We now see in Hong Kong a new and violent chapter unfolding in the long-used international gamebook of discrediting and demonizing peaceful public protests. The strategy, used to deflect and destroy opposition, is informally called the 4-D Defense.
The 4-D Defense starts with the denial of a problem, followed by deflection of blame, and continues with delay tactics designed to build frustration, fear and anger with even a minority of the opponents. The hope is that this anger morphs into violence, destroying support and credibility.
It appears that Beijing has been systematically following the 4-D Defense strategy as it struggles to stem a tsunami of opposition to its governance of Hong Kong.
The historic pattern of public protests shows a common trajectory of events. Outrage and fear over an action threatening one’s sense of identity and security is organized and led through effective leadership and communication into a large-scale, publicly-supported call for change. Such is the pattern in Hong Kong. But the trajectory can hit a concrete wall as it has with Beijing.
Strong public support for a cause can very quickly switch allegiances once violence and fear of public safety become the main focus of news and social media. Even the best designed arguments based on facts, data, and intelligent articulation evaporate in the image of lawlessness, smashed bodies, and broken windows. This is true for the actions of protesters as well as police. Violence is a very explosive and unstable tool. While it is guaranteed to quickly and brightly illuminate a situation it can also burn the user and darken the original issue.
Results of the 2014 World Values Survey (WVS) for both Hong Kong and Mainland China offers evidence of why Beijing’s strategy with pro-democracy protesters is far less about detente than the necessary destruction of dissent. There appears to be no compromise position especially for those in the under 29 age group.
For example and not surprisingly, ten times more residents in Hong Kong than China have taken part in a peaceful demonstration. Even more important over half of this activist age group in Hong Kong agree that they “might” join a demonstration depending on the issue. The issue has arrived and its name is “pro-democracy.”
While the pro-democracy movement is highly synergistic it also exposes how very raw, diametrically opposed, and seemingly irreconcilable the differences in personal mindset are between Hong Kong and Mainland China. The WVS research shows us that:
- Over a third of Hong Kong residents under the age of 29 agree that the first aim of a country should be that “People have more say about how things are done.” In China, just eight percent of the same age group agree.
- Younger Hong Kong adults are seven times more supportive of free speech than residents of China.
- More than twice as many young adults in Hong Kong than Mainland China agree that people should have “more say in important government decisions.”
- Just over a quarter of Hong Kong residents have confidence in political parties compared to three-quarters of Mainland China residents.
Even the above few survey results show how wide the philosophical, social-conscientiousness, and political gulfs are between Hong Kong and Mainland China residents. It appears to be a case of “if you can’t join them, then beat them.”
The strategy and tactics of protest de-escalation
The challenge facing Beijing is how to destroy the credibility, trust levels, and energy of pro-democracy protesters. Denial of anything wrong with the original idea of an extradition treaty failed to achieve traction. Deflecting Hong Kong’s current chaotic conditions upon protesters isn’t making the hit parade. The delay tactics now being used are simply pouring fuel on the fires of outrage. This leaves the strategy of destruction.
One option unfolding is to use social and news media to frame pro-democracy protesters as violent hooligans and stooges of some foreign power. This profile is designed to appeal to the 73 percent of Hong Kong residents who, according to the World Values Survey, agree that violence against another person is never justifiable (compared to the 55 percent of Mainland Chinese residents).
The challenge then for protest leaders is to maintain a measured and generally non-violent approach. Their tactic for publicity must be the creativity and nimbleness displayed so far and to not let Beijing’s strategy of delay and deflection ignite violent passions in others.
The other option in use by Beijing is the very visible threat of military force but the actual practice of having Hong Kong police at the front line of public order. So far this is a wise strategy.
The WVS tells us that in 2015 about 80 percent of all Hong Kong residents had confidence in their police force (25 percent a great deal) but only 58 percent had confidence in the military (10 percent a great deal). This shrinks among the protester demographic where 69 percent had confidence in the police (18 percent a great deal) while 45 percent had confidence in the military (seven percent a great deal) most likely because of the ghost of Tiananmen Square.
And so Hong Kong walks a razor’s edge as Beijing faces a dilemma. Sending in troops is a losing public and global relations move, but so is being seen as “giving in.” It appears that Beijing is using a dangerous and tricky blended model. Delay and deflect decision-making to the point of extreme frustration by protesters, hoping that even a few will turn to violence to regain global attention but in so doing lose support and the agenda. The danger is that strong heat can also bring light.