Why claims that Hong Kong protesters support escalating violence could be wrong… and dangerous

Demonstrations against an ill-fated extradition bill have become a protest movement with multiple strands now at play, united not by tactics but by shared grievances.

With a police crackdown already underway, the government is flirting with the idea of legislation under an outdated and controversial emergency ordinance that would plunge Hong Kong into martial law. Meanwhile, Beijing is continuing to forward the case for possible military or paramilitary help.

In light of this, a clear distinction must be made between a movement that is mostly peaceful and orderly, and the actions of a small and increasingly militant minority. Many of whom carry scars, both physical and emotional, from months of being on the front line. However, this distinction is increasingly being blurred.

September 15 china extradition

Photo: May James/HKFP.

 

A recently published study by a respected political scientist at Lingnan University found that more than half of its respondents advocated the escalation of protest tactics. The report was widely shared on social media and was the subject of an article in The Conversation.

This is because the line that protesters support violence plays to three important biases. Firstly, it reads like a good news piece. Second, it provides reassurance to radical protesters that their actions carry public support. Thirdly, blurring the lines between peaceful and violent protesters justifies an indiscriminate crackdown that has already had a chilling effect on civil society.

However, the study itself has important limitations and therefore does not really support this understanding. What the study shows is that of the 8,000 protesters surveyed over 19 demonstrations, with an 85 per cent response rate, an increasing number are choosing to either agree or strongly agree that over time “Radical protests can force the government to listen to the people.”

Conversely, during the same period, there has been a decrease in the proportion of respondents who agree or strongly agree that “Radical protests will alienate the general public.” Therefore, as the study itself concludes, the findings can only be claimed to “provide evidence of the strong solidarity among the protesters,” and that in July more participants agreed that “the use of radical tactics by protesters is understandable when the government fails to listen.”

The survey does not show that there is broad support for escalating violence; nor does it show that those who attended the extremely large mass protests at the beginning of the movement, in addition to many others who sympathise, increasingly support the violent tactics currently deployed by a minority of the most radical protesters.

Indeed, the authors of the study make it clear that the study population—the people whom the research is supposed to represent—are not the broader base of protesters but rather only those who have continued to show up to protests. Furthermore, the very substantial differences among various protests are highlighted:

In mass rallies (Type I), protesters were more evenly distributed across age groups… However, in the case of fluid demonstrations (Type III), which often involved more confrontations, the proportion of protesters aged 30 or above significantly dropped. That is to say, fluid demonstrations were mostly dominated by young people under the age of 30. As for static demonstrations (Type II), the age profile is in between Type I and Type III.

september 15 China extradition admiralty

Photo: Studio Incendo.

 

Then there is the issue of selection bias and the changing composition of the protesters surveyed. Consider the following possibility: let’s suppose that most peaceful protesters are actually against violent tactics. As protests become more violent, fewer of these protesters will attend. The surveys that have been conducted would not capture this dynamic, as these non-violent protesters drop out of the sample.

With one, albeit significant, exception, the protests no longer attract the massive numbers seen earlier this summer and have generally taken on a much more violent character. And while there is little doubt that a significant number of ordinary people continue to sympathise with the need to protest, it is misleading to claim from this study that such people support escalating violence.

Indeed the image of the protester has shifted from people from all walks of life to younger people in helmets and masks. As the authors themselves mentioned, the demographic composition of protesters has indeed changed.

Findings from another survey research study–one studying the attitudes of the entire range of Hong Kong residents, including both protesters and non-protesters–have been circulating quietly among academics and journalists. These findings appear to indicate that support for violent tactics may actually be quite low–even among respondents who strongly support many or even most of the five demands put forward during the movement.

This narrative fits the pattern of social media posts. In June, a much larger and broader base of individuals made Facebook posts in support of the protests. Today, a substantial but much smaller number of people are still posting pro-protest content. Whilst other factors are no doubt at play, not least the effects of what is accurately described as “white terror,” the falling numbers do seem reflective of what on anecdotal evidence seems to be happening.

My point is not that the protest movement is losing support as it grows increasingly violent, though this may be the case. Rather that it cannot be stated with confidence on existing evidence that there is increasing support for the tactic of escalating violence; and that this narrative is dangerous as it provides fuel to extremism on both sides, providing legitimacy to violent protests and for an indiscriminate crackdown in response.

What might provide a more definitive answer is the results from the mass rally on August 18, which represented a non-violent interlude in the protest cycle, and may have drawn up to 1.8 million people, according to organiser estimates. These results, however, have yet to be publicised by the researchers.

Such legal mass rallies—when allowed—highlight the distinction between a large, passive majority who continue to share the protesters’ grievances and are still prepared to mobilise to protest legally and peacefully, and a small minority of dedicated, violent and radicalised protesters, numbering no more than a few thousand, who now regularly take to aggressive protesting. We must continue to make this distinction.

