Escalating riots in the city are now backfiring

Updated: 2019-11-12 07:48

(HK Edition)

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On Monday, something changed in Hong Kong. All of a sudden, we are seeing insane levels of violence, mostly initiated by protesters, or the usual masked, black-shirted "anarchists", depending on your point of view. Of course, the common refrain will be that "the police started it, it's their fault."

Just a quick recap of the day - in Sai Wan Ho we have masked rioters trying to body-slam a policeman who was making an arrest, and then steal his firearm. One man was shot in the attempt. Luckily, so far he has survived.

Rioters have been videotaped firebombing the inside of an MTR train; dropping heavy objects on cars from overhead walkways; setting fires inside vehicular tunnels; gasoline bombs throwing at a school bus taking mostly mainland children to a Montessori school; throwing explosive devices at the police; kicking a man a set of stairs; beating a driver for trying to remove roadblocks; and pouring gasoline over a man engaged in a discussion with protesters and then setting the man on fire. He's in hospital with second-degree burns.

I can't say I'm surprised.

Escalating riots in the city are now backfiring

The sad death last week of Alex Chow Tsz-lok after he fell from a third-floor car park in Tseung Kwan O was sure to trigger a massive reaction. Why? It has been clear for some time that the hardcore group of Hong Kong independence activists has been, more than anything else, waging a propaganda war. We see this when a student "takes a dive", then a mainland student was quickly besieged and blamed for "pushing" him so they can then beat him up.

We have seen videos of the police being provoked, then, when they respond, the clips of only the police response (but not the context) are sent around the world to the tune of "police brutality". We have seen unrelenting harassment of the family of a girl who committed suicide, purely for PR purposes with the narrative being that she was murdered by Hong Kong police.

In exactly the same fashion, Chow's unfortunate death has been used as a propaganda tool to create rage among those in Hong Kong who are terrified of China, and honestly believe that it is the evil empire that is coming to destroy them. The narrative around Chow's death is that he, too, was murdered by the police even though video evidence from the car park so far in hand would suggest that the police had nothing to do with his death. That may change, and a full forensic investigation is, of course, required.

In the absence of a definitive, neutral conclusion, Chow's death has been used as a deliberate trigger to initiate Monday's violence.

But is this something to be worried about? I believe not. I think that what we are seeing is known in operant psychology as "extinction" of a behavior. The idea is very simple. If a behavior is reinforced, over time it will become stronger and more ingrained. If, however, reinforcement stops, then, for a time, the behavior will first become more intense after which it tapers off and stops.

I think what we're seeing with the violence on Monday is this intensification of behavior that is no longer being reinforced.

For many weeks, violence from the protesters has been designed to punish those who openly do not support the movement, and cow everybody else. That was working - for a while. Recently however, more and more average Hong Kong people have been coming out to clear roadblocks, and denounce the violence.

Monday was supposed to be a general strike, and surely the activists expected everyone in Hong Kong to stay at home in support of their movement. That didn't happen. People need to feed their families, so most headed out to work as usual.

In response, the activists decided to "enforce" their demands for a general strike by paralyzing the city's transport system.

From what can be seen from online videos, while the intensity of the violence has gone up, the number of people responsible for the violence appears to have dropped significantly. On Monday, we're only seeing small groups of rioters, using more extreme violence than was the case before, intending to force their will upon the majority. Therefore, it would seem that most Hong Kong people have lost any appetite for ongoing violence and disruption of the kind we have seen in the past weeks.

A second reason to be optimistic is that the recently unleashed insanity is now eroding the "freedom fighter" image that the activists have been cultivating over the past few months. The display of craziness on Monday can only accelerate this process. The world is now waking up to the reality of what is happening in Hong Kong. The British government has already made statements denouncing the violence now being demonstrated by the rioters, and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act seems to have gotten stuck in the US Senate. Once the US senators see the reality on the ground in Hong Kong, it's going to be increasingly difficult for them to sell the story that Hong Kong is a police state.

Finally, I think that we crossed the Rubicon today. The Hong Kong police have, for months, been more restrained than can be imagined anywhere else in the world. In an environment where the intention has always been to make the police look bad, this restraint has turned out to be the wrong decision. It never really mattered what the police did as they were going to get blamed and stuck with the "police brutality" label in any case.

Clearly, the protesters themselves believed that the Hong Kong police were going to go easy on them, even as they smeared and framed the police. When you watch videos of the shooting on Monday, you will see that, until the moment that the shots actually sounded, the protesters attacking the police were certain that the police officer would never fire, and they would be safe as they beat him and "rescued" their compatriot.

The message from Monday is, quite simply: If you attack the police, you will be warned and, if you don't stop, you will be shot. That in itself should discourage all but the absolute hardcore, or the truly mindless among them. And they can't help but demonstrate to the world that their behavior has nothing to do with democracy in Hong Kong. It's something much darker, and to be shunned.

(HK Edition 11/12/2019 page8)