I went out to protest after the mask ban was announced on Friday and walked from Central to Causeway Bay with a scholar of social movements who was in Hong Kong for research. Without giving away too many details, this was a tenured professor who has seen it all from Occupy Wall Street to bullets flying in the Arab Spring. While I forget the exact wording used, my acquaintance said something along the lines of “this is the dumbest government response I’ve ever seen in all of my experience.”1
People inside and outside Hong Kong were making almost exactly the same points in June and July, yet many people here have forgotten how easily resolvable this crisis was (and perhaps remains). Many of us familiar with contemporary Chinese politics often internalize, essentialize, and exceptionalize the Chinese Communist Party and particularly Xi Jinping: ‘this is just what they do, how they think, and how they react.’
It took seeing events through the eyes of someone experienced in authoritarian crackdowns elsewhere, encountering Chinese political logic for the first time, to remember that this crisis is being managed just as incompetently today as it was in June. Though the stakes have risen dramatically, in their view, allowing this to continue dragging out was worse for them than whatever they made them fear conceding to protester’s demands. It’s worth returning to this time period because this was when the current crisis was most easy to solve and how tone-deaf, clueless, and needlessly escalatory the Hong Kong government and their minders were behaving:
- It was inexplicable why Carrie Lam refused to back down from the Extradition Bill after an estimated 1 million people marched on June 9th, the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history.
- Sending police to clear protesters on June 12th with the most violent tactics seen in Hong Kong since 1967 was also met with a stiff rejection.
- Backing down by ‘pausing’ the bill but refusing to formally withdraw it on June 15th brought double the number of people seen on June 9th on the streets the next day.
There were also just three demands at that point, the second now including Lam’s resignation. This should have been relatively easy for Beijing to cut loose a Chief Executive who promised to resign if she had lost the public’s trust and was now crying on television during a wooden apology for having done exactly that. There was a missed opportunity for Beijing to throw Lam under the bus and castigate her for what, in her own words, amounted to sheer incompetence and political malpractice.
Formal withdrawal of the bill the government said they would stop work on reeked of incompetence to the point of political malpractice. Lam was unable to explain why she couldn’t just say the word “withdraw.” People assumed, wrongly I believe, that it was a trick meant to get people off the streets and would be revived as soon as things calmed down. There were also just three demands at that point, one being Lam’s resignation. It should have been relatively easy for Beijing to cut loose a Chief Executive who promised to resign if she had lost the public’s trust and was now crying on television during a wooden apology for having done exactly that. There was a missed opportunity for Beijing to throw Lam under the bus and castigate her for what, in her own words, was astounding incompetence that only looked evil.
The third demand was an amalgamation of issues surrounding what happened on June 12th: dropping the ‘riot’ designation for the protest, dropping ‘riot’ charges on people arrested that day (and dropping all charges, in fact), and investigating police behavior and command decisions that day. Driving these demands wasn’t just about outrage over the bloody scenes that emerged, but what seemed like an admission from Lam that she could have prevented all of this. The timeline would suggest it was blocking LegCo, not the 1 million people out on June 6th, that led to partially concede on the first demand.
There are different theories about what exactly happened in that first week, but my argument now is that it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is the type of governance, and quality of leadership, Xi Jinping forced on Hong Kong. His underlings at the Liaison Office decided that John Tsang, someone from their own faction who had strong popular support, wasn’t docile enough for the position. His refusal to offer any concessions during the Umbrella Movement ignited a nationalist awakening in Hong Kong and taught people here that “peaceful marches don’t work.”
The CCP ‘exceptionalism’ mentioned earlier is the process in which we, collectively, spend more time and energy wondering if and when the PLA will intervene than asking what there is or was to gain from sticking by someone the public hated who inspired neither fear or respect. I am beginning to question the value of trying to understand the nature of their neurotic political logic instead of focusing on the concrete fact that they have wrongly, stupidly, recklessly tied themselves and their legitimacy in Hong Kong to ‘leader’ with a 17% approval rating. This is to say nothing of mishandling conceding on one demand so poorly that it de-escalated nothing. Lam spoke of “serving two masters,” but there was only one “master” responsible for transforming a single-issue protest movement into revolt against the Party’s “Sai Wan ruling Hong Kong” model of governance in Hong Kong.
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Fast-forward to today and contemplating the future, I increasingly look at what’s happening in Hong Kong and see disturbing parallels of Xi’s governance failure in Xinjiang. Starting roughly in 2013 a trickle of news stories, tiny vignettes really, of Muslim men being forced to shave their beards and anecdotes of students forced to eat pork on Ramadan came out at the same time as numerous stories of police stations being attacked by mobs across the territory. Starting in 2014 stories emerged that painted a picture of Uighurs tried to escape China however and wherever they could, though the reasons why were not yet clear.
