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Between the moderates and the radicals

  • Published at 12:03 am November 22nd, 2019
Hong Kong
Photo: REUTERS

The Hong Kong protests are testing the patience of both

Hundreds of protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) remained barricaded in the university campus on November 19 after days of running battles around the campus between police and the protesters. The day before, police successfully encircled the campus in downtown Hong Kong, making mass arrests, before retreating and then preventing some of those who remained from leaving.

Many were concerned that the clash between protesters and police at PolyU could eventually lead to a massacre similar to what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 if live ammunition was used against the protesters.

The violent scenes at PolyU were preceded by a standoff at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) which began on November 11. As researchers based at these two universities, we have witnessed first-hand the continuing clashes between police and protestors.

Many people sympathetic to the ongoing protest movement understood it as a defense of a university campus against the police. This partly reflects the liberal values, such as academic freedom, upheld by many of the protesters. For them, the brief police presence on a university campus was an outright attempt by the government to suppress the freedom of speech in universities.

The standoff at CUHK began as calls for another general strike grew following the death of a university student, Chow Tsz-lok, from an injury sustained during a protest. While the cause of Chow’s death remains unclear, many anti-government protesters think that the police are responsible.

We saw the clash between protesters and police turn the campus into a battlefield where the riot police fired thousands of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. The clash led the university authority to announce a premature end to the university semester and in the face of such severe confrontation, various foreign consulates urged foreign exchange students, including those from the mainland, to evacuate.

The protesters demanded that the Hong Kong government go ahead with district council elections scheduled for November 24, set up an independent commission of inquiry for investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, and release protesters arrested during the clash at CUHK.

While PolyU, site of the most recent violence, is a separate university institution, it’s also located near a major transport artery, the Cross Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hum, which connects to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. By blocking the tunnel, the new protests at PolyU imitated what happened a week earlier at CUHK -- marking the spread of the protests to other universities in Hong Kong.

Student role in politics

Although many participants of Hong Kong’s protest movement, which was sparked by anger against a new extradition bill, refuse to identify with the Chinese nation, as our ongoing research interviewing protesters is showing, many are likely to be influenced by Chinese historical events, including the May Fourth movement of 1919.

Widely seen as the Chinese Renaissance, the May Fourth movement started when university students protested after the post-World War I Paris Conference, where German interests in Shandong Province were transferred to Japan, instead of being returning to Republican China. After the leaders of the protests were arrested, the then-president of Peking University, Cai Yuanpei, resigned in protest.

Since then, not only have Chinese university students had a special role in Chinese politics, Chinese intellectuals often expect the university administration to protect politically active students or even support their political activism.

Amid the current protests, students in all public universities in Hong Kong have demanded their vice-chancellors condemn the police brutality. On November 15, a joint statement by the heads of universities in Hong Kong called on the government to respond to the protesters’ demands and resolve the political deadlock and restore public order.

Split emerging

It’s been striking that, so far, the escalation of violence and vandalism across Hong Kong has not significantly driven away the support of more moderate protesters. 

The underlying logic here is that the more moderate, well-off, middle-class Hong Kong protesters, who are unwilling to bear the political cost of imprisonment for rioting, have been content to leverage the radical faction’s disruptive tactics. Their hope is that the Hong Kong government will agree to compromise and respond to the protest movement’s remaining demands.

It’s this relationship between the two factions which has been instrumental in the past few weeks. But there are limits to how much violence the moderate faction will accept and the type of objects being targeted.

Their patience wore thin when some radical protesters in CUHK started sporadically attacking faculty buildings and university facilities. For those moderate protesters on campus, the radicals’ attacks were illegitimate because these aren’t government properties and so it’s meaningless to damage them. 

There was also a concern when the protesters demanded the district council elections go ahead -- something which wasn’t an agreed demand of the anti-extradition bill movement. All these moves led the moderate protesters on campus to think they had been hijacked. 

The university authority leveraged on the split to urge the radicals to leave the campus, or else they would ask for external support (probably the police) to quell the radicals, especially those who were not CUHK students.

Nevertheless, it’s too soon to declare that the moderate protesters -- both inside CUHK and outside it -- would side with the Hong Kong government to endorse its repressive attempts to restore law and order. 

In fact, as long as the government remains unwilling to compromise over the movement’s demands -- especially the demand to set up a commission of inquiry for investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct which is popular among the moderate protesters – it’s unlikely that the radical factions will lose support from the moderate faction. 

The solidarity among the two factions is dependent on the moderates’ acquiescence of the radicals’ tactics. This means it’s also possible that the anti-government movement will start to fade if the moderates withdraw their support. 

Charles Fung is Researcher and Teaching Assistant, Sociology Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chun-wing Lee is Lecturer, Division of Social Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This article previously appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted by special arrangement.