Hong Kongers are becoming more accepting of violent protests because the territory’s pro-Beijing leaders have ignored years of peaceful demonstrations, a leading democracy activist said in letters penned from his prison cell.
Law professor Benny Tai (戴耀廷), a staunch non-violence advocate, was in April sentenced to 16 months in jail over his role in the largely peaceful 2014 “Umbrella movement” — weeks before a renewed round of protests and clashes engulfed the territory.
The current demonstrations were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have since evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.
Massive crowds have regularly hit the streets for peaceful rallies, while increasingly violent clashes have broken out between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.
In a hand-written letter from Shek Pik prison, Tai said the trashing of the Legislative Council building earlier this month was a turning point and showed a growing willingness to embrace more violent tactics.
“People seem to have much more tolerance especially when the government refuses to give any direct and meaningful response to the demands of the non-violent movement,” he wrote in a letter dated July 21 that Agence France-Presse received yesterday.
“What is violence? Must violence be wrong? Must all violent acts be condemned?” were questions Hong Kongers were now asking themselves, he added.
Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.
They have also begun calling once more for universal suffrage.
Tai, who helped popularize the idea of mass civil disobedience prior to the Umbrella movement that called for free elections, said the root problem of Hong Kong’s political crisis remained the territory’s lack of democracy.
“The anti-extradition movement is a strike back by Hong Kong people against the interference by the Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote in an earlier letter dated June 23.
Public anger over sliding freedoms have also collided with years of frustration over spiraling inequality and the cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive, densely populated cities.
Tai said that “all institutional channels to raise their objections have been blocked,” as authorities tightened the grip on the territory’s legislature and clamped down on the opposition, forcing the public to use other means.
“Only democratic reform can resolve the conflicts or open a door to the resolution,” he wrote in the July 21 letter.
The 2014 Umbrella movement, which took over key intersections for more than two months, failed to win any concessions from Beijing and many of its leaders like Tai have since been prosecuted or jailed.
Tai and fellow activist Chan Kin-man (陳健民), a 60-year-old sociology professor, were jailed under colonial-era public nuisance laws for encouraging others to protest, the stiffest sentences handed down to anyone involved in the 2014 protests.
In the years since, the territory’s pro-democracy camp say the clampdown has only deepened, with opposition politicians disqualified and dissident booksellers disappearing into mainland custody.
Tai said protesters had learned from the failures of 2014 and modified their protest tactics, with the current movement providing a long-awaited “break-out point.”
Echoing the protesters’ demands, he said a “general pardon, including unlawful acts of police and protesters” during this period and an independent inquiry are “needed in the short run.”
However, there is seemingly no end in sight to the turmoil engulfing the territory.
Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill.
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