As 800,000 people marched through central Hong Kong to demand democracy and an investigation into police brutality on Sunday, China’s state broadcaster seemed to be struggling. The peaceful demonstration was the largest in four months. It contradicted the narrative from Beijing, which claims the unrest is the work of a tiny group of violent extremists backed by “hostile foreign forces”.
While most other media reported on the huge turnout and absence of violence, China Global Television Network tweeted a video of a small group of “people dressed in black and yelling profanities” at riot police. But wishing away the problem or twisting the facts to discredit peaceful demonstrations is not just perverse. It is genuinely dangerous.
After pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in local elections in the territory in late November, the violence and vandalism of recent months has died down. But the demands of most Hong Kongers have not gone away.
China’s leaders now have a small window in which to end the biggest rebellion on Chinese soil in three decades. To do that, they should allow an independent investigation into police behaviour and lay out a realistic plan to introduce universal suffrage as promised by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. If Beijing continues to ignore mass marches and advocacy through the ballot box then it will be entirely responsible for the descent into violence that comes next.
Before the march on Sunday, the Hong Kong police announced the capture of numerous weapons, including a handgun it said was meant to be used against police. This appeared to be a clumsy effort to dissuade the public from attending the rally. But there is no question that a large section of the protest movement is rapidly radicalising. Violence in the name of the cause is becoming more acceptable, even among ordinary citizens.
As Martin Luther King Jr said, in the context of the American civil rights movement: if “repressed emotions do not come out in nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.”
As for the protest movement, the time has now come for some introspection. This leaderless movement needs to find a leader; one who can eschew violence in favour of non-violent direct action. The cause of the demonstrators is righteous and just — they are asking only for what they were promised under the terms of the former British colony’s return to China in 1997. But some of their methods, including widespread vandalism and attacks on ordinary citizens who disagree with them, are neither.
A leader who can stand up and clearly enunciate this would benefit from the contrast with an increasingly violent radical wing of the movement — as did King, the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and other historic proponents of non-violent resistance.
Another tactical adjustment that would help their cause would be to stamp out the xenophobia towards mainland Chinese that has crept in to the protests. Around 1m of Hong Kong’s 7.4m population are people who have moved from mainland China since 1997. Having chosen to leave a deeply authoritarian system for the territory’s relative freedom, at least some of these people would be willing recruits. But many mainlanders feel unfairly targeted by protesters, whose anger towards the Chinese Communist party manifests in discrimination against anyone from “red China”.
To most of the 1.35bn in the rest of China, the violent protests are so repugnant because they seem so futile. As graffiti scrawled on the walls of Hong Kong’s high-rises puts it: “birds born in cages think flying is an illness”. Nobody has ever won in the fight against the Chinese Communist party so, in their eyes, all these young people are doing is destroying their own homes, with zero chance of success.
But a persistent, non-violent, resistance movement, with leaders who take the moral high ground, would have a far greater chance of persuading compatriots across the border than violent, xenophobic outbursts.
Without such visionary leadership, and in the absence of concessions from Beijing, Hong Kong is heading into a new spiral of violence. The most dangerous moment will be when the protests appear to be dying out. That is when the most radical will feel the Hong Kong people are not sufficiently committed to the cause.
They will then try to trigger a fresh round of brutality from the authorities. The most obvious way to do that would be to provoke the People’s Liberation Army by attacking one of their many garrisons across the territory.
That would be a nightmare for the Communist party, which wants to avoid mobilising troops at all costs. Perhaps the only thing worse from Beijing’s perspective would be a non-violent protest movement that gains sympathy and traction among the broader Chinese population.
The writer is the FT’s Asia editor