosisto.

“But it is a different matter when we try to seek help from foreign countries, and to put pressure on the Chinese government. Those criticisms are really low-level.”

Law said Hong Kong protesters were not just seeking American government help, but also from US opposition parties and other countries. Police violence anywhere should be criticised, he added.

“But no country is worse than China, where citizens have few rights to supervise the government, and the Ministry of State Security can do whatever it wants,” he said.

Opposition lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, leader of the Civic Party, said the critics were “turning a blind eye” to the Minnesota state administration condemning police’s handling of the Floyd arrest.

At the height of the US violence, a Minneapolis police station was set ablaze, while many shops across the country were looted and police vehicles destroyed. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray.

Icarus Wong Ho-yin, convenor of the Civil Rights Observer, accused both the US and Hong Kong police of using unnecessary force on protesters. Highlighting the sacking of those involved in the Floyd case, he said US police were more willing to take action to punish officers.

Last month, the Independent Police Complaints Council released a 999-page report into the Hong Kong force’s handling of the protest movement. The watchdog made 52 recommendations, including issuing clear guidelines on the use of weapons, but said there was no systemic problem in policing.

Lau, from the think tank, pointed out that the officers in the Floyd arrest were only fired after a public outcry. One key difference, he urged critics to remember, was that Hong Kong police never killed anyone during the city’s protests.


Quote of the Day

In the late 1930s, the Federal Reserve Board refused to admit it was a government institution. So Patman convinced the District of Columbia’s government to threaten foreclosure of all Federal Reserve Board property; the Board quickly produced evidence that it was indeed part of the federal government.

Matt Stoller
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