Can the Personal be Political?: A Critique of Gandhi’s Nonviolence in the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement

Part I. Introduction

 In 1841, Hong Kong became a British colony, having been ceded by China after the First Opium War. The British reaffirmed their sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1898, agreeing to a 99-year lease of the territory from China. Professor Sonny S.H. Lo writes in Hong Kong’s Indigenous Democracy that “Hong Kong in the final years of colonial rule could be characterized as substantively liberal, procedurally non-democratic, consultatively in terms of process and constitutionally protective of the rights of citizens in groups.”[1] Therefore, when the British lease expired in 1997, the political system in Hong Kong was significantly different from that of mainland China, which had forcefully intervened in student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square just eight years earlier. As such, Hong Kong was returned to China with the stipulation of “one country, two systems” for 50 years. Under this arrangement, Hong Kong is governed autonomously by the Basic Law, which guarantees civil liberties and government accountability, but the ultimate authority remains with Beijing.

The history of Hong Kong since the advent of Chinese rule has been a history of nonviolent protest, as legislation imposed by Beijing provokes conflict concerning the extent of “two systems” and the nature of Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047. While protests have often been incited by specific policy, they are reflective of and motivated by larger pro-democracy trends. In 2003, 500,000 nonviolent demonstrators protested the Chinese government’s proposal to include Article 23 in the Basic Law, which requires Hong Kong to enact a law prohibiting “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.”[2] Despite popular sentiment and direct action against perceived Chinese censorship in the territory, Article 23 was included in the Basic Law. Incensed by the Chinese government’s declaration that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive must be Beijing-approved, protestors launched the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The campaign advocated for universal suffrage and utilized the umbrella as a symbol of nonviolence against police use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Despite substantial domestic support and international attention, the Hong Kong Free Press writes, “The Communist Party made no concrete concessions nor even exhibited a willingness to engage, let alone negotiate.”[3]

Most recently, a proposed bill whereby Hong Kong residents could be extradited to mainland China for trial elicited a wave of protests beginning in late March 2019. Though the bill was suspended, demonstrations have continued through December, indicating the ongoing frustration with China’s impositions on “one country, two systems” since the 1997 handover. The protests, led by student activists in Hong Kong’s universities, became increasingly violent in November. Dramatic images of university campuses, some depicting police use of tear gas to disperse student protestors hurling gasoline bombs, have flooded the international media. (Fig. 1) What began as a months-long period of organized, weekend protests has evolved into a state of near-guerilla warfare. However, nonviolent methods have been employed in tandem with the Molotov cocktails and bows and arrows of the more militant student groups. On November 24, the elections for district council, which were viewed as a referendum on the protests, concluded with overwhelming pro-democracy majorities (17/18 councils controlled) and record turnout (71.2%).[4] Nevertheless, district councilors only determine 6 of the 70 seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, LegCo, and comprise just 10% of the seats that nominate the chief executive. Thus, Beijing has impaired Hong Kong’s democracy, leaving local councils to be determined by universal suffrage while exerting decisive control over LegCo and the chief executive.

In Securitization of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Cora Y. T. Hui classifies the Chinese government in Hong Kong as “controlocratic,” a regime that maintains dominion through a combination of economic prosperity and tight control, and clearly states “what one must not do, and the possible consequences of contravening the rules– detention, harassment, heavy fines, torture, retribution against family members, and even death.”[5] Beijing’s authority stands or falls by its ability to present and maintain political coherence in the territories under its sovereignty, explaining why, in response to the Umbrella Movement, “the police were prepared to mobilize all possible resources to tackle the proposed protest.”[6] As a result of the Chinese controlocracy crippling democratic institutions under the guise of “one country, two systems,” the failure of the Umbrella Movement to secure substantive reform, and the looming 2047 deadline for “one country, two systems,” I will argue that nonviolent tactics are inappropriate in the Hong Kong situation by examining the moral and political theory of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi began his political career in South Africa protesting discriminatory legislation passed in 1906 that required Indians to register with the police. He returned to India in the 1920s, where the British colonial government had become increasingly authoritarian following World War I. India was considered the “crown jewel” of the British empire, resulting in heavy-handed enforcement of the territory’s subordination, not unlike China’s relationship with Hong Kong. Yet, in contrast to Hong Kong’s legacy of protest, according to Jawaharlal Nehru, an independence activist and the first Prime Minister of India, “The dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear—pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service…”[7]

