On July 1st, 2021, the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party and the twenty-fourth anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer to CCP control, a man by the name of Leung Kin-fai stabbed a Hong Kong police officer in Causeway Bay before turning his knife on himself, ending his life.
Now, I am not typically one of those people who whines about how the “Western media” covers Hong Kong. Yet I could not help but notice that this event, which has generated constant discussion in Hong Kong over the past two weeks, has generated only limited attention in global media: with the exception of an excellent piece by Elaine Yu in the Wall Street Journal and a brief article in the Guardian about the government response, the violence on July 1st has received little coverage beyond Hong Kong media. Never in my memory has the contrast between international reporting on Hong Kong and local discussion been quite so stark.
And yet I can completely understand why this contrast exists. This event is by its very nature extremely disturbing and thus difficult to even begin to discuss. As I begin to write this article, I very much feel this discomfort. It is a discomfort that I remember well from my earlier work on self-immolation in Tibet, and to be honest a discomfort that I never anticipated feeling in discussing Hong Kong. Yet here we are.
We are left to face the reality that a human being chose to end his life by attempting to end the life of a member of the Hong Kong Police Force. The question, of course, is why.
In response to this reality, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have called on everyone to unconditionally condemn Leung Kin-fai, whom they label a terrorist. Yet the eagerness of their calls and the dismissive public response suggest that (unsurprisingly) the story is considerably more complex than Carrie Lam would have us believe.
Leung Kin-fai did indeed personally choose to do what he did, acts that no one could consider even remotely constructive or justifiable. Yet there is nothing in his biography to suggest that he was in any way destined to take such steps. He had no previous arrests, no signs of violent tendencies. Everyone who knew him reports being shocked to learn of what he did.
This sense of puzzlement again brought me back to my work on self-immolation. As these acts of political protest spread across the Tibetan plateau in the first half of the previous decade, we were all left to ponder why people who showed no signs of radicalism or mental illness or any other type of issue that could possibly lead to set one’s body alight would nevertheless take the drastic step of setting their body alight in protest.
Chinese government propaganda obsessively located the impetus for these acts either in self-immolators’ supposedly sick minds, or in dastardly plotting by “anti-China forces” abroad, in a desperate attempt to rule out the possibility that these acts could be in any way motivated by the environment between these two: the everyday cruelty and humiliation of China’s colonization of Tibet.
Yet this is precisely where the real impetus for self-immolation emerged. Opposition to this longstanding cruelty and humiliation had previously been expressed in the form of street protest, as seen in the protests of 2008 that briefly caught the world’s attention in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. The security state that descended on Tibet in the aftermath of these protests, however, made such conventional outlets for expressing dissatisfaction impossible. Even individual protests were shut down rapidly, and their enactors handed lengthy prison sentences.
In this environment of absolute control, self-immolation emerged as a means of protest that was easy to plan (requiring no extensive preparation) and impossible to stop (because it happened so quickly), while also being symbolically resonant and powerful.
There were countless calls for anyone with any authority and influence to condemn the act of self-immolation as literally hundreds of people set their bodies alight. No one, of course, could consider such acts constructive, nor would anyone want to see any further acts of self-immolation.
Yet at the same time, what was the point of condemning those fellow human beings who had made the drastic and irreversible choice to sacrifice their own lives in resistance to the devastating sociopolitical environment into which they had been thrown?
Condemnation was, in my reading, better reserved for the environment that produced these acts of protest: CCP rule over Tibet
There is no easy parallel between self-immolation and the acts of Leung Kin-fai: the former is a disturbing form of self-sacrifice, while the latter is without a doubt an act of violence.
Yet there is a potential insight to be gained from the attention to the sociopolitical environment of colonization raised by the comparison with self-immolation: Leung Kin-fai’s act of violence can never make sense, but it can at least begin to be understood within the context of developments in Hong Kong, from the police-civilian tensions that have emerged since 2019 to the complete erasure of opposition and the transformation of state-society relations since the enactment of the National Security Law in 2020.
First, in understanding Leung Kin-fai’s act and the public response, we must face the Hong Kong Police Force’s culture of violence.
In a typical moment of massively lacking self-awareness, Carrie Lam called on all Hong Kong people to condemn violence in the aftermath of Leung’s attack. Yet Leung Kin-fai was of course not the first actor to bring violence onto Hong Kong’s streets: that was in fact the Hong Kong Police Force, which has cultivated a completely unhinged culture of state violence since the 2019 protests. And Carrie Lam, who now calls on everyone to condemn violence, has been one of the most outspoken enablers of this culture of violence, allowing a once respectable police force to descend into little more than a lawless junta.
Second, in understanding Leung Kin-fai’s act, we must consider the depressing calculus of opposition in Hong Kong today under the lawless National Security Law.
Hong Kong used to be a place in which people could freely and openly express their opinions and even opposition to the current political reality. It is not a coincidence that this freedom also made Hong Kong a place largely free from acts of political violence: in a social contract of freedom, rationality, and shared dignity, ideas could be debated, even often hotly debated, without approaching the possibility of violence.
This open and healthy environment has however changed as acts of opposition in which people in Hong Kong used to freely engage, such as running for office, organizing protests, or writing critical and honest articles now carry lengthy prison sentences under the lawless National Security Law, including up to life in prison. When the punishment for peaceful opposition and violent acts are essentially the same, some people will tragically choose violence. Like the analysis of self-immolation in Tibet above, Leung’s act was easy to plan, impossible to stop, and could be seen as having a deep impact.
Understanding this act of violence in its context, the proper response to Leung’s act is not simply condemnation. Rather, the thoroughly discomfiting question that Leung’s act poses to us is: what is one to do in Hong Kong today, under the unrelenting state violence of the National Security Law?
I for one do not think that resorting to violence in response is a reasonable answer. No one wants to see this type of thing happen again.
Yet I also fear that there is no reasonable answer in the context of Hong Kong today.
And I furthermore fear that a sociopolitical environment that does not provide an answer to this question makes the further escalation of violence inevitable.