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Hong Kong protests all set to get worse

As in Northern Ireland, government intransigence and police over-reaction have transformed a peaceful one-issue protest campaign into a movement demanding sweeping changes.

By Mike Chinoy (Geopolitix)

Published: Thu 3 Oct 2019, 10:31 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:32 AM

The crowds surged through the streets, demanding basic political rights. They were met by club-wielding riot police firing teargas and rubber bullets. The clashes became routine, reflecting the gap between an aroused populace and an isolated and unresponsive government.
This sounds very much like Hong Kong, where I live, in the summer of 2019, but in fact describes Northern Ireland 50 years ago. As the crisis in Hong Kong shows no sign of resolution, the strife increasingly resembles the early years of what became known as "the Troubles"- a conflict that lasted 30 years and left 3,000 people dead.
While Northern Ireland, with its Victorian cities, rugged countryside and centuries of religious animosity, seems a polar opposite from teeming, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the parallels are striking, not least because both societies confront the painful legacy of having once been British colonies.
When the rest of predominantly Catholic Ireland achieved independence from Britain in 1922, Protestants in the North - descendants of the largely Scottish settlers who colonised Ireland on Britain's behalf - created a statelet to ensure their dominant position. 'The Troubles' began as a peaceful protest movement. The initial response of the North's Protestant-dominated government, however, was indifference, hostility and support for police efforts to stifle the movement.
Hong Kong's 2019 protests also began peacefully. The immediate issue was a law proposed by Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of people from Hong Kong to mainland China, where the Chinese Communist Party controls the legal system. But deeper anxieties fueled concern - a staggeringly unequal economy benefitting the wealthy while leaving many young people behind and political decision-making dominated by an alliance between Beijing and the city's out-of-touch tycoons. It was a far cry from the right to eventually elect both the chief executive and legislative council through universal suffrage that China promised Hong Kong following the end of 150 years of British colonial rule in 1997.
Despite warnings from lawyers, business groups and ordinary citizens that the extradition law would jeopardise Hong Kong's independent judiciary - a key feature distinguishing it from the mainland - Lam insisted it would be passed. This led to huge demonstrations and clashes between protestors and police.
By the time the Northern Ireland authorities grudgingly conceded some of the basic civil rights demands in the early 1970s - an end to gerrymandered electoral districts, equal opportunity in housing and jobs - it was too late. Growing numbers of Catholics came to see the Northern Ireland state itself as illegitimate. Demands for specific reforms gave way to calls to overthrow the system altogether. For the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, this meant the start of campaign of violence aimed at severing the North's British connection and creating a united Ireland.
In Hong Kong, the original demand for the withdrawal of the extradition bill was grudgingly met in early September. The move was too little, too late. As in Northern Ireland, government intransigence and police over-reaction have transformed a peaceful one-issue protest campaign into a movement demanding sweeping change.
While stopping short of calls for Hong Kong independence, the protests have so alarmed Beijing that it has denounced the movement as a "color revolution" intended to break Hong Kong's links with China. And it could get worse. As was true with the rise of the IRA, frustration and anger among more radical activists is growing, heightened by what Amnesty International has described as "torture and other ill-treatment" of those arrested during the protests. A September 19, Amnesty report documented cases of Hong Kong police beating detainees.
Meanwhile, in online chat rooms frequented by protestors, local media report increased discussion of the need to fight back. In mid-summer, police seized explosives in a building where they also arrested members of a fringe political party advocating Hong Kong independence. It may be only a matter of time before a radical minority concludes that they have little choice but to adopt more violent tactics.
It is not unreasonable to worry that the uncompromising approach of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments risks pushing some of the youthful protesters in a similar direction.
-Yale Global
Mike Chinoy was foreign correspondent, serving as CNN's first Beijing bureau
chief and as senior Asia correspondent and is Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California's US-China Institute

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