The general strike called by Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill netizens on August 5, 2019 was an international news headline and wreaked havoc in the city. The general strike reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-extradition movement and offered some clues on how to resolve the impasse.
There are several notable strengths of the radicals’ organizers. Firstly, they know how to use the media and create a presence much larger in life. If one looks at Radio Television Hong Kong’s live coverage of the various events, the number of black T-shirt radicals stopping traffic and barricading police stations runs into low hundreds, a far cry from the crowd size we saw in the previous peaceful rallies. The widespread impression in the outside world that the city is undergoing a popular uprising is simply a media misconception.
Secondly, the media has a strong anti-establishment bias, and it unknowingly aided the radicals. If one looks at the camera angles of all major television networks, they were invariably directed at the police cordon line almost all the time, highlighting the tear gas firing of the police and missing the radicals’ messing with shields and occasional charging to the policemen. The Hong Kong media’s treatment of the July 21 storming of China Liaison Office and the Yuen Long brawl demonstrated the bias stand of many Hong Kong media. Their news coverage of the two events happening at the same time is in the ratio of 9:1, if not higher. While everyone knows that police brutality is a more sensational and headline-grabbing story, the behavior of the media in Hong Kong has unwittingly abetted the radicals.
Thirdly, the radicals are very agile and utilize communication networks better than the policemen. Since the mid-July Shatin riot, the police has adopted the strategy that once militants are trapped inside an Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station, they would allow an empty train to enter the station to ferry the trapped people out. The militants exploited this goodwill gesture of the policemen and used the MTR to move around the city using their social media network. They moved to places where police presence was minimum and disrupted commercial life. One popular location they frequent now is Causeway Bay, one of the vital tourism and shopping areas in Hong Kong. The intent to disrupt the tourism and retail industries is evident.
Fourthly, the radicals communicate much better than the government and dominate public discourse, hence public sympathy. Compare to the radicals’ message presentation using teenagers through social media, the government’s stoneface spokesman lost out to the militants in appealing for support in a regular press conference. There are so few public luminaries who are willing to speak the truth, in turn feeding into the misguided youth’s sense of righteousness and helping them garner public sympathy. If one looks at the policemen’s apparent poor moral vs the militants’ hard-charging, the government’s war on public support can be characterized as dismal, or even disastrous.
Even with the apparent strengths of the militants, signs of weakness are visible in the general strike, and if the Hong Kong government can skillfully exploit these weaknesses, there is a chance for a peaceful resolution.
Only by demonstrating resolve and steadfastness can the government win back public trust, which is the critical battleground now between the government and the radicals.
First, even as proponents of the general strike claimed there were 350,000 strikers, few observers subscribed to the figure. They generally believed the number was much, much less. Only social workers and airport staff were notable among the striking participants; most of the affected workers were a result of transportation paralysis caused by militants’ disruption of MTR and the cross-harbor tunnel. There is a lot of unreported public rumbling against behaviors like placing obstacles along the railway track, putting barricades to block off the cross-harbor tunnel, pulling the emergency stops in the trains and stopping the train doors from closing. There is no report of shops closing except those along the demonstration hotspots. The airport slowdown affected 250 flights, or 25 percent of the daily volume of 1,000 flights at the airport, a figure not characterizable as a general strike.
Secondly, the netizens planned seven rallies together with the general strike and the public attendance to these rallies were very thin. The fact that people chose not to go to a regular working day demonstration signaled the majority’s gradual downgrading of the relevance of the issues behind the call. Many probably felt that the extradition bill is already dead and why waste a day’s work to support the strike; they are willing to join a peaceful rally on a holiday or weekend but not on a weekday. This slight shift of sentiment should be closely watched, and it can be the basis of more creative policies by the Hong Kong government in resolving the crisis.
Thirdly, the increasingly violent behavior of the radicals surely caught the view of many Hong Kong residents. The image of police stations barricaded and attacked by militants with firebombs and other weapons broadcast on television screens would have scared off many residents. The discourse of police brutality and connivance with triads at Yuen Long paled in comparison with the number of firebombs thrown into police stations. Hong Kong residents have enjoyed many years of prosperity, and most people prefer the status quo more than anything else. It is the fear over indiscriminate extradition that changed the status quo which in turn precipitated the crisis. This is another crucial point for the Hong Kong government. The people of Hong Kong are being misled to plunge into this crisis; they have little appetite for “Restore Hong Kong “ and “Revolution of Our Time”.
With the strengths and weaknesses shown in the August 5 general strike, it is incumbent upon the Hong Kong government to work out a new solution to end the crisis. The situation now is getting out of hand, as the almost daily attack on police stations and the usage of lethal weapons against law enforcers have shown that the radicals will get bolder as public support drops. No one should dismiss the likelihood of intervention by the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison in case the city runs into anarchy.
The Hong Kong government is standing at a crossroad; its sworn duty to defend the Basic Law calls for the speedy restoration of public order. History around the world has shown that social dialogue in the face of radicalism is unlikely to succeed, and it takes political leadership and courage to put the place back to order. Only by demonstrating resolve and steadfastness can the government win back public trust, which is the critical battleground now between the government and the radicals.
Hong Kong has preserved its way of life under “one country, two systems” for the last 22 years, which is an achievement in itself. Fighting over the moribund extradition bill and giving away the cherished Hong Kong way of life is just stupid.