To reestablish India’s dignity and independence, Gandhi led three significant campaigns against the British government. He first exposed the novelty and effectiveness of satyagraha, or active nonviolent resistance, from 1919-1922. However, Gandhi declared an end to the protests after demonstrators clashed with police in Chauri Chaura, violating the precepts of self-discipline and love necessary for nonviolence. From 1930 to 1931 Gandhi led the “salt satyagraha” against the British tax on salt, walking over 200 miles in 24 days with 80 followers to manufacture his own salt in a show of civil disobedience. Lastly, when Britain unilaterally entered India into World War II, the 1942-1944 “Quit India” movement demanded an end to colonization. Though Gandhi’s final campaign was crushed by the colonial government, the British recognized that their authority in India could not last long after the war.

As revealed by his campaigns, Gandhi’s moral and political theory centers around nonviolent opposition to unjust government. Gandhi names this practice satyagraha, or soul-force, manifested as active nonviolent resistance to attain swaraj, or self-rule. The realization of swaraj is an equally internal and external phenomenon; participants emancipate both themselves from bodily interests and the state from injustice through a disciplined focus on the singular truth of ahimsa, or nonviolence. For Gandhi, truth is ontological but not epistemological, it can be experienced but not known. Because the only truth available to humans is relative, satyagraha is the practice of the “largest love and greatest charity” toward one’s enemy in an effort to reconcile conflicting relative truths while resisting unjust institutions.[8] By advocating the practice of ahimsa through satyagraha to realize a state embodying the same truth, Gandhi eliminates the problem of means and ends from his political theory, recognizing their inviolable connection. Thus, the only way to achieve the ends of swaraj as self-rule is to practice the means of self-discipline through satyagraha.

Nevertheless, I assert that satyagraha is a method both inappropriate and ineffective in Hong Kong. It is clear that the situations in Hong Kong and British colonial India differ immediately in two ways. First, the pervasive fear of the British government in India stands at odds with the periodic protests against Beijing’s incursion into Hong Kong. And, despite British repression of “Quit India” in the short-term, the colonial government cited the revolts as a reason to leave India after WWII. In contrast, Beijing has indicated “that although the protests represent a big loss of face to China’s leadership, the loss of face that would come from abandoning all semblance of ‘one country, two systems’ would be worse.”[9] As a controlocracy, China prefers to damage its international reputation by brutalizing Hong Kong protestors than to relinquish power and allow for democratization in the territory.

Therefore, as indicated initially by these historical differences, I will argue that Gandhi’s theory of nonviolence is not universalizable to the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. First, I will demonstrate that the Gandhian dialectic, which determines the effectiveness of satyagraha and relies on a morally-based rational discourse, cannot be practiced in a controlocratic regime that is wholly intolerant of dissent. Next, I will show that Gandhi’s nonviolence is politically unrealistic given the 50-year period of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, due to its requirements of moral perfection, acceptance of suffering, and unlimited time horizon. Finally, I will lay out Gandhi’s own theory violence, and suggest that his allowance of force in the face of cowardice is the best framework he provides for understanding the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The inapplicability of satyagraha to the Hong Kong protests, the shortcomings of nonviolent resistance during Gandhi’s own campaigns, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that coercion is a central element of politics ultimately prove that personal morality is not a politically viable strategy. Instead, a degree of coercion and violence is necessary for political change, particularly when confronting a power such as contemporary China.

Part II. The Gandhian Dialectic

By utilizing rational discourse rooted in love to reconcile conflict, Gandhi’s satyagraha combines both the attributes of ahimsa and his understanding that truth is ontological but not epistemological. Assuming that neither party possesses absolute truth, and that each party will make a sincere effort to understand the other’s view, satyagraha is a dialectical exercise of moral persuasion, rather than coercion, which grants one’s opponent the right to understand truth in a manner that is different but equally legitimate. For Gandhi, rationality is predicated on a sense of morality, with which individuals reconcile relative truths to reach a higher unity. B. G. Gokhale writes in “Gandhi and History,”

In this dialectic interplay moral suasion and conversion of the opponent are the only means used, and these are entirely of a nonviolent nature. In this dialectic there is no destruction of the one or the other but a unity of the two on a higher plane of truthful understanding and moral harmony.[10]

