Nicholas Kristof: In Hong Kong, playing tennis with tear-gas grenades

Pro-democracy protestors march in central Hong Kong, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Large crowds of protesters are gathering and marching in central Hong Kong as police ready for possible confrontations near the Chinese government's main office or elsewhere in the city. The black-shirted protesters have taken over parts of major roads and intersections Saturday as they rally and march. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Hong Kong • President Donald Trump has called the pro-democracy protests here “riots,” and China has in effect denounced participants as terrorists.

Yet even when chaos reigns during clashes with the police, protesters clean up litter from the battlefield. Medics stand by to assist those injured. Crowds part like the Red Sea to let ambulances through. Tennis players bring their rackets: When the police fire tear-gas grenades, they lob them back.

Television footage may focus on angry young protesters hurling Molotov cocktails, and they are real; I believe the violence is a mistake that increases the risk of a crackdown. But the vast majority of protesters are nonviolent and simply yearn for this great city to enjoy freedom to match its modernity.

“If we didn’t protest, this might become just another Chinese city,” one young woman told me.

A 25-year-old university student told me: “We are like a frog in a beaker of water that is being boiled, and we’re trying to jump out. If we die, well, we were going to die anyway.”

The risks to protesters are increasing, for Hong Kong and China are orchestrating a crackdown — what some democracy figures are calling a “white terror.” The police have arrested more than 900 people so far, and just in the last few days leading figures were arrested while others were attacked by thugs, in one case with a cleaver and baseball bat.

One of the best-known democracy advocates is Denise Ho, a famous Cantonese pop singer. As we sat down in a coffee shop, the server encouraged her with a “ga yao,” the Cantonese equivalent of, “Keep it up!”

As a result of Ho’s activism, she is now a nonperson on the Chinese mainland. Not only is her music banned there, her name can’t even be written on social media.

“It’s never been like this before in Hong Kong,” she told me, noting that China seems to be pressuring companies to fire staff members who support the protests. Cathay Pacific airline is among those that have done so.

“Hong Kong people don’t like to fight on the streets,” she said. “But they’ve pushed us to the edge.”

China’s president, Xi Jinping, is confronted here by a challenge that he can’t easily steamroll, and there’s no obvious exit ramp for either side. And if Xi can’t manage to keep Hong Kong content, how can he dream of unifying with Taiwan?

So look out. Xi is intolerant and overconfident, thus one risk is that he will ultimately deploy the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, to crush the protests. Alternatively, he can use Hong Kong’s triad gangsters — who have a long history of working for Beijing — to use cleavers and baseball bats to terrorize or eliminate democracy activists, even as the Hong Kong police step up their own arrests. We should be alert not only for troops pouring across the border, but also for thugs with cleavers.

One concern is that Xi may make decisions based on bad information relayed by sycophants. In my conversations here, I sense that pro-China officials actually believe that the protests were orchestrated by American and Taiwan officials, and it’s always dangerous when dictators become persuaded by their own propaganda.

In addition, Chinese news coverage of the protests has resulted in a wave of anti-Hong Kong nationalism on the mainland that may add to the pressure to suppress protesters. In fairness, mainlanders do make one valid point: If protesters in America were throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers, the United States might well have seen more than the single warning shot fired by the police so far in Hong Kong.

This great city may be at a turning point, and Trump and other world leaders should make clearer that Xi will pay a severe price if he uses force — whether by troops or by triads — to try to crush Hong Kong. Granted this must be done delicately, because publicly siding with protesters risks confirming Xi’s narrative that America is secretly steering the movement.

One helpful step would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would sanction officials who suppress freedoms in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is one of the great cities of the world, and I have been in love with it ever since I lived here in the mid-1980s as a foreign correspondent for The Times. This city is resilient, and no one has ever made money for long betting against Hong Kong. But today it is at risk.

It is at risk from Chinese encroachment and the slow erosion of the rule of law, and from the danger that Xi will eventually resort to force to crush the democracy movement. A military crackdown would be a catastrophe for freedom, for China and Hong Kong alike, and for the world economy.

Many Americans don’t even bother to vote, while Hong Kongers shame us by enduring tear gas and threats of job dismissals in hopes of attaining what we take for granted.

These huge throngs on the Hong Kong streets are composed not of terrorists but of people who deserve ballots but may yet end up with bullets. The outcome may depend partly on whether we stand with them.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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