反送中抗議已演變為大型社會運動。現時各種抗議不斷,非由戰略配合卻由共同的憤怒團結起來。警方忙於鎮壓之際,政府亦著手考慮為過時及具爭議性的緊急法立法,若實施無異於港戒嚴。北京則嘗試合理化在港出動軍隊或提供軍事援助的可能性。在這關鍵時刻,我們更需保持警醒而不要迷失於目前的困境。

此次運動有兩大主軸,前者是所謂和理非的抗議人士,後者則是人數較少、行動日益激進的勇武派。後者中多人在前線長期行動,無論是在身心都十分疲累甚至傷痕累累。兩者行動明確區分,縱然此區別正變得越來越模糊。

最近一份備受注目的研究指暴力升級的策略越來越受抗議人士支持。這份報告由一名備受尊重的嶺大政治學者撰寫,内容在社交媒體上獲廣泛分享,且為刊於 The Converstion 的學術文章主題。這是因爲抗爭者支持暴力的論調有三大重要傾向。首先,街頭暴力正在發生,這是具新聞價值的報導。其次,它能使激進抗爭者安心,因公眾的支持能合理化他們一些越來越由情緒主導,且容易被理解的行為。第三,和平與勇武示威者界線模糊下,能令執政者在本已躁動的平民社會裏,找到理由進行廣泛而無差異的鎮壓。

但是,上述研究本身有重大局限性,因此以上理解未必正確。該研究表明,研究對象是參與 19 項示威活動的 8,000 名抗爭者,回應率為 85% 。隨著時間推進,越來越多人選擇同意或強烈同意「激進抗議活動可以迫使政府聽取人民的聲音」。相反,在同一時期,同意或強烈同意「激進抗議會失去廣大公眾支持」的受訪者比例則有所下降。因此,正如研究本身所得出的結論,發現只能提供了「抗爭者之間非常團結」的證據,以及在 7 月有更多被訪者同意「當政府未能聆聽訴求時,抗爭者使用激進策略是可以理解的」。

該研究調查既沒有反思性,也沒為暴力升級得到廣泛支持提供佐證;它無法證明很多其他同情示威者,或在抗爭早期參加過超大規模示威活動的人士,越來越支持少數激進示威者目前所採取的勇武手段。

確實,研究學者清楚表明研究人群(該研究代表的人群)不是更廣泛的抗爭者群體,而是持續出現在抗議活動的人群。此外他們還強調了各種抗議活動之間的巨大差異:

「在群眾集會(I 型)中,抗爭者在各個年齡段的分佈更均勻……但在經常涉及多種類對抗的流動示威(III 型)中, 30 歲或以上抗爭者的佔比顯著下降。也就是說,流動示威活動主要由 30 歲以下的年輕人主導。至於靜態示威活動(II 型),年齡分佈則介乎於 I 型和 III 型之間。」

所以,研究結果可能受調查樣本選擇性偏差和被調查對象組成不斷變化的兩大問題影響。假設我們採取與上述論調相反的立場,即大多數和平示威者實際上是在反對暴力示威。隨著抗議活動變得更加暴力,這些抗爭者中很少參加抗議活動。進行的調查無法捕捉到這種動態變化,因為這些非暴力抗爭者從調查樣本中退出了。

除了 8 月 18 日那次較大集會外,近來的抗議活動已不能吸引到初夏看到的大量人群,而這些抗議通常呈現衝突加劇的現象。毫無疑問,至今仍有許多普通市民繼續同情及支持抗議,但僅從這項研究中就聲稱普通人支持暴力升級是誤導的。實際上,抗爭者的形像已經從各行各業的人們轉移成戴著頭盔和口罩的年輕人。正如研究作者提到,抗爭者的人口組成確實已發生了變化。

另一項調查研究的結果正在學者和記者中正悄然流傳。有關研究包括抗議者和非抗議者在內的整體香港居民如何看待抗議的態度。這項調查似乎發現,即使在「五大訴求,缺一不可」或大部份訴求都應予以回應的強烈支持者中,對勇武抗爭戰術的支持度實際上也可能很低。

這種敘述符合社交媒體帖子的模式。六月時有更多和更廣泛的人群在臉書上發文支持抗議活動。時至今日,仍然有相當數量、但總數已經大減的人在繼續發表抗議活動的內容。雖然這毫無疑問受其他因素如白色恐怖影響,但下降的數字確實可反證傳聞所說支持下降的可能性。

我並不是想指出隨著抗議運動變得越來越暴力,抗議運動的支持正在大量流失——儘管這也有可能。相反,我希望指出不能對現有證據充滿信心地說越來越多人支持暴力升級。更何況這種論述是危險的,因為它為兩邊的極端行爲提供了動力,為勇武抗爭者提供了合理性,可致暴力鎮壓等嚴重後果。

8 月 18 日的集會有大約 180 萬人參加,以和平方式進行。相信針對該集會的研究能提供更確切的參考答案,但現時這些研究結果尚未公開。

這種合法的大型集會(如仍能被批准)能突顯了兩類抗爭者的分別。前者是繼續以和平、合法方式抗議的龐大人群,後者是不超過數千人、經常積極行動、並善用武力的激進抗爭者。我們必須繼續明確區分這兩類行動。

(The cover photo is credited to AFP)

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