The Gandhian dialectic is effective provided that all human beings share a deep-seated moral intuition, and that institutions support rational discourse. As Raghavan Iyer asserts in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, satyagraha succeeds “within a stable political system and a settled social order founded chiefly upon a liberal, democratic faith in compromise, bargaining and negotiation.”[11]

Nevertheless, the Gandhian dialectic adopts an overly optimistic view of humanity and political institutions, and proves historically inaccurate even in the Indian struggle for revolution. Bhikhu Parekh writes in Gandhi’s Political Philosophy that Gandhi’s theory of rationality is not equipped to deal with utter immorality, “In his view there is no man whose basic sense of decency cannot be evoked and who cannot be made to see the error in his ways.”[12] Because of Gandhi’s ontological conception of ahimsa, that truth is everywhere, he cannot conceive of an individual who is unmoved by the unrestricted suffering of a satyagrahi. Further, his dialectical theory contains its own internal assumptions about the nature of systems of government and social norms. Regardless of the existence or nonexistence of entrenched morality in one’s enemy, when discourse is restricted by apparatuses of the state, rational debate is not an option.

The shortcomings of the Gandhian dialectic can in fact be uncovered in Gandhi’s own political life. The violence of the “Quit India” movement after Gandhi’s imprisonment, the partition of Pakistan from India, and British brutality against protestors epitomize instances of actors who neither recognize the relative nature of their truth, nor engage in rational discourse to attain higher unity. Parkeh writes,

As all historical evidence including Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa and India confirms, rational discussion is often unable to deal with deeply entrenched prejudices and vested interests. To believe that all human conflicts can and should be resolved by rational discussion alone is therefore really an act of blind faith.[13]

Even so, as Robert E. Klitgaard details in “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic,” satyagraha can be reconceived in the Indian context through a game theoretic lens because “the basic assumption of Satyagraha (is) that self-sacrifice releases psychological and physical energies which influence the sufferer’s surroundings and contemporaries.”[14] In reality, satyagraha’s discursive framework with its goal of moral persuasion is a coercive mechanism that restricts the responses available to one’s opponent. By creating credible commitments to resist unjust laws, Gandhi obliged the British to concede. For example, in instances where Gandhi declared he would fast until death, the colonial government preferred to acquiesce than risk the retaliation of his followers. Therefore, Gandhi remains nonviolent but imperfectly so; he avoids physically harming his opponent, but forces their course of action. It is a crucial consideration, however, that even this politically realistic exercise of satyagraha requires a regime which is better off yielding to a credible threat of disobedience. In the case of Hong Kong, the nature of the Chinese controlocracy, which prefers the loss of global respect to a compromise with pro-democracy protestors, Beijing’s dominant strategy will never be acquiescence.

Accordingly, I will now expose the inability of both the Gandhian dialectic and his practical, game theoretic satyagraha to apply to the Hong Kong situation. A controlocratic government such as contemporary China does not tolerate protest and prefers enforcement at all costs. As in the case of the British quelling of “Quit India” and the violence of the movement itself, the Chinese government’s response to pro-democracy protests and student activists’ militant methods display the inability or unwillingness of these groups to acknowledge the relative nature of their respective truths. Sympathy is a precondition for Gandhi’s rationality, as parties in conflict must sincerely explore the other’s point of view. After the 2003 Article 23 protests, however, Beijing renounced its policy of nonintervention, strengthening its grip on Hong Kong. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement demonstrations, the government delegitimized protests by framing them as threats to social order. Similarly, in November 2019, protestors quite literally silenced their opponents’ critique by setting a man on fire after he denounced the demonstrations. It is clear that neither the Chinese government nor the Hong Kong protestors “gives his opponent the same right of independence and feeling of truth that he reserves to himself,” as Gandhi exhorts.[15]

Further, the Chinese government has restricted the channels for rational discourse. In an article titled “Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence,” The Economist explains, “A deeper problem is that the government in Beijing has preemptively undercut the possibility of a satisfactory settlement. The Communist Party has systematically constrained the space in which the give and take of Hong Kong politics can take place.”[16] This constraint is exemplified by the stimulus for the 2014 Umbrella Movement, whereby the Chinese government mandated that the chief executive would be determined by a nominating committee primarily comprised of Beijing-sympathetic delegates. Consequently, despite the overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates in the November 24th district council elections, the power of universal suffrage is confined to the local level. Therefore, not only are protestors and Beijing officials unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of one another’s claims, but the Chinese government is also actively restricting the channels through which discussion would be possible. Evidently, the two assumptions of the Gandhian dialectic fail to be satisfied in Hong Kong.

