The World

Send in the Thugs: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution Faces a Time-Honored Tactic

Men in masks rough up a man, right, who tried to stop them from removing barricades from a pro-democracy protest area in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.

Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

It was pretty apparent from the beginning that China’s government was unlikely to back down in the face of the protesters in Hong Kong. Compromise would send a signal to citizens of the territory as well as opposition groups in the mainland that causing unrest can bring results.

But it seemed possible that Beijing would simply wait a while for the movement to run out of steam. Another potential option was to try to placate the protesters by throwing Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, C.Y. Leung, under the bus without backing down on the protesters’ central demands, which concern the long-promised transition to full electoral democracy.

But it looks as if Chinese authorities are in no mood for compromise or delay. Two days after an editorial in the government’s official People’s Daily threatened “unimaginable” consequences if the protests continue, the “occupy” movement’s camps came under attack from pro-government crowds, which the protesters suspect are “rent-a-mobs mobilized by pro-Beijing factions in the city.” The Mong Kok area, where some of the worst scuffles took place, is “notorious for organized gangs known as triads,” the New York Times notes.

If these are, in fact, hired thugs, it’s just the latest iteration of a time-honored tactic. In recent years, anti-government demonstrators have been met by violent “patriots” of mysterious origin in Egypt, Ukraine, Thailand, and mainland China

The tactic also fits in perfectly with the government’s propaganda strategy. Beijing and the Hong Kong government have been throwing around warnings that the protests would lead to chaos and unrest. From all accounts, the protesters have been exceedingly well-behaved, but the promised chaos has now been provided. Simply having the police use force to clear away the protesters might risk turning neutral residents against the government. This way, there’s enough plausible deniability for the Hong Kong government to appear to be the reasonable party amid all the unrest. Leung has offered talks with the protesters, though given that he says he’s not resigning, and Beijing isn’t going to back down on its proposed election rules, it’s not clear what those talks will accomplish. The government also got an assist from the weather: There was a heavy rain on Friday.

For now, it looks like the Chinese government has the upper hand over the umbrella revolution, but it’s a fast-moving situation. Hosni Mubarak and Viktor Yanukovych probably also thought un-uniformed tough guys would calm things down for them.