Due to extraordinary levels of censorship and travel restrictions, it was only clear in retrospect that an effort to eradicate Uighur language, culture, and religion was met with a mass uprising. The crackdown that followed the revolt spread produced a wave of refugees trying to escape to Thailand and Central Asian countries, hoping to eventually reach Turkey. Not everyone escaped, like a now-infamous group fleeing Hotan. They had participated in a 2013 protest over the closure of a mosque and arrest of its local Imam that ended with People’s Armed Police killing fifteen people and wounding another fifty. The group, which including a pregnant woman, tried escaping China first via Guangdong before going to Yunnan, where they saw another group of Uighurs refugees apprehended trying to cross into Laos.
In March of 2014 the group went on a knife attack rampage at the Kunming Rail Station and killed 25 innocent bystanders. Contrary to Chinese state media reports, this was not a Jihadist terrorist attack. It was a mass killing committed by people who were escaping a fate so dark that it led them to justify their actions. Had they found a safe border crossing they would be nameless refugees today instead of murderers or terrorists. I am capable of both sympathizing with the victims and their families while recognizing that the culprits were escaping something more horrible than I can imagine.
I recognize the same sense of desperation – if at a much lower salience – watching high school and university students setting fire to the exits of their own MTR stations. They know it’s reckless, gives the entire movement a bad image, but don’t know what else to do anymore. In addition to risking ten years in jail if arrested, many of those on the frontlines routinely tell journalists that they’re ready to die for this cause. The sentiments run deep as well. I have stood in Causeway Bay as people cheered flames rising above the crowd and chanted, “if we burn, you burn with us.” They mean it. There is a pervasive sense that this is a “last stand” with existential stakes. Most of us know the crackdown will be as bad, or worse, than the violence we see on the streets.
Most readers know where the Xinjiang story goes. Beijing responded first by erecting a high-tech surveillance police state in Xinjiang. Then, starting sometimes in 2017, they began rounding people into “vocational center” concentration camps. The most recent reports out of Hotan, where the knife attackers came from, found virtually none of the 130,000 Uigher population left in the city. They’ve all been shipped off to concentration camps, and their children interned in fortress-like kindergartens under state custody. The correct emotional response to what happened in Xinjiang should be anger, disgust, and horror. I wonder how much it fuels much of the existential panic in Hong Kong.
From a more detached analytical perspective, however, it is striking how rare I see what happened in Xinjiang described as a crisis of governance. A timebomb masquerading as a fix, the camps represent nothing less than an absolute policy failure for Xi’s regime. A crisis of governance and legitimacy, starting with the 2009 Urumqi Riots, was met with endless escalation, violence, and crackdowns. Rather than take it lying down, many Uighurs rose up in defiance. Support for resisting what had become totalitarian rule over Uighurs in Xinjiang seems to have been so wide and deep that Beijing felt their only available option was to make an entire people disappear into camps.
As with Hong Kong, Xi seems to have intuitively embraced ever more crude crackdowns. In both, there is no reason to believe he didn’t think at the time that these measures would ‘work.’ Within China, he embraced a fascist re-interpretation of the ‘melting pot’ theory that argues ethnic minorities can be molded into ‘state-race’ with enough coercion. The concentration camps and prison kindergartens are meant to be ‘education’ factories churning out these fictional subjects. Because ‘brainwashing’ isn’t real, every Uigher who walks out of those camps singing praises to the Party to get out is now Beijing’s enemy for life instead.
Concentration camps or ongoing violence weren’t Beijing’s only options. The leadership of the world’s second most important country locked upwards of 1.5 million people in concentration camps because they couldn’t stop pushing a failed totalitarian project that, to use their language on Hong Kong, “showed signs of” fascism. The way to stop an entirely predictable violent uprising over mosque demolitions and compelled sacrilegious behavior is to stop doing those things – or at least slow the campaign down. The arrogance, chauvinism, and ignorance of the current CCP comes so ‘baked in’ since Xi came to power that it’s simply expected that repression is their first and only response in dealing with dissent, regardless of how obviously counter-productive it is or relatively painless de-escalation would be.
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The only glimmer of hope I have about Hong Kong right now is that I don’t think such a crackdown is possible. It is not impossible, to be clear, but there would be an enormous geopolitical and economic cost to China if he decided to rake our streets with automatic gunfire or try to pack our youth into “re-education” camps. What everyone here has seen is that every escalatory crackdown step short of that has been met with even fiercer resistance on the streets, which, importantly, has yet to alienate a public more afraid of their own police than protesters.
At what point is it beyond clear that escalating repression
and violence on an entire people only backfires? That making hardened enemies
of the Party in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan could not be more
contrary to the CCP’s own security interest? That it was the regime’s words,
rubber bullets, gas, and feral police that brought this once boring global
financial center to a boiling point where smashing out the glass doors of Chinese
state banks is cathartic for so many and rationalized away by peacenik
Moreover, when will he see that there’s an easy way out of this? Concede on removing Lam and opening an independent investigation while sacking every top official who advised a hard line on Hong Kong. Drop and reform the intellectually stunted Democratic Alliance for Progress front group in Hong Kong and embrace the more pragmatic Liberal Party as their only trustworthy partners in Hong Kong. For good measure, give Wang Zhimin the Zhou Yongkang treatment by accusing him of being so bad at his job that it was an intentional plot to spark a secessionist movement as part of a counter-revolutionary plot against Xi.