What is more disturbing for the fate of the Hong Kong protests, however, is their inability to implement Klitgaard’s game theoretic version of satyagraha. In order for Gandhi’s nonviolent coercion to succeed, his opponent must reap a higher payoff from conceding when confronted by a credible threat of disobedience than from enforcing the law regardless. However, a controlocratic government will never concede, by definition. Klitgaard writes, “If the opponent can absolutely commit himself to enforcing the law, then satyagraha could be the equivalent of suicide.”[17] In an interview with the South China Morning Post, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Susan Thornton warned against the United States’ Senate’s passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which allows the US to reconsider Hong Kong’s special trade status if human rights abuses continue. Thornton maintains, reflecting Beijing’s dominant strategy of absolutist enforcement, “They’re wielding [the act] like a club, and they don’t seem to understand that the club is basically going to whack the Hongkongers upside the head, and the Beijingers will be dancing in the streets.”[18] Put simply, Beijing would rather endure adverse trade policy in Hong Kong, which serves as a major global financial hub, than submit to pro-democracy pressures. Ultimately, both the principled, morally-enlightened Gandhian dialectic, and the coercive yet physically nonviolent approach to satyagraha fail as strategies in Hong Kong.

 Part III. Expedience and Political Realism

In his essay “On the Verge of It” Gandhi admits, “I have urged nonviolence not on the highest ground of morality but on the lower ground of expedience.”[19] Recalling his connection between means and ends, Gandhi argues that the only path to attain swaraj is the active practice of ahimsa through satyagraha. Fundamentally, it is impossible that true independence can be achieved through violent means, given that violence contradicts the end of self-discipline and the greatest love. Thus, soul-force is the most expedient method to achieve an independent India because it is the only method to achieve an independent India. And, because satyagraha is “the vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self,” civil disobedience demands from its participants moral perfection, and the complete acceptance of suffering, even to death.[20]

Gandhi’s vision that civil resisters would be “like a flock of innocent lambs being led to the slaughter house, with full consciousness of the fact” is both politically unrealistic and inexpedient.[21] Like the missteps of his dialectic, Gandhi relies too heavily on the innate morality of the oppressor. Parekh contends, “Gandhi’s belief that nonviolence never fails and ‘melts even the stoniest heart’ has no basis in fact, and is a dangerous article of faith.”[22] Furthermore, his confidence in any dissenter’s power to tolerate endless suffering on the basis of principle contradicts basic human senses of self-respect and the will to live.

Most emblematic of Gandhi’s overestimation of the villain’s ethics and the innocent’s capacity for suffering is his recommendation of satyagraha during the Holocaust. He writes, “If I were a Jew and were born in Germany… I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.”[23] In the first place, the melting of stony Nazi hearts that Gandhi expects from this refusal is undoubtedly politically unrealistic and historically inaccurate. Furthermore, Gandhi continues that should Hitler massacre the nonviolent resisting Jews, they would give thanks “that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror.”[24] The case of the German Jews evidently exposes the illogic of satyagraha under fascism, indicating that charity towards one’s enemy and the endurance of self-suffering must have limits.

Not only is nonviolence a futile effort to surface the innate morality of an absolutist regime, but it is also politically inexpedient. The goal of resistance is better governance, and ought to be measured by tangible change, an outcome that is minimized with the intention of morally enlightening one’s enemy. Furthermore, the unlimited time horizon for self-suffering required for satyagraha to produce swaraj neglects the importance of short-term concessions for political change. As Mark Engler and Paul Engler claim in This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century, “Feeling good, not engaging in violence, or being willing to die, when you have not achieved the goals of your struggle, does not change the fact that you have failed.”[25]

Exemplifying the politically unrealistic nature of Gandhi’s theory, protestors in Hong Kong during the 2014 Umbrella movement were subjected to police brutality as they unsuccessfully utilized nonviolent efforts to evoke a moral response from the controlocratic government. When Occupy Central for Love and Peace, which spearheaded the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, declared in its manifesto, “Any act of the civil disobedience, which aims to fight for realizing a democratic universal and equal suffrage in Hong Kong though illegal, has to be absolutely nonviolent,” the Chinese government made it clear that force would follow.[26], [27] Barring comparisons between the substance of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party and Nazism, it is apparent that both regimes act in an absolutist fashion, which nullifies the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance.

