Henry David Thoreau’s famous work 1907 On Civil Disobedience proposed that when faced with unjust laws, people could “obey them, amend them, . . . or transgress them.” Thoreau himself chose to transgress the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 by supporting the violent acts of John Brown.
Even so, Thoreau was the inspiration for other peaceful civil disobedience movements – those orchestrated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and also the peaceful demonstrations held by students and young people over the course of history.
The events of the last 48 hours in Hong Kong are no different. The original proposal from the Occupy Central movement was that 10,000 people would occupy the Central district of Hong Kong. The numbers have far exceeded and the occupation has extended to all major business districts on both Hong Kong and Kowloon. But the most bandied description is perhaps “it’s all so peaceful.” Anyone who has been there will attest to the fact that the atmosphere resembles more of an outdoor festival with people and music.
So when the Hong Kong police unleashed tear gas at the crowds on Sunday night – 87 times and at multiple locations and the crowds had nothing but umbrellas to shield them from the offense, the question the world asked was why? What justified it?
Assistant Commissioner Cheung Tak-keung insisted that there was no other alternative and that “minimum force” had to be used. A pretty feeble argument for a peaceful sit-in where the young people of Hong Kong simply want to express their right to design their future.
Protests typically turn violent if authorities choose to unleash measures to control the masses. Once the violence gathers momentum, it is often hard to restrain. The last time we saw China take the lead on this kind of situation was June 4th 1989 on Tienanmen Square. Everything up to that was strikingly “peaceful.”
Fingers crossed that the Chinese government has learned from past mistakes and Hong Kong is not in danger of becoming another Tienanmen Square. But the police’s tear gas action is indicative of one thing – the Chinese authorities like British colonial masters of yore, are succeeding in the age-old manipulation game of divide and rule. By turning the police on the protestors, they are essentially turning Hong -Kong-ers on each other to achieve their own authoritarian objectives. And the more Hong Kong-ers disunite, the easier becomes Beijing’s work.
It’s a simple truth that Hong Kong-ers have no one else to rely on for support in this issues. It’s not like their Chinese cousins across the border are offering up assistance – social media networks are ripe with comments about how people on the Mainland are clueless about what’s happening here. China’s firewalls are all censoring the press coverage.
Truth be told, the ‘unjust law’ that the protestors are looking to amend is for the benefit of all citizens – be they in or out of uniforms. The occupiers have threatened to step up civil disobedience unless CY Leung responds to demands by October 1st. That’s tomorrow. But security consultant, Steve Vickers says “we are going to see plenty of tear gas activity in the event of more clashes.”
If the Occupy movement is to succeed, it is critical that the people of Hong Kong stick together. That means the police need to hold back at all costs even though CY has already applauded them for taking action in accordance with the law. Even the White House has urged Hong Kong to show restraint.
As the crowds gear up for a third day of protests, it is well worth noting that non-violent activists do not seek to undermine the rule of law, but only the repeal of unjust laws. In Hong Kong there has been absolutely no attempt at violence from the crowds. Let’s keep it that way, let’s not force protestors into a situation where they have to react with more than open umbrellas.
Also, active nonviolence does not seek, as Gandhi says, “to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.” So too in Hong Kong. Why waste energy with arrests and in-fighting when the aim is to remove Chief Executive C.Y. Leung from the strings of the puppeteer.
In any revolution, unity is strength. Success will be determined by whether we let ourselves fall prey to local clashes. That non-violent resistance to oppressive regimes has had a good track record in history brings to light Thoreau’s fateful words: “When all subjects have refused allegiance, and all officers have resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished.”