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Different perceptions of insurrection in US and HK

By Richard Cullen | China Daily Asia | Updated: 2021-01-13 09:38

Photo taken on July 14, 2020 shows the Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong, July 14, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Much of the world was riveted by scenes of a riotous mob of Americans storming the Capitol in Washington on January 6. Militant protesters, some armed, arrived in their thousands to support President Trump's shameless claim that he had been robbed of election victory on November 3 last year and to stop the formal counting of State submitted, electoral college votes by a joint session of Congress. The rioting wing of this assembly took over the Capitol building for a time, sending elected representatives fleeing or seeking cover. Several people died as a result, including one policeman and an avid female Trump supporter shot by police.

Many Americans and others around the world were horrified to see such shocking scenes of violence within this building housing a central pillar of the US governance system.

The new, 46th President of the US, Joe Biden swiftly told America and the world that, "It is an insurrection. It is an assault on the rule of law", he added, noting that: "This is not dissent, it's disorder. It borders on sedition", they are domestic terrorists who should be prosecuted.

The National Geographic magazine agreed, headlining its report: "An American Insurrection". Leading Western news outlets like the BBC, CNN, the Guardian (which headlined January 6 as "Insurrection Day" and the Washington Post graphically described and roundly condemned the rioting mob assaulting the Capitol.

These comments and reports aptly captured the fundamentally serious nature of what had happened: Here was a dangerous threat to America's very constitutional order. None of these leading commentators spoke of any possible justifications for this behavior. Methodically banished from consideration was any validation of what had unfolded as demonstrating the right to assembly, free expression or civil disobedience for a political cause. Fierce calls for the application of resolute state force to put a stop to the politics of violence and fear so frighteningly on display, soon followed.

If one day's horrific intimidation is an insurrection then how to describe Hong Kong's ferocious 2019 reality systematically transplanted to the US capital: a new Civil War, perhaps?

Leading Democrat politician and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, soon after, moved to impeach President Donald Trump (again) on a charge of: "incitement to insurrection". She said Mr Trump was "unhinged".

Inevitably, what has happened in Washington gives cause to reflect on the insurrection we experienced in Hong Kong from early June, 2019 for over six months.

A remarkable new book by Nury Vittachi, The Other Side of the Story: A Secret War in Hong Kong, provides a distinctly thorough and chilling, diary-style, review of Hong Kong's extended insurgency. In chapter 9, "Setting Up The Police", Vittachi provides a detailed review of the events of June 12, 2019, based on eyewitness testimony and extensive interviews.

This first major political riot was not just well organized, "it was also well orchestrated. For example, the police were purposefully drawn into certain arrest procedures to show them in the worst light" for the benefit of members of the international media, who were looking for such footage. Vittachi notes, acutely, that: "A well-known strategy of international protest is to dehumanize the police and ascribe all wrongdoing to them. This is precisely what was happening in Hong Kong."

Remember, too, that this was a protest-riot deliberately planned to stop the LegCo, a core part of the constitutional structure in Hong Kong, actually convening to engage in its primary purpose: legislating. This furious protest nakedly barred the LegCo from operating. Here was a far more effective assault on a legislature than that recently seen in Washington, where Congress reconvened shortly after the riot and confirmed Joe Biden as the next President of the US.

Following this energetic first mugging of Hong Kong's constitutional order, a still more hard-line mob comprehensively vandalized the LegCo building less than three weeks later on July 1, rendering it unusable for three months until approximately HK$50 million ($6.4 million) was spent on repairs.

Very shortly after Hong Kong's first well organized, terrifying political riot on June 12, Nancy Pelosi observed that what was unfolding in Hong Kong was "a beautiful sight to behold".

The widest variety of leading international commentators smoothed over the July 1 attack on the LegCo. Few, if any, talked, as they have so readily since January 6, of insurrection, terrorism or an assault of the rule of law. The narrative which emerged saw July 1, at most, as an unfortunate lapse (possibly encouraged by the police!) within an otherwise heroic struggle for political reform.

Not surprisingly — but still extraordinarily — the Economist said that, "The (Washington) mayhem is unlike any in living memory". Some memory: bearing in mind not just Hong Kong but the shocking assaults on the Russian and Indian parliaments in 1993 and 2001, respectively.

Of course, the mob supporting Trump also seeks political reform, tailor-made to their demands. One of the leading rioters inside the Capitol provocatively compared his "civil disobedience" to that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a short thought experiment: What if Washington were to be subject, not just to this one horrendous day of rioting at the Capitol, but to more than six months of violent political upheaval from one end of the city to the other? Imagine rioting that would constantly trash the fine Washington subway system and wreck a series of its excellent universities, etc. If one day's horrific intimidation is an insurrection then how to describe Hong Kong's ferocious 2019 reality systematically transplanted to the US capital: a new Civil War, perhaps?

Compared to Hong Kong, the US has received, very recently, no more than a short, brutal lesson on the profound dangers posed by insurrection. American doublethink on this topic is dazzling, however: A single terrible riot at the Capitol is, multiplied countless times, still a valiant fight for freedom in far-off Hong Kong.

The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law, the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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