As demonstrated by the discussion of the Gandhian dialectic and game theoretic satyagraha, a government committed to enforcement can be swayed neither by credible commitment of disobedience, nor by the self-inflicted suffering of citizens. In fact, nonviolent action has historically triggered an asymmetrically violent response from the Hong Kong police, as Beijing attempts securitization of the tumultuous political situation. The Economist details the reckoning of young, well-educated protestors in the 2019 movement who “looked back on the non-violent protests of Occupy Central, when as Joshua Wong, one of Occupy’s leaders put it, the police had arrested ‘anyone with a megaphone’ and learned their lesson: they would be leaderless, anonymous and comfortable with violence.”[28] Evidently, the critique of Gandhi’s satyagraha is reinforced by the situation in Hong Kong, wherein nonviolent protest has unrealistic expectations for the ethicality of the oppressor and the tolerance of the oppressed for suffering.

Furthermore, because Beijing is insensitive to protestors’ suffering, nonviolence has failed to yield substantive change in 16 years. Article 23, mandating the passage of a law banning sedition, was included in the Basic Law despite 2003 demonstrations. And, universal suffrage was restricted by China’s new procedure for nominating the chief executive regardless of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. While protests in 2019 were successful in tabling the proposed extradition bill, Beijing refused to meet the remaining four demands: Carrie Lam’s (the current chief executive) resignation, an inquiry into police brutality, the release of arrested protestors, and greater democratic freedoms for Hong Kong.

Though Gandhi advocates a long-term approach to reform, short-term concessions are essential in Hong Kong due to the looming 2047 deadline for “one country, two systems.” While Hong Kong’s government has assured that the Basic Law will not expire, Beijing’s incursions on the territory’s liberties occasion increasing uncertainty about its fate. As Reuters published in August of 2019, “Many in Hong Kong remain far more skeptical, fearing that Hong Kong will be absorbed into China’s system and its freedoms, already under threat, will evaporate.”[29] Thus, pro-democracy protests are not an open-ended struggle for liberation, but a race against time to secure longer-lasting freedoms while a semblance of Hong Kong’s sovereignty still remains. Moreover, there is a sense of urgency present in the Hong Kong protests which cannot be compared to British colonial India. The Indian decolonization movement faced a British empire brought to its knees by World War II, whereas Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators combat an economic powerhouse and controlocracy which will go to any lengths to retain its dominance. Thus, from satyagraha’s expectations for the ethics of a controlocracy, the willingness of protestors to suffer, and an unlimited time horizon for political change, it is clear that nonviolence is neither a realistic, nor an expedient method in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless Gandhi would remind his reader that short-term instances of concession do not measure the effectiveness of nonviolence. Satyagraha aims to achieve higher unity through moral perfection and self-discipline, and because of the inviolable connection between means and ends is the only mechanism to achieve true self-rule. However, unlike Gandhi’s demonstrations, which sought to purge India of unjust British institutions, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement calls for Beijing’s respect of existing institutions, with an understanding that the territory will remain under Chinese rule indefinitely. Rather than swaraj, protestors seek assurance of their freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Law and China’s respect for the “two systems” under which the territory is meant to operate. As Jeffrey Ngo of the student activist group Demosisto expressed,

Beijing is always going to call us separatists, but independence is not one of the present movement’s demands… Fighting for democracy within our constitutional framework is going to get us closer to what “one country, two systems” was meant to do. Self-determination does not equal independence.[30]

Perhaps satyagraha is politically unrealistic and inexpedient as a tactic in Hong Kong because it fails to coincide with the ultimate intention of the protests. And, because the Hong Kong protestors do not resist with the goal of swaraj, satyagraha’s requirements of ethical perfection, unlimited suffering, and indefinite resistance need not apply in the first place.

