China Daily

Friday, January 22, 2021, 10:31
Why is it insurrection in US and just protest in HK?
By Richard Cullen
Friday, January 22, 2021, 10:31 By Richard Cullen

Much of the world was riveted by scenes of a riotous mob of Americans storming the Capitol in Washington on Jan 6. Militant protesters, some armed, arrived in their thousands to support Donald Trump's shameless claim that he had been robbed of victory in the presidential election and to stop the formal counting of state submitted, electoral college votes by a joint session of Congress.

Joe Biden, then president-elect and now the 46th president of the United States, told America and the world that, "It is an insurrection. It is an assault on the rule of law." He added that: "This is not dissent, it's disorder. It borders on sedition," and they are domestic terrorists who should be prosecuted.

The National Geographic magazine agreed, headlining its report: "An American Insurrection". Leading Western media outlets such as BBC, CNN, The Guardian (which headlined Jan 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 the US' 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.

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

Inevitably, what has happened in Washington gives cause to reflect on the insurrection we experienced in Hong Kong for almost a year in 2019.

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 Legislative Council, a core part of the constitutional structure in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, actually convening to engage in its primary purpose: legislating. This furious protest stopped 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 rioters were removed from the Capitol building and confirmed 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 about HK$50 million (US$6.4 million) was spent on repairs.

The widest variety of leading international commentators smoothed over the July 1 attack on the LegCo building. Few, if any, talked, as they have so readily since Jan 6, of insurrection, terrorism or an assault on 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: "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 at the Capitol provocatively compared his "civil disobedience" to that of Mahatma 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. 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?

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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