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Hugh Riminton: The Hong Kongers Lost The Fight With The First Petrol Bomb

As the smoke clears in Hong Kong, it is dawning on everyone that the protest movement has suffered a cruel defeat.

At the Polytechnic University, 1000 people have been arrested. Many face long stretches in jail. But it is the students’ tactical errors, especially the willingness to escalate violence, that has done the most harm.

Former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, writing in John Menadue’s “Pearls and Irritations” newsletter, believes the protesters have done “fatal damage within China to democracy's brand".

The anger and frustration in Hong Kong remains real. The protesters now point to abundant images of police brutality, including that of a riot police officer stamping on the head of a plainly unconscious activist.

The images of solidarity are also powerful, as thousands came out to harass the police besieging the HK Polytechnic University. And the widely shared vision of students rappelling to safety and being rescued by squadrons of kids on motor scooters will also form part of the legend of these days of tear gas and fire.

Police detain a protester during an attempt to escape the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on 18 November 2019. (Image: Getty)

On the Chinese mainland, other stories are being told.

As Raby tells it, “the daily images from Hong Kong of disruptions and violence screened into China’s homes strengthens the (Communist) Party’s narrative. People have concluded that if that was what democracy allows, then they do not want it on the mainland.”

In Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Movement”, tens of thousands argued for democratic reforms with weapons generally no more threatening than their rain gear. The instruments of violence were held by police.

The 2019 protests started in similar style. Peaceful, respectful, determined.

The Hong Kong police over-reacted. But crucially, so then did a small fringe of protesters.

By the time of the siege at the Polytechnic, the protesters had armed themselves with bows and arrows and catapults capable of firing rocks at lethal speed over 80 metres. Their petrol bomb techniques were good enough to repel two armoured police trucks, one of which became became engulfed in flames.

Protesters use a catapult to fire bricks at the police from inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on 17 November 2019. (Image: Getty)

More than 2000 protesters have been injured. But also more than 500 police.

Chinese mainland audiences saw this. They also saw the Chinese PLA troops taking no part beyond a choreographed mission to clean up roads of debris. Unarmed. Dressed in t-shirts.

As a former resident of Hong Kong my sympathies lie with those determined to keep Chinese communist party repression out of their lives. But as a long-time observer of political movements, I wish more of those protesters had studied the non-violence movement used so effectively by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Professor Whitney Sanford of the University of Florida says being the receiver -- not the creator -- of violence, brings enormous moral power. “For Gandhi,” says Sanford, “resistance meant placing one’s own body in harm’s way, open to the possibility of injury, imprisonment or even death. And that is what made it such a powerful political tool.”

The people of Hong Kong are today watching the clean-up of a charred and trashed campus.

“I think it’s normal for the protesters to have their political demands," office worker Ruby Huang told the South China Morning Post, “but violence and violating other people’s rights are not good ways to express their demands.”

Listen to Hugh Riminton and Peter Van Onselen discuss the bushfire situation and the government's reaction on the latest episode of The Professor and The Hack

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