Failure to compromise and police over-reaction in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland transformed one-issue protests into movements for sweeping change.
By Mike Chinoy*
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 3000 people dead. I covered Northern Ireland as a journalist in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the last three years, I have studied that history in detail while researching and writing a book about the life of the late Professor Kevin Boyle, a leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and later a prominent human rights lawyer.
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 colonized Ireland on Britain’s behalf – created a statelet to ensure their dominant position. The Troubles began as a peaceful protest movement demanding that the province’s minority Catholic population be given the same political and civil rights enjoyed by the Protestant majority and other British citizens. As Boyle says in my book, “I was mobilized by the sense of injustice that such a large section of the population were excluded from power in a British state.” 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. In recent years, newly elected youthful lawmakers have articulated these concerns, and the sense of alienation has been exacerbated as the government expelled them from the legislature on such petty procedural grounds that the move seemed transparently political.
Despite warnings from lawyers, business groups and ordinary citizens that the extradition law would jeopardize 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.
In Northern Ireland, the government’s unwillingness to address demands for basic civil rights also sparked clashes, with the police using rubber bullets and teargas in largely futile efforts at crowd control. As a journalist in Belfast wrote in 1971, teargas had “enormous power to wield a crowd together in common sympathy and common hatred for the men who gassed them.”
In Hong Kong’s densely populated neighborhoods, teargas has had a similar effect, fueling intense resentment. At the same time, just as civilians in Belfast were blinded by rubber bullets, the use of such weapons in Hong Kong, including the case of a young woman hit in the eye, added to public fury.
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. Police actions as well as pro-Beijing thugs who attacked demonstrators and civilians, along with the government’s unyielding arrogance, produced four other demands: creation of an independent commission to investigate police behavior, overturning the designation of arrested protestors as rioters, Lam’s resignation and genuine democratic reforms. Unless all demands are met, the protesters vow to continue.
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.
With the authorities ruling out further concessions, the level of violence has begun to increase. In recent days, a small minority of protestors have set fires at subway station entrances, thrown Molotov cocktails at police and, in a few cases, beaten those they suspected of supporting the government. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing gangs, some wielding cleavers, have fought running battles with demonstrators. The police have either looked on or arrested only members of the protest movement.
In Northern Ireland, the failure of peaceful protest and police heavy-handedness sparked the IRA’s campaign. Hong Kong has thankfully not yet reached this point. Still, for me, events in Hong Kong, with roads closed, transport disrupted, teargas in the air, bring back memories of the challenges of navigating daily life in Belfast in the 1970s.
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 19 September Amnesty report documented cases of Hong Kong police beating detainees, threatening to apply electric shocks to their genitals and shining laser beams into their eyes. There is an eerie parallel here with one of Boyle’s most celebrated cases. In 1972, he was the lawyer in the first case to raise the mistreatment of those detained by the Northern Ireland security forces before the European Commission of Human Rights. Boyle represented seven men beaten and tortured after being detained, including a prisoner who was given electric shocks to his genitals and others who suffered broken bones. Boyle asked the commission to conduct a broader inquiry, which did take place, into the behavior of the police and army. Amnesty has supported calls for an independent investigation in Hong Kong.
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.
In 1969, Boyle played a prominent role in a civil rights march attacked by Protestant extremists. A lifelong opponent of violence, he responded with increased efforts to find a political way forward. Others, including participants in that same march, moved towards violence and terrorism. 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.
*Mike Chinoy was a long-time foreign correspondent, serving as CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief and as senior Asia correspondent. He covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. He is currently a Hong Kong–based Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. His new book, Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement, will be published next March.