Part IV. Gandhi on Violence

Having exposed the flaws of the Gandhian dialectic and the political impracticality of indefinite suffering in Hong Kong, it is clear that Gandhi’s theory of satyagraha is both unfit for the Hong Kong situation, and perhaps not as universal as it claims to be. Indeed, Gandhi himself includes a theory of violence in his philosophy, which I argue is the aspect of his analysis most fit for application to the pro-democracy protests. He begins by acknowledging that violence is inevitable where there is a will to live, despite the single universal truth of ahimsa. When man is morally imperfect, Gandhi writes, “he is endowed with brute force as well, and, so long as he has not developed awareness of his spiritual nature he remains an intelligent animal.”[31] For Gandhi, R. Rajmohan writes in “Gandhi on Violence,” acts of violence are classified along a spectrum from unavoidable to objectionable.[32] Unavoidable violence is primarily associated with the violence necessary for sustenance, such as harming nature to procure food and shelter, and objectionable violence is undue aggression.  Where violence falls on the spectrum, Rajmohan continues, depends largely on intention; a motivation of self-interest or self-gratification is subject to condemnation, whereas violence perpetuated out of other-regarding mentality can be excusable.[33] For example, restraining a child running towards a fire, or inflicting a wound in surgery are justifiable forms of violence.

There exists in addition to unavoidable and objectionable violence one final category which Gandhi describes in “The Doctrine of the Sword,” writing, “It is any day better to use brute force than to betray cowardice.”[34] Where nonviolence is impossible, it is preferable to use force rather than remain passive against injustice. However, as a result of the inviolable connection between means and ends, and subsequently between satyagraha and swaraj, violence cannot be employed as a political strategy but can be utilized as self-defense in exceptional circumstances.[35] “Violence as courage,” therefore, is merely excusable, not justifiable.[36]

It is this category of “violence as courage” that can be used to apply Gandhi’s theory to the situation in Hong Kong. First, we must determine the intent behind the protestors’ use of force. From the protestors five demands– withdraw the extradition bill, Carrie Lam’s resignation, an inquiry into police brutality the release of arrested protestors, and greater democratic freedoms– it is evident that social welfare is their primary concern. Additionally, the 2014 Occupy Central Movement’s manifesto again demonstrates other-regarding interest, “We shall be like preachers communicating enthusiastically with different communities to convey the universal values such as democracy, universal and equal suffrage, justice and righteousness.”[37] In contrast, China’s violence is reinforced by business interests, which favor the heavy handedness of Beijing to restrict unfavorable reforms as “Major economic interests in Hong Kong have been happy with the current set-up because it provides them with privileged access to decision-making and the ability to block initiatives proposed by the democratic camp.”[38] With motivation as the primary criterion for categorization, I argue that by Gandhi’s standards, the protestors’ violence is excusable, while Beijing’s violence is condemnable.

Moreover, as demonstrated by the failures of the Gandhian dialectic to apply to a controlocracy, in addition to the excessive demands and inexpediency of nonviolence, Gandhi’s satyagraha was not an option for the protestors in the first place. Beijing’s rhetoric of securitization delegitimizes demonstrations, and its interference in institutions of discourse eliminates the possibility of rational, morally-motivated discussion. Furthermore, absolutist enforcement strategies render a game theoretic approach ineffective, and fail to “melt the stoniest hearts” of a regime insensitive to moral appeals. It seems that cowardice, given that nonviolence is not an option, would be failing to resist Beijing’s interventions in Hong Kong, the unquestioning submission to repression of human rights and political liberties, and the failure to take a stand for self-determination and universal suffrage in the face of a controlocracy. Therefore, given the protestors’ other-oriented goals and inability to pursue nonviolent tactics, Gandhi’s theory of violence provides the best conceptualization of and strategic recommendations for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. By his framework, Hong Kong is an exceptional case, wherein protestors must choose between violence and cowardice because satyagraha is infeasible.

Part V. Conclusion

 Epitomized by Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of Gandhi’s satyagraha, nonviolent methods are ultimately out of touch with political reality. Some degree of coercion is inherent to politics, which is overlooked by an inappropriate application of private morality to the public sphere. Gandhi realized this miscalculation himself, substantiated by his changing definitions of satyagraha and the progression of his campaigns for independence in India. As Parkeh writes, once Gandhi began referring to soul-force as a form of “civilized warfare,” “With all these changes in his manner of action and language of discourse, the very concept of satyagraha came under strain, and it is doubtful if the social and economic boycott, strike and non-payment of taxes could be called satyagraha in the moral sense in which he had used the term so far.”[39] When transferred to the political sphere, Gandhi’s perfect nonviolence was significantly less so. Moreover, despite the fact that Gandhi canceled his first campaign on the grounds of protestors’ violence in Chauri Chaura, he failed to do the same in his second campaign. Niebuhr attributes this to a heightened sense of political reality, writing, “he came finally to realize the necessity of some type of physical coercion upon the foes of his people’s freedom, as every political leader must.”[40] Coercion, according to Niebuhr, is a fact of political life, as community requires the sacrifice of individual interests. An emphasis on private morality as the motivator for political action, therefore, merely masks the injustices lurking behind any settled peace.

