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Thursday, August 08, 2019, 19:34
If reason prevails Hong Kong still has a future
By Grenville Cross
Thursday, August 08, 2019, 19:34 By Grenville Cross

After the peaceful protest movement was hijacked by fanatics in June, the levels of violence have been horrific. Although their numbers are not large, they are increasing, and this will continue until law and order is finally restored. They have declared war on society by mounting what is fast becoming an insurgency, with guerrilla tactics playing their part.

They deploy random violence, with little or no regard for human life or safety. However, within their movement, four distinct groups can now be identified, although there is inevitably some overlap between them.

Into the first category fall the delinquents of all ages, often thrill-seekers and the naive, but also including those who, like football hooligans, relish violence for its own sake. How else to explain the acts of people who place metal objects on the MTR lines, endangering trains and passengers alike, or throw petrol bombs at passing taxis. These are sometimes people who are unhappy with their lives, their prospects or their jobs, and are seeking an outlet for their frustrations. They want to vent their anger on society by, for example, destroying parked vehicles, attacking police stations, and damaging the roads, particularly when they can get away with it. That the “pan-democratic” politicians, including the Civic Party, are always on hand to defend their vandalism, and to claim “it’s all the government’s fault” is, of course, an added encouragement, and spurs them on.

Then there are the anarchists, who revel in mayhem. Lacking any loyalties or sense of purpose, they hate our society and its success, and wish to disrupt things. Such people are often gullible, and care not that they are being manipulated by extremists or foreign agencies. But woe betide anybody who gets in their way, particularly if they are elderly, alone or academics. They readily attach themselves to whatever protest is going, mouthing the slogans of the hour, and involving themselves in any excess, including attacks on the homes of police officers. If this will also cause problems for Beijing, so much the better.

Although initially low-key, the third group, the separatists, who want to split Hong Kong from China, have, over the weeks, become increasingly prominent. Their chant, “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of our time”, now often resonates on the streets. After the Legislative Council building was invaded on 1 July, they showed themselves to the watching world. Having scrawled “Hong Kong is not China” on the walls, they desecrated Hong Kong’s regional emblem, and unfurled the old British colonial-era flag. To leave nobody in any doubt, they then ostentatiously ripped up the Basic Law, the very symbol of the “one country, two systems” principle, under which Hong Kong has, since reunification, been able to retain its capitalist system and way of life. They are also the people who will have been closely involved in attacks on the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, in throwing the national flag into the sea, and painting “Liberate Hong Kong” on the Golden Bauhinia Square’s statue.

To the extent that the various fanatics have fully thought through the consequences of their actions, and many in the first two categories may not have done, the possibility of Beijing intervening and putting an end to “one country, two system” is something worth seeking. Not only would it attract widespread criticism of China around the world, but it would also strengthen the hand of those in Taiwan who oppose reunification

Finally, of course, there is the terrorist group itself, closely aligned to the separatists, and with no compunction in making - or throwing - petrol bombs. On July 19, after the police raided premises belonging to the secessionist Hong Kong National Front (HKNF), in Tsuen Wan, they found two kilos of the high explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, in an improvised laboratory. TATP is the explosive of choice of global terrorists, who used it to kill 52 people in the London bombings of 2005, and 130 people in the Paris bombings of 2015. Had this made its way onto our streets, there could well have been multiple fatalities, and Hong Kong has had a very narrow escape. After this, nobody can be under any illusions as to the threats confronting our society, and we must all pray that the police have sufficient manpower to neutralize them all. They also discovered ten Molotov cocktails, face masks, goggles and T-shirts of the HKNP, and two separatists have been arrested, one from the HKNP and the other from the Hong Kong Independence Union.   On August 1, moreover, a bomb factory, containing 30 Molotov cocktails and chemicals, was discovered in Tin Shui Wai, together with HK$500,000 in cash, of uncertain provenance.    

Although the first two groups are unlikely to provide much leadership, once the orders are given for the attacks to begin there is apparently a mixing of roles. Since chains of command are preserved where possible, it seems that, like the Islamic “martyrs”, who are told they will go to heaven if they kill infidels, the most barbaric elements are given their head, with assurances that, if arrested, they have nothing to fear, as tame lawyers are standing by. The amounts of cash being made available to reward the men of violence are said to be considerable, though this apparently sometimes takes the form of Octopus cards and redeemable store vouchers, often in multiples.    

To the extent that the various fanatics have fully thought through the consequences of their actions, and many in the first two categories may not have done, the possibility of Beijing intervening and putting an end to “one country, two system” is something worth seeking. Not only would it attract widespread criticism of China around the world, but it would also strengthen the hand of those in Taiwan who oppose reunification. The fugitive proposals, therefore, are a complete red herring, and the real purpose is to undermine China.

In the face of unprecedented violence, the police have held their nerve and done an incredible job. They have faced huge challenges, including cyberbullying and threats to family members. Their courage in confronting armed aggressors and petrol bombs has not only been in the best traditions of the police force, but well beyond the call of duty. Although China’s rivals around the world have tried to blacken their reputation, they have shown great restraint and bravery, and police officers of all ranks will hopefully feature prominently in the next honors list.

In the meantime, an urgent strengthening of the police force may be required, together with an expansion of the Police Tactical Unit. Given the presence of illicit explosives facilities, the police’s intelligence-gathering capabilities may also need enhancement. After the Special Branch was disbanded in 1995, some of its counter-subversion capabilities were lost to the force, yet these are now sorely needed. It seems clear that highly dangerous elements are now operating in Hong Kong at different levels, some with foreign links, yet the radar is not always picking them up.  

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is certainly right in saying that “it’s time to say no to chaos and violence”, there are no instant remedies, as some people think. To make concessions to the fanatics achieves nothing, and simply emboldens them. The community as a whole, therefore, must unite against the violence of the few, and demonstrate its repugnance of hate and dissension. Authority figures, be they parents, academics or employers, must make the voice of reason heard. After all, there is nothing to be gained from cutting off the nose to spite the face. Hong Kong, which is now nowhere near as important to China economically as it was in 1997, can still have a great future, provided it does not blow it all needlessly.

As regards future development, the central government authorities have indicated ambitious plans for Hong Kong’s prosperity in the Greater Bay Area. Apart from being a financial center, it will also play a leading role as an innovation and technology hub, with assured prospects. To alleviate housing shortages, Lam has announced major housing projects in the Lantau area, which will supplement those already envisaged for the North East New Territories. If, moreover, Hong Kong can demonstrate that it is willing to discharge its responsibilities to the rest of the country, and that it can leverage on its unique status under the Basic Law, there is no reason why democratic development should not resume, with our current way of life hopefully continuing beyond 2047. If, however, it chooses to squander its many advantages, it will have only itself to blame.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.

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