With its reputation for being clean, super-efficient and safe, the Mass Transit Railway is one of the world’s best metro systems and has long been a point of pride for Hong Kongers. This past Sunday, that familiar and reassuring space was brutally invaded by a rampaging gang that beat dozens of innocent people with sticks in an apparent attempt to scare off pro-democracy activists.
This vicious attack shocked Hong Kongers and observers of the deepening political crisis in the city. In response, thousands of Hong Kongers returned to protest near the site of the assault this weekend, even though the police had not authorized the demonstration. Predictably, what started as a peaceful march once more ended in clashes between riot police and activists.
The two events highlight a core problem for the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing: the widespread feeling that the authorities were, at best, ambivalent toward and, at worst, complicit in the violence against protesters.
Distrust was already building as the police and pro-democracy activists have become embroiled in a series of increasingly aggressive clashes over the past few weeks. The proximate cause of the protests was a now-suspended bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China. But the massive initial demonstrations against the bill have morphed into a broader movement calling for democracy and the defense of the freedoms and autonomy that Beijing promised the city for 50 years when it was handed back from British control in 1997.
For many Hong Kongers, the MTR attack was the latest example of their way of life coming under threat. But it has provoked a particularly strong reaction because the government appears to have violated one of its most important duties: to keep its people safe.
Despite numerous emergency calls and the existence of a dedicated rapid reaction unit for MTR incidents, the police failed to come to the aid of those under attack last week. The police force has since been slow to arrest the perpetrators and made no moves against pro-Beijing figures who have been accused of inciting the violence. Senior officers have even blamed democracy activists for the police’s inability to stop the MTR gang, claiming that persistent protests have stretched the force’s resources.
The government, meanwhile, has demonstrated a callous level of both-sides-ism. Carrie Lam, the chief executive, equated the actions of democracy activists who defaced the facade of Beijing’s main office in Hong Kong with the gang who attacked and hospitalized more than 40 MTR passengers, warning that “violence will only breed more violence.”
With Lam and other top officials appointed by Beijing, the Hong Kong government already lacks popular legitimacy. In the midst of a rolling political crisis, and with an economy that does not work for many, the government also lacks the legitimacy that comes from delivering concrete benefits to its citizens. If the Hong Kong government is unable or unwilling to protect its people from indiscriminate physical attacks, it will lose its last remaining vestiges of authority.
The rule of law has been the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s remarkable success since it was handed back from British to Chinese control. But, under pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping, it has steadily been eroded. The Hong Kong government has disqualified elected politicians, jailed democracy activists, banned a political party and expelled a senior foreign journalist. When agents acting for Beijing brazenly abducted booksellers in 2015 and a billionaire tycoon in 2017, the Hong Kong government looked the other way.
All these cases chipped away at trust in the government and the law enforcement agencies. But these were still targeted actions against specific people deemed threatening to Beijing. By contrast, the MTR rampage was indiscriminate, ensnaring people on their way home from work or dinner along with journalists and some democracy activists.
Many Hong Kongers now fear that their government can no longer protect them as they go about their lives. Beijing has also tried to intimidate the protesters, with the Chinese Defense Ministry warning that it is prepared to deploy the People’s Liberation Army in the city if asked by Hong Kong authorities. The Chinese foreign ministry had its own threatening message, asking: “Has anyone in history met a good end after colluding with external forces and bringing damage to their own country and people?”
But they have cause and effect the wrong way around. It has been the relentless drive to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms that has prompted the intensifying protests in Hong Kong over the last few years.
To cool the combustible atmosphere, the Hong Kong government will need to, at a minimum, accede to demands for an independent inquiry into the conduct of the police. That would not solve the fundamental political problem of sustaining a free and autonomous city inside the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. But unless the government can prove to its citizens that it can and will keep them safe, Hong Kong is heading toward a very dangerous cliff edge.
Ben Bland is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and the author of “Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow.”