By Patricio Saavedra Morales
In June this year, thousands of Hongkongers hit the streets to protest against a controversial extradition bill promoted by the Chief Executive of the former British colony, Carrie Lam. During those days, Hongkongers, as well as people worldwide, cried out in fury after seeing how riot police beat peaceful protesters and indiscriminately threw tear gas canisters into the crowd. While some protesters remained peaceful, many others fought back against police brutality. Under these circumstances, each day more and more people joined massive demonstrations not only to show their disagreement with the bill but also to complain against the authorities’ measures regarding protests. Despite the fact that on 16th June the Chief Executive declared the extradition bill would be suspended, protests continued to demand Mrs Lam’s resignation, an independent investigation of police brutality during the previous days, and the withdraw of the controversial extradition bill (see “Hong Kong protests”, 2019, for an overview).
Although most of the subsequent protests were aimed at the Hong Kong government and its failure to satisfy protesters’ demands, it worth noting that a different group of people (alleged supporters of the Mainland Chinese Government) organised a series of rallies to support the Hong Kong police’s actions against protesters (Zhao & Zhang, 2019).
This summary of the actions that took place before 1st July in Hong Kong is useful for three reasons. First, it highlights the crucial role of authorities (i.e., the government and the police) in setting up the scenario where protests take place, and how people’s perceptions about this scenario may lead people to support protesters’ actions and join demonstrations. Second, it shows that during mobilisation processes, people may carry out different actions (i.e., non-violent and violent) depending on the restrictions people need to confront and the interaction between protesters and the police. Third, it provides context for the situation Hongkongers had to face on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, on 1st July 2019.
In terms of research in collective action, although Lee and Chan (2018) have reported that the use of tear gas against protesters was one of the main reasons for people to join the ongoing demonstrations during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, researchers have barely explored how non-participants may support protesters’ actions in relation to perceived restrictions authorities impose on the right to protest. In an attempt to address this gap, my PhD research at Sussex University (which includes data from Chile, Germany, and the UK) has demonstrated that non-participants will support the use of violence against the police the more they perceive the authorities try to hinder demonstrations and that public opinion legitimises the occurrence of protests. More interestingly, we found that under those circumstances, people support protesters’ violence against the police as self-defence after facing a dilemma between the pervasive idea that protests need to be peaceful and the principle of defending the right to protest. The dilemma implies that people may hold contradictory ideas about protest violence; and similar to what happens with actual protesters (ESIM; Drury & Reicher, 2000; see Drury, Ball, Neville, Reicher, & Stott, in press, for a review), non-participants may change their norms about the use of violence depending on protesters’ interactions with the police, public opinion’s legitimisation of protests, and the measures authorities take to guarantee (or not) people’s right to protest. To put it differently, people’s support for protest violence is contextually situated.
We think that there are three main implications of considering the support for protesters’ violence as contextually situated. First, support for protest violence may not only depend on the efficacy of peaceful (alternative) actions to reach protesters’ goals (e.g., Saab, Spears, Tausch, & Sasse, 2016) or grievances on the issue (see Thomas & Louis, 2014) but on the restrictions imposed the right to protest by a third party, authorities. Second, norms about the legitimacy of different protest actions can change within a single mobilisation process. Thus, actions previously forbidden may gain legitimacy among protesters and non-participants. However, this does not mean that every action is allowed. For instance, even though people had the capability to throw petrol bombs at the police, this action might not be by any means acceptable for Hongkongers, but admissible for some part of the French of population, for example, or even appropriate for those who fought against the Chilean dictatorship. In other words, what protesters can do is culturally and historically situated according to the interactions people have had with authorities (see Tilly, 2008, for a discussion). Third, even though media outlets are fundamental mediators between protesters’ actions and those who do not take action (see Cammaerts, 2012, for a discussion), it does not mean that non-participants are passive receivers of media information. Instead, non-participants are active readers of collective action who may support or join protesters’ actions after evaluating the political scenario protesters have to face. The latter idea represents a direct challenge to some approaches that, without considering the political context where collective action takes place, have argued that protest violence necessarily represents a backward step in terms of influencing others to participate (see Stuart, Thomas, & Donaghue, 2018) and support collective action (see Feinberg, Willer, & Kovacheff, 2017; Simpson, Willer, Feinberg, 2018).
We think the ideas mentioned above are useful to understand what is going on Hong Kong in recent days, but especially to know what may happen next considering the events that took place there on 1st July. In short, on that day, around 550,000 people turned out on the streets to protest against the Hong Kong government (see Zhao, Cheung, & Chan, 2019). Whereas some people took part in non-violent protests, others clashed with the police. However, the most eye-catching action happened at the end of the day when a group of young protesters decided to lay siege to a strategic location, the Legislature Council (LG). Unlike what happened a couple of weeks ago with the siege of the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, this time protesters decided to occupy the LG. During the occupation, protesters carried out selective actions including smashing pictures of some past authorities, raising the British colonial flag, spray-painting the symbols of Hong Kong, and displaying banners such as one that read ‘there are no rioters, only a tyrannous government’(see “Hong Kong protesters occupy”, 2019). In the meanwhile, instead of trying to prevent the escalation of this situation, authorities were busy condemning ‘the mob’ and the ‘radical’ protesters.
Once the police officers took over the LG and protesters left the place, Mrs Lam expressed the idea of a broad dialogue with all sectors, while she announced that the police would pursue those who took part in the occupation (see “Angry Hong Kong leader”, 2019). In light of this announcement, we suggest that the Chief Executive was not able to understand the reasons behind people’s decision to occupy or support the LG occupation. In particular, what Mrs Lam and other authorities have neglected is there are no ‘rioters’ in Hong Kong but only people that have decided to go beyond non-violent actions in response to the imposed restrictions on the right to protest and authorities’ unwillingness to respond to people’s demands. Consequently, what comes next in Hong Kong will mainly depend on how local authorities set up the scenario for protests, although if there is no significant change, Hongkongers’ actions would not be so different to what people worldwide saw on 1st July 2019.
Patricio Saavedra Morales is a doing a PhD in Social Psychology under the supervision of Prof John Drury. His research focuses on how perceptions of the political context can predict people’s support for protesters’ violence against the police. This post was originally published on the Crowd and Identities Research Group blog.
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