Hong Kong and Londonderry and the global crowding of everything

Aug 15, 2019

The uproar in Hong Kong has become very serious, with a situation as developed in 1989 before Tiananmen: of leaders unable to cope and an uprising implacable in resolve and unable to focus on achievable objectives. The comparison should not be overdrawn but Hong Kong now is threatening greater consequence than did Tiananmen. Tactically the police have made mistakes in dealing with trapped demonstrators as on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972, staining decades with misery.

This is written on the night of 12 August 2019, events are unfolding but I make observations that may endure.  

Looking at the live YouTube Hong Kong coverage of long days of peaceful protest, degenerating regularly as families have gone home into tough guys shifting to confrontation with police, there was generally a pattern of police restraint.  But things deteriorate.

Without doubt ordinary police are suffering from fatigue, as much as demonstrators. But this does not explain the way things have gone awry.

There has no doubt been a strategy of restraint on the part of the Hong Kong Government, also a strategy of not conceding to violence and not allowing public places to be occupied indefinitely. The government and police have not had answers to  the way attacks have evolved. Intelligence would seem to be lacking. Political and administrative leaders have been flat-footed and uninspiring, affronted not leading.

As of Monday 12 August protest anger has shifted up a notch following an incident in a rail station where a bean bag pellet fired at short range destroyed a woman’s eye. Notch by notch the distinction between the mass of demonstrators and the more militant may reduce. Demands increase. And with Hong Kong airport occupied and all departures cancelled, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4juPPrdZYM Chinese official media are now running film, with drum beats, of Chinese armed police units lining up in Shenzhen two days ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKjTmJM5tdU  This official video refers to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on People’s Armed Police, text here: http://www.npc.gov.cn/zgrdw/englishnpc/Law/2011-02/16/content_1620753.htm

It may seem odd to compare with events on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on 30 January 1972, given that Londonderry had a population as I recall, of about 26,000 at the time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Sunday_(1972)

But the great loss of life on one day in Derry, 28 wounded of whom 14 died promptly, another person weeks later, was caused by tactical error much as evident in individual skirmishes in Hong Kong. The paratroopers sent into Derry were untrained for the circumstance and they cut off paths of retreat for demonstrators. A complex of descent into horror occurred then in Derry as develops now in Hong Kong. Although a British army officer attending the Australian Chief of General Staff’s annual exercises later in 1972 was able to provide already an account of tactical error in Londonderry in such terms, such official awareness did not prevent the consequences of that day rolling on through long decades of nastiness.

Tactical mishandling of conflict in Hong Kong in recent and coming weeks will cast long shadows. In both Londonderry and Hong Kong, bitternesses have run deep. Everything is magnified, intensified. The scale of distraught in Hong Kong is now off the chart and climbing.
In 1982 an American ethologist coined the term “behavioural sink” to describe the collapse of behaviour resulting from overcrowding, shown in experiments with rats. As is commonplace in the social sciences, this hypothesis vanished down its own behavioural sink, a rabbit hole of debate about the relevance of rat experiments to understanding human behaviour. But it seems to me at a minimum relevant to examination of the state of the world approaching 2020; a useful metaphor.

I think of ‘crowding’ now not just physical or geographical but also the volume, velocity and excitement of what floods most people most days, through the internet, elevating awareness of global bad spots, local political, economic and social atrocities, through diverse megaphones. This is a new neurological and psychological experience for individuals. The internet has of course been an engine of insurrectionist uprising for some time but things get more disruptive.

Hong Kong offers a dramatic example of a ‘behavioural sink’, with

  • High population density,
  • Entrapment of ordinary people in a society dominated by an extraordinarily rich elite,
  • The role of ordinary people being to serve the local and visiting rich from other countries and the Chinese mainland, the role of the very rich to buy and sell anyone and anything (not entirely unusual)
  • For twenty years or more any ordinary person falling out of work after age 40 in Hong Kong has had great difficulty finding new employment,
  • Whereas forty years ago Hong Kong was unique as a doorway to China, now Hong Kong is a relative backwater as many other places in China have grown from nothing to greater than Hong Kong as doors to the world,
  • The current political system with mildly democratic elements is shaped by a deathbed conversion to participatory democracy by a departing British tenant,
  • Historically riddled with spy organisations and movements for foreign religions and political agendas,
  • Pervasive awareness of news and worse via the internet leading now to organising of rebellion via the internet
  • Governed by the upper crust of all the foregoing, led by a chief minister with history and reputation as a tough administrator… but politically naïve,
  • Policed by police not of the elite but for half a century of high standard of integrity with a union speaking out now about their misery and resentment at being put in the middle of the current street situation… and remaining mainly restrained … but lacking tactics to deal with the way situations have developed
  • Living with the time bomb of end of special status within China in 2047, as agreed with Britain in 1997. But 2047 is as far ahead as the Tiananmen events are in the past. China’s GDP per capita passed $300 in 1989, passed $8000 in 2015. But who thinks, in troubled circumstances, how things may be thirty years ahead?

Hong Kong is only one of many places on the globe in torment, driven partly by impacts of economic management and by imperial attitudes of political leaders, diverse chiefs going wilful as the world is whacked by the singular and monstrous contributions of the rule-breaking unruly Trump, kneecapping cherished beliefs and institutions at home and abroad, enabling the utterance of untruth in all directions daily with scarce rebuttal…  bringing news everywhere that uprising against authority can succeed.

In 1989, in days leading to the Tiananmen Incident, there was comparable circumstance in the incapacity of leadership to cope and the implacable unwillingness of the besiegers of the state to compromise and adopt realisable objectives.

What follows now in Hong Kong will have consequences beyond China.

Dennis Argall is a former Australian ambassador to China. His undergraduate studies were in social anthropology, his masters degree from the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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