China Power | Politics | East Asia

Why the Mutually Assured Destruction Rhetoric in Hong Kong Is Dangerous

To pull Hong Kong back from the edge, all potentially influential parties must act – with strategic savvy.

By Brian Wong for
Why the Mutually Assured Destruction Rhetoric in Hong Kong Is Dangerous

In this Aug. 5, 2019, file photo, a protester throws back a tear gas canister during demonstrations in Hong Kong. China.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File

Recent weeks in Hong Kong have seen noted escalation in the level of force deployed by both the protest movement and the police. Petrol bombs, arson, and extensive property damage have been assimilated into the repertoire of weapons employed by protesters in their ongoing push for a government responses to their demands; whereas the police force has similarly escalated their responses — both in intensity (deploying water cannons for the first time, employing more frequently shots and heavier weaponry, and increasing its physical force when handling protesters), and frequency (a vastly greater number of stop-and-search programs and patrols in metro stations). The ongoing spiral of violence is unlikely to see an end, but existing academic discussions have often neglected a core, psychological component: the Mutually Assured Destruction rhetoric (“攬炒, phonetized as “Lam-Chau”) championed by radicals on both sides of the spectrum.

Why Do Protesters Escalate in Force: A Rational Choice Theoretical Framework 

The typical explanation of why protesters are escalating their force would be couched in narrowly Rational Choice Theoretical (RCT) terms. Protesters have clearly delineated objectives of attaining demands, amongst them most prominently and widely held – perhaps – being the five demands (“五大訴求”). On an individual level, there exist three options with respect to the use of force: escalation, maintenance or transformation, and de-escalation. 

De-escalation would require the protesters to eventually cease their deployment of force — and this option is viewed as broadly undesirable for three reasons: First, radical protesters have grown to be disillusioned with the purely “peace-centric” (“和理非”) methods of campaigning, viewing them as both unable to apply adequate pressure to an evolving hegemony in the local regime, as well as granting the antagonistic administration more time and breathing space to engage in activities that further suppress the movement; second, peaceful methods sap away the momentum in the pressure that has been built up by the violent movement and, in the absence of any concessions from the administration, are viewed as a form of premature capitulation; third, more fundamentally, the abstention of protesters from violence is likely to render those who persist with violence more vulnerable to arrest and state sanctions. Thus protesters have limited incentives to adopt a de-escalation pathway.

Maintenance or transformation would not be out of the question, if only the radicals were not convinced of the rhetoric that similarly shapes states’ incentives in security dilemma. States militarize in response to what they perceive to be another state’s  increasing (potential) threats to them. It is both the uncertainty (due to information asymmetry) and resultant paranoia (mass attitudes shaping elite attitudes) that drives states to enter into a de facto arms race, even if solely driven by defensive incentives like the of maintaining security. 

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In the context of Hong Kong and its non-state actors, maintenance or transformation of force into alternative methods of protest are viewed by protesters as non-viable, for they do not account for the potential surge in staunchness in response from the regime. Whilst these protesters may have some reasons to believe so, such beliefs are in turn exacerbated by hearsay and on-the-ground panic during heated conflicts between protesters and the police.

Thus under the RCT, escalation appears to be the most instrumentally effective means – it raises the threat and costs to the mass public, increases salience and preserves discursive momentum internationally, and through targeting public structures, allegedly pressures the administration into offering some sort of response.

Such RCT analysis is mirrored by the police, who have similarly adopted greater force (at times clearly excessive) in restraining or dealing with protesters; to the police force, such escalation could be rationalized using the same arguments that ground preemptive strikes or warfare – the official reasoning would be that such display of force not only deters future enactment of violence by protesters, but also preemptively stifles the abilities of protesters to resist. Regardless of how one appraises such an “argument” from the police force, it is worth recognizing that civilian-police relations have rarely been so fraught and filled with mistrust that the police force could rely upon arguments of uncertainty about how civilians behave as a purported defense of their militarization. Whether such defenses are in fact adopted or empirically reflect what the police think — is of course an entirely separate matter.  

An Alternative Read of Protesters: “Lam-Chau” as an Emotive Response

Yet such diagnosis neglects an alternative, emotive dimension to the mentality of certain radical protesters, who seem to have fervently adopted a “Lam-Chau” outlook to their actions. The outlook could be summarized with the following: To the extent that the ongoing escalation is likely to culminate in substantial damages to Hong Kong’s stability and order, such damages are also likely to be accompanied by greater Western pressures (perhaps best epitomized by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to be reviewed by Congress) and further adverse consequences to China, thus accomplishing the objective of mutually assured destruction. 