Evidently, Niebuhr’s assessment of Gandhi maps directly onto this paper’s critique of satyagraha in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. Particularly in a controlocracy, coercion is a thinly veiled political reality, as China uses propaganda, nationalized education, and physical force to maintain a sense of unity. The shortcomings of the nonviolent Article 23 and Umbrella Movement protests, and the violence of the 2019 protests reveal that it is unrealistic to port the personal morality of nonviolence and self-sacrifice into a political situation that is unresponsive to such appeals. 

The failures of the Gandhian dialectic and game theoretic satyagraha are demonstrated by Beijing’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue or to make the slightest concession to morally-motivated protestors. Furthermore, Gandhi’s requirement of unlimited self-suffering is an overestimation of the ethics of the oppressor, the tolerance of the resistor, and the time horizon available for protest in Hong Kong. The goals of the movement in preservation of the Basic Law and “one country, two systems,” rather than swaraj, further render satyagraha inapplicable. It is Gandhi’s theory of violence that provides the most realistic recommendations for resistors in Hong Kong, allowing the use of force when cowardice is the only alternative. Ultimately, as proven by Niebuhr, Gandhi’s “violence as courage,” and the reality of Indian decolonization, nonviolence is a political method that is not universalizable to the Hong Kong situation, let alone any conflict. While the “largest love” and “greatest charity” are admirable pursuits of personal morality, they are inappropriate agents of change in the political sphere.[41]

Figure 1

Fei, Lam Yik. Protestors clashing with riot police officers Tuesday on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 12 November 2019. Photograph. The New York Times. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.\

Works Cited

Bush, Richard C. “Hong Kong: Examining the Impact of the ‘Umbrella Movement.’” Brookings. 3 December 2014. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Engler, Mark and Paul Engler. This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Nation Books, 2016, New York, NY.

Fei, Lam Yik. Protestors clashing with riot police officers Tuesday on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 12 November 2019. Photograph. The New York Times. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Gandhi. Selected Political Writings. Ed. Dennis Dalton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Gokhale, Balkrishna Govind. “Gandhi and History.” History and Theory, vol. 11, no. 2 (1972), pp. 214-225. Published by Wiley for Wesleyan University. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence.” The Economist. 21 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Hui, Cora Y. T. Securitization of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Routledge, 10 July 2019, New York, NY.

Iyer, Raghavan N. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford University Press, 2004, New Delhi, New York.

Kamath, M. V. Gandhi’s Coolie: Life and Times of Ramkrishna Bajaj. Allied Publishers, 1995. Google Books. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Klitgaard, Robert E. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 8, no. 2 (1971), pp. 143-153. Published by Sage Publications, Ltd. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 4 December 2019.

Leff, Alex and Emliy Feng. “Trump Angers China by Signing Law Backing Hong Kong Protestors.” npr. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Lo, Sonny. Hong Kong’s Indigenous Democracy: Origins, Evolution and Contentions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, New York, NY.

Loomba, Ania. “The Violence of Gandhi’s Non-Violence.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1 (Summer 2014), pp. 19-37. Published by India International Centre. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Melchior, Jillian Kay. “Hong Kong’s Revolutionary Turn.” WSJ. 24 October 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960, New York, NY.

Parekh, Bikhu C. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: a Critical Examination. Macmillan, 1989, Basingstoke.

Rajmohan, R. “Gandhi on Violence.” Peace Research, vol. 28, no. 2 (May 1996), pp. 27-38. Published by Canadian Mennonite University. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/images/basiclaw_full_text_en.pdf

Torode, Greg and James Pomfret. “Explainer: Hong Kong’s ‘borrowed time’– worry about 2047 hangs over protests.” Reuters. 23 August 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Tsung-gan, Kong. “The Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still to do.” Hong Kong Free Press. 24 September 2017. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Voters in Hong Kong deliver powerful snub to Beijing.” The Economist. 25 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.


