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Learning from Belfast to end HK troubles

By Martin Sieff | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-20 07:06

Thousands of angry people swarm into the streets. They believe they have legitimate grievances. They call on the government to repel or take certain measures and address their grievances.

Yet after the government resolves the initial issue, the demonstrations and violence do not end; they only spread and intensify. There are calls for democracy where none, it is argued, has been seen before. In some countries, the film footage and simple direct slogans attract widespread support for the rioters.

The riots have become more violent. The police have come under increasing strain.

This is Hong Kong in August 2019?

But this is also an exact description of the rising violence between two bitterly distrustful religious communities that I witnessed on the streets of my native Belfast in British-ruled Northern Ireland exactly-uncannily-half a century ago as a teenager in that unforgettable, agonizing August of 1969. The lessons I learned then would serve the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region well today before they bring an unimaginable disaster upon themselves.

Violent protests against authorities never bring peace. They only bring war, destruction and suffering-almost always on a scale that none of the demonstrators could have imagined when they took to the streets. Prosperity never follows violent protests. At best, there is mass unemployment and despair as local businesses and national investment flee the territory-a process which could continue for decades. You do not build factories and hire workers when those factories could be razed in one of the endless clashes.

The "freedom" the demonstrators in Hong Kong have been demanding is illusory. It is fool's gold. It is the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This kind of "freedom" will never benefit the people of Hong Kong. At best it could be granted, but at the cost of a serious decline in investment from both the Chinese mainland and other regions of Asia.

Hong Kong's enormous advantage for decades, including the past two decades under Chinese autonomous rule, has been that it is considered a secure, predictable and safe place to do business with the mainland and with the wider region. But that no longer seems true. The longer the protests rage and the wider and more serious they become, the more that incalculable advantage will be eroded.

When I was a young boy, Belfast was still the largest ship building center on earth. In the late 1960s, the British government invested in two gigantic gantry cranes called Goliath and Samson-at the time the largest such pieces of machinery in the world-to build super oil tankers. They still stand today as tourist attractions, looming 32 and 35 floors high over the city. But they were never used industrially. Not once. The Northern Irish Civil War (known with masterly understatement as "The Troubles") saw to that.

The great shipyard that at its peak employed 35,000 workers became an industrial wasteland peopled only by ghosts. Even after peace finally returned to Northern Ireland, after 30 years of civil strife, the great complex on Queen's Island never recovered, never revived.

Hong Kong should avoid such a scenario in which growth and prosperity will wither and die. The Civil War in Northern Ireland raged-sometimes horrifically, sometimes more subdued-for 30 years until the landmark Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Today, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson's suicidal obsession with pushing through a rapid, "hard" Brexit, threatens to negate 20 years of peace and trigger a new era of conflict and war on my native island.

The miserable British record of contempt for human rights, torture, intrigue and suppression in Northern Ireland gives the UK no right to hold itself up as any kind of example to lecture China today on how to handle the protests sweeping Hong Kong.

On the contrary, the residents of Hong Kong should ignore the fake-sweet words of compassion and support coming out of the UK and the United States to urge them to more extremes, more violence. That is a path that can only lead to generations of death, despair and ruin.

There is still time to draw back and reject that terrible path-before it is too late.

The author is a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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