Rather than interpreting such rhetoric through blatantly RCT terms, I suggest that we ought to understand such psychology through constructivist lenses. Even among the most radical of protesters, many are aware that the “Lam-Chau” logic is unlikely to be practically efficacious – yet they nevertheless insist that it is a fitting response. Such fitting-ness mirrors Amia Srinavasan’s discussion of “aptness of anger” in her 2018 article, where she notes that individuals are not solely motivated by instrumentalist or forward-looking prerogatives, but also prerogatives of appropriate response to events that have previously occurred to them. Consider, for instance, a man who stubs his toe and reacts with a shout of “Ow!” – even if doing so may undermine his further welfare; or an employee who gets unduly sacked and wants to speak out, even if doing so would undermine the welfare of his colleagues. Radical protesters in Hong Kong similarly view their actions as “apt” given the perceived encroachment upon their liberties and core rights as they contest in the political.

Thus at its core, the “Lam-Chau” rhetoric is emotive and sentimentalist — it is fuelled by sentiments of righteous vengeance and antagonism toward political structures and the government. It is also propelled by a yearning for catharsis in the eyes of protesters, even at the expense of considerations of practical utility or the extent to which the tactic ends up hurting more individuals on the protesters’ side. 

Why is “Lam-Chau” So Dangerous? 

All of the above is not to justify or establish that protesters — all things considered — have the right to pursue “Lam-Chau”; if anything, it is the contrary that I seek to prove. Even if anger is tentatively apt, such aptness could well be overridden by more urgent and pressing considerations, such as the extent to which aggregate welfare is likely to be hampered by the cathartic releases of anger. 

The “Lam-Chau” mentality is deeply dangerous – as much as the emotivistic framework for understanding it may be apt, from a purely pragmatic point of view its justifiability is vastly limited. The outlook suggests that individuals on the side of protesters are likely to adopt more extreme methods in compelling the administration to response, which may translate either into direct casualties and more widespread damages to property in Hong Kong, or generalized instability and uncertainty arising from a fear of violence — which translates to both capital flight and substantially lowered investor confidence. Moreover, while their motivations may be pure, the most dangerous element in violence — as noted by Arendt — is its tendency to silence and stifle all other forms of productive discourse; in this context, unrestrained surges in violence would render talks and compromises not only difficult-to-enact, but broadly untenable. 

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More perturbing, perhaps, is the reciprocated “Lam-Chau” from certain zealots on the side of the establishment, who have long awaited signs of greater violence from protesters with baited breath as they search for justifications to demand greater militarization of the Hong Kong police, or even the introduction of emergency laws and de facto martial law. The mirrored, establishment-driven “Lam-Chau” mentality is epitomized by the thought that a be-all-and-end-all solution to dissidence in Hong Kong could arise from the successful portrayal of all protesters as terrorists and insurgents. This portrayal – already set-up through the attribution of the ongoing protests to foreign forces – would only be confirmed by the deployment of unreasonable, disproportionate, and destructive force. 

Prognosis 

The difficulty with “Mutually Assured Destruction” rhetoric is its failure to recognize the substantial disparities between Hong Kong and the mainland, and the resultant relative ease with which the mainland could substitute Hong Kong with a plethora of plausibly less-suited but nevertheless adequate alternatives — e.g. Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing. At the core of the RCT rendition of the situation is a somewhat naïve assumption that foreign interests would extend to taking on arguably their most important trading partner in 2019. There obviously is “noise” and momentum — particularly in the United States — but it is unclear why pushing Hong Kong to the brink of collapse would have any marginally significant impact on those who are unmoved by the existing petitions coming from Hong Kong.

The “Lam-Chau” mentality is not solely a product of some kind of irrationality or twisted thinking – it arises from a deeply rooted sense of frustration and embittered antagonism toward the political establishment, which is exacerbated by a plethora of complex forces influencing Hong Kong over the past three months. To “resolve” such a nihilistic and destructive mentality requires more than just brute-force suppression — for even if this generation of radical youths were silenced, their narratives and stories would continually engender or seed animosities between Hong Kongers and the mainland for generations to come. 

The room for political maneuvering is – per the words of the Chief Executive – increasingly closing. A negative-sum mentality that seeks mutual destruction is likely to further stifle such room. To pull Hong Kong back from the edge of the bottomless abyss, all potentially influential parties must act – with strategic savvy. The amorphous center is perhaps best suited here, to liaise and collaborate with actors in producing solutions acceptable to both Beijing and Hong Kong while facilitating de-escalation among large proportions of protesters. More importantly, however, it is the center that seems to listen only through listening, as opposed to slanderous caricaturing, could we – as Hong Kongers – collectively overcome one of the greatest political tempests in our history.  

Brian Wong is an MPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford, specializing in political philosophy. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, and has written for both the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.