Hong Kong's "front line" protesters stand by tactics

Before we get started, I wanted to bring up a curious item. We recently received feedback from a reader who was visiting China and reported that Hot Air appears to be blocked in that country. (We are available in Hong Kong, it seems.) If anyone is viewing the site from China without any issues, could you please drop a note to [email protected]? Thanks.

On to the main story. As we’ve been covering the protests in Hong Kong (which may have led to us being blocked), one recurring question has involved the relatively small number of protesters who have engaged in violence with the police. While generally frowned on, a few of these “front line” protesters (as they have come to be known) are defending their actions as being necessary in the face of equally aggressive tactics employed by law enforcement. The Associated Press interviewed a few of them and found some philosophical differences between different groups of people taking to the streets and demanding a more democratic form of government.

The movement has reached a moment of reckoning after protesters occupying Hong Kong’s airport last week held two mainland Chinese men captive, beating them because they believed the men were infiltrating their movement.

In the aftermath, pro-democracy lawmakers and fellow demonstrators — who have stood by the hard-liners even as they took more extreme steps — questioned whether the operation had gone too far.

It was the first crack in what has been astonishing unity across a wide range of protesters that has kept the movement going. It gave pause to the front-liners, who eased off the violence this past weekend, though they still believe their more disruptive tactics are necessary to get the government to answer the broader movement’s demands.

While the vast majority of the protesters stick to more peaceful ways of getting their message across, there have been notable exceptions. Videos have shown some of the activists throwing bricks and eggs at the police, smashing windows and trashing the legislature’s chambers. To be sure, Hong Kong’s police have been more than aggressive themselves, frequently employing tear gas, batons and rubber bullets even when the protesters remained peaceful. But they really step up the aggression when the protesters respond with violence of their own.

They may come as a challenging situation to describe for some American observers. Having had to cover any number of demonstrations in the United States, I’ve generally stuck with one rule of thumb. The moment the first window is smashed or the first building is set on fire, it’s no longer a protest. It’s a riot. Violence only begets more violence, and if you can’t get your message across peacefully you will likely turn off citizens who might have otherwise supported you.

But should we make an exception for these front line protesters in Hong Kong? The temptation is obvious since they are fighting for democracy. Also, the citizens of Hong Kong don’t live under a true democracy so their options are more limited. Hong Kong is significantly more “progressive” than Mainland China, but the citizens there still lack assurances of basic freedoms we take for granted. On top of that, they live under the shadow of China’s government, so their freedoms are conditional at best. Does that excuse violence during protests? For the sake of consistency, I would still have to say no, and they are putting themselves at risk of far harsher government reprisal than American protesters have to fear.

On a related note, Twitter has shut down a number of Chinese bot accounts that were apparently trying to undermine the protests. This is yet another reminder that there is no free speech in China, no matter how much they try to act as if they’ve embraced the modern world. And they will employ any tactics they view as needed to maintain their iron grip of control.