Years of ignoring peaceful protests fuels Hong Kong violence: jailed activist

Elaine YU, Yan ZHAO
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Benny Tai wrote his letters from Shek Pik prison

Benny Tai wrote his letters from Shek Pik prison (AFP Photo/Anthony WALLACE)

Hong Kong (AFP) - Hong Kongers are becoming more accepting of violent protests because the city's pro-Beijing leaders have ignored years of peaceful demonstrations, a leading democracy activist has told AFP in letters penned from his prison cell.

Benny Tai, a law professor and staunch non-violence advocate, was jailed for 16 months in April over his role in the largely peaceful 2014 "Umbrella Movement" weeks before a renewed round of protests and clashes engulfed the city.

The current demonstrations were triggered by a controversial bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have since evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.

Massive crowds have regularly hit the streets for peaceful rallies, while increasingly violent clashes have broken out between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.

In a hand-written letter from Shek Pik prison, Tai said the trashing of parliament earlier this month was a turning point and showed a growing willingness to embrace more violent tactics.

"People seem to have much more tolerance especially when the government refuses to give any direct and meaningful response to the demands of the non-violent movement," he wrote in a letter dated July 21 that AFP received on Monday.

"What is violence? Must violence be wrong? Must all violent acts be condemned?" were questions Hong Kongers were now asking themselves, he added.

- Lack of democracy -

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of city leader Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

They have also begun calling once more for universal suffrage.

Tai, who helped popularise the idea of mass civil disobedience prior to the Umbrella Movement which called for free elections, said the root problem of Hong Kong's political crisis remained the city's lack of democracy.

"The anti-extradition movement is a strike back by Hong Kong people against the interference by the Chinese Communist Party," he wrote in an earlier letter dated June 23 sent to AFP.

Under the 1997 handover deal with Britain, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

But it has resisted calls to grant wider freedoms, such as the right for Hong Kongers to elect their leaders.

Public anger has also collided with years of frustration over spiralling inequality and the cost of living in one of the world's most expensive, densely populated cities.

Tai said "all institutional channels to raise their objections have been blocked" as authorities tightened the grip on the city's legislature and clamped down on the opposition, forcing the public to use other means.

"Only democratic reform can resolve the conflicts or open a door to the resolution," he wrote in the July letter.

- Calls for amnesty -

The 2014 Umbrella Movement, which took over key intersections for more than two months, failed to win any concessions from Beijing and many of its leaders like Tai have since been prosecuted or jailed.

Tai and fellow activist Chan Kin-man, a 60-year-old sociology professor, were jailed under colonial-era public nuisance laws for encouraging others to protest, the stiffest sentences handed down to anyone involved in the 2014 protests.

Coincidentally, fellow jailed activist Edward Leung -- serving a six-year sentence on rioting charges over violent protests in 2016 -- published a letter on his Facebook page on Monday.

"I can't imagine the suffering and physical and mental pain you are currently experiencing," he told the current generation of protesters.

"Justice hasn't arrived, and perhaps your hearts are filled with anger... but I beg you all not to be dominated by hatred," he added.

Since 2014 the city's pro-democracy camp says the clampdown has only deepened with opposition politicians disqualified and dissident booksellers disappearing into mainland custody.

Tai said protesters had learned from the failures of 2014 and modified their protest tactics, with the current movement providing a long-awaited "break-out point".

Echoing their demands, he said a "general pardon, including unlawful acts of police and protesters" during this period and an independent inquiry are "needed in the short run".

But there is seemingly no end in sight to the turmoil engulfing the city.

Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations in the last fortnight, but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation.

City leader Carrie Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill.