Failure to compromise and police over-reaction in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland transformed one-issue protests into movements for sweeping change.
By Mike Chinoy*
The crowds surged through the streets, demanding basic political
rights. They were met by club-wielding riot police firing teargas and
rubber bullets. The clashes became routine, reflecting the gap between
an aroused populace and an isolated and unresponsive government.
This sounds very much like Hong Kong, where I live, in the summer of
2019, but in fact describes Northern Ireland 50 years ago. As the crisis
in Hong Kong shows no sign of resolution, the strife increasingly
resembles the early years of what became known as “the Troubles”– a
conflict that lasted 30 years and left 3000 people dead. I covered
Northern Ireland as a journalist in the 1970s and 1980s. Over the last
three years, I have studied that history in detail while researching and
writing a book about the life of the late Professor Kevin Boyle, a
leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and later a
prominent human rights lawyer.
While Northern Ireland, with its Victorian cities, rugged countryside and centuries of religious animosity, seems a polar opposite from teeming, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the parallels are striking, not least because both societies confront the painful legacy of having once been British colonies.
When the rest of predominantly Catholic Ireland achieved independence
from Britain in 1922, Protestants in the North – descendants of the
largely Scottish settlers who colonized Ireland on Britain’s behalf –
created a statelet to ensure their dominant position. The Troubles began
as a peaceful protest movement demanding that the province’s minority
Catholic population be given the same political and civil rights enjoyed
by the Protestant majority and other British citizens. As Boyle says in
my book, “I was mobilized by the sense of injustice that such a large
section of the population were excluded from power in a British state.”
The initial response of the North’s Protestant-dominated government,
however, was indifference, hostility and support for police efforts to
stifle the movement.
Hong Kong’s 2019 protests also began peacefully. The immediate issue
was a law proposed by Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam to
allow the extradition of people from Hong Kong to mainland China, where
the Chinese Communist Party controls the legal system. But deeper
anxieties fueled concern – a staggeringly unequal economy benefitting
the wealthy while leaving many young people behind and political
decision-making dominated by an alliance between Beijing and the city’s
out-of-touch tycoons. It was a far cry from the right to eventually
elect both the chief executive and legislative council through universal
suffrage that China promised Hong Kong following the end of 150 years
of British colonial rule in 1997. In recent years, newly elected
youthful lawmakers have articulated these concerns, and the sense of
alienation has been exacerbated as the government expelled them from the
legislature on such petty procedural grounds that the move seemed
Despite warnings from lawyers, business groups and ordinary citizens that the extradition law would jeopardize Hong Kong’s independent judiciary – a key feature distinguishing it from the mainland – Lam insisted it would be passed. This led to huge demonstrations and clashes between protestors and police.
In Northern Ireland, the government’s unwillingness to address
demands for basic civil rights also sparked clashes, with the police
using rubber bullets and teargas in largely futile efforts at crowd
control. As a journalist in Belfast wrote in 1971, teargas had “enormous
power to wield a crowd together in common sympathy and common hatred
for the men who gassed them.”
In Hong Kong’s densely populated neighborhoods, teargas has had a
similar effect, fueling intense resentment. At the same time, just as
civilians in Belfast were blinded by rubber bullets, the use of such
weapons in Hong Kong, including the case of a young woman hit in the
eye, added to public fury.
By the time the Northern Ireland authorities grudgingly conceded some
of the basic civil rights demands in the early 1970s – an end to
gerrymandered electoral districts, equal opportunity in housing and jobs
– it was too late. Growing numbers of Catholics came to see the
Northern Ireland state itself as illegitimate. Demands for specific
reforms gave way to calls to overthrow the system altogether. For the
Irish Republican Army, or IRA, this meant the start of campaign of
violence aimed at severing the North’s British connection and creating a
In Hong Kong, the original demand for the withdrawal of the
extradition bill was grudgingly met in early September. The move was too
little, too late. Police actions as well as pro-Beijing thugs who
attacked demonstrators and civilians, along with the government’s
unyielding arrogance, produced four other demands: creation of an
independent commission to investigate police behavior, overturning the
designation of arrested protestors as rioters, Lam’s resignation and
genuine democratic reforms. Unless all demands are met, the protesters
vow to continue.
As in Northern Ireland, government intransigence and police
over-reaction have transformed a peaceful one-issue protest campaign
into a movement demanding sweeping change. While stopping short of calls
for Hong Kong independence, the protests have so alarmed Beijing that
it has denounced the movement as a “color revolution” intended to break
Hong Kong’s links with China.
With the authorities ruling out further concessions, the level of violence has begun to increase. In recent days, a small minority of protestors have set fires at subway station entrances, thrown Molotov cocktails at police and, in a few cases, beaten those they suspected of supporting the government. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing gangs, some wielding cleavers, have fought running battles with demonstrators. The police have either looked on or arrested only members of the protest movement.
Northern Ireland, the failure of peaceful protest and police
heavy-handedness sparked the IRA’s campaign. Hong Kong has thankfully
not yet reached this point. Still, for me, events in Hong Kong, with
roads closed, transport disrupted, teargas in the air, bring back
memories of the challenges of navigating daily life in Belfast in the
And it could get worse. As was true with the rise of the IRA,
frustration and anger among more radical activists is growing,
heightened by what Amnesty International has described as “torture and
other ill-treatment” of those arrested during the protests. A 19
September Amnesty report documented cases of Hong Kong police beating
detainees, threatening to apply electric shocks to their genitals and
shining laser beams into their eyes. There is an eerie parallel here
with one of Boyle’s most celebrated cases. In 1972, he was the lawyer in
the first case to raise the mistreatment of those detained by the
Northern Ireland security forces before the European Commission of Human
Rights. Boyle represented seven men beaten and tortured after being
detained, including a prisoner who was given electric shocks to his
genitals and others who suffered broken bones. Boyle asked the
commission to conduct a broader inquiry, which did take place, into the
behavior of the police and army. Amnesty has supported calls for an
independent investigation in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, in online chat rooms frequented by protestors, local media
report increased discussion of the need to fight back. In mid-summer,
police seized explosives in a building where they also arrested members
of a fringe political party advocating Hong Kong independence. It may be
only a matter of time before a radical minority concludes that they
have little choice but to adopt more violent tactics.
In 1969, Boyle played a prominent role in a civil rights march
attacked by Protestant extremists. A lifelong opponent of violence, he
responded with increased efforts to find a political way forward.
Others, including participants in that same march, moved towards
violence and terrorism. It is not unreasonable to worry that the
uncompromising approach of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments risks
pushing some of the youthful protesters in a similar direction.
*Mike Chinoy was a long-time foreign correspondent, serving as CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief and as senior Asia correspondent. He covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. He is currently a Hong Kong–based Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. His new book, Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement, will be published next March.