Bibliography

“Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Nominates Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement for the Nobel Peace Prize” Congressional-Executive Commission on China. 1 February 2018. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Bradsher, Keith, Javier C. Hernandez, and Alexandra Stevenson. “China Condemns U.S. Over Hong Kong. That Won’t Stop Trade Talks.” The New York Times. 28 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Buckley, Chris. “Three Months of Protests End Quietly in Hong Kong.” The New York Times. 14 December 2014. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Bush, Richard C. “Hong Kong: Examining the Impact of the ‘Umbrella Movement.’” Brookings. 3 December 2014. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“China’s unruly periphery resents the Communist Party’s heavy hand.” The Economist. 21 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Cochrane, Emily, Edward Wong, and Keith Bradsher. “Trump Signs Hong Kong Democracy Legislation, Angering China.” The New York Times. 27 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Cunningham, Kathleen Gallagher, Marianne Dahl and Anne Fruge. “Strategies of Resistance:

Diversification and Diffusion” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 61, no. 3 (July 2017), pp. 591-605. Published by Midwest Political Science Association. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Davis, Michael. “Hong Kong Demands Democracy.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 68, no. 1,

Breaking Point: Protests and Revolutions in the 21st Century (Fall/Winter 2014), pp. 209-214. Published by Journal of International Affairs Editorial Board. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Engler, Mark and Paul Engler. This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Nation Books, 2016, New York, NY.

Fei, Lam Yik. Protestors clashing with riot police officers Tuesday on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 12 November 2019. Photograph. The New York Times. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Feng, Emily. “As Hong Kong Protests Continue, China’s Response is Increasingly Ominous.” npr. 13 August 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Gandhi. ‘Hindi Swaraj’ and Other Writings. Ed. Anthony J. Parel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Gandhi. Selected Political Writings. Ed. Dennis Dalton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Gokhale, Balkrishna Govind. “Gandhi and History.” History and Theory, vol. 11, no. 2 (1972), pp. 214-225. Published by Wiley for Wesleyan University. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Heredia, Rudolf C. “Interpreting Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 34, no. 24 (June 12-18, 1999), pp. 1497-1502. Published by Economic and Political Weekly. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Hong Kong profile – Timeline” BBC News. 24 June 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.Wong, Joshua and Jeffrey Ngo. “Autonomy in Hong Kong is at a 20-year low” The Washington Post. 25 January 2017. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Hong Kong Protest Photos: Tear Gas and Fires on a Day of Campus Clashes.” The New York Times. 12 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence.” The Economist. 21 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Hui, Cora Y. T. Securitization of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Routledge, 10 July 2019, New York, NY.

Ives, Mike. “What Is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?” The New York Times. 10 June 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Ives, Mike, Elaine Yu and Edward Wong. “Ugly From the Outset: Hong Kong’s Day of Widespread Violence.” The New York Times. 11 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Iyer, Raghavan N. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford University Press, 2004, New Delhi, New York.

Kamath, M. V. Gandhi’s Coolie: Life and Times of Ramkrishna Bajaj. Allied Publishers, 1995. Google Books. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Jiminez, Larissa. “Schell Center hosts Nathan Law GRD ’20” Yale Daily News. 18 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

John, Tara. “Why Hong Kong is protesting: Their five demands listed.” CNN. 30 August 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Klitgaard, Robert E. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 8, no. 2 (1971), pp. 143-153. Published by Sage Publications, Ltd. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 4 December 2019.

Lam, Wai-man. “Nongovernmental International Human Rights Organizations: The Case of Hong Kong.” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 47, no. 3 (July 2014), pp. 642-653. Published by American Political Science Association. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Lee, Francis L. F. “Media, Social Mobilisation and Mass Protests in Post-colonial Hong Kong.” Routledge, February 5, 2012.

Leff, Alex and Emliy Feng. “Trump Angers China by Signing Law Backing Hong Kong Protestors.” npr. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Lo, Sonny. Hong Kong’s Indigenous Democracy: Origins, Evolution and Contentions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, New York, NY.

Loomba, Ania. “The Violence of Gandhi’s Non-Violence.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1 (Summer 2014), pp. 19-37. Published by India International Centre. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Mahtani, Shibani. “We are in a war.” The Washington Post. 12 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Melchior, Jillian Kay. “Hong Kong’s Revolutionary Turn.” WSJ. 24 October 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960, New York, NY.

Nigam, Aditya. “Gandhi– The ‘Angel of History’: Reading ‘Hind Swaraj’ Today.” Economic and

Political Weekly, vol. 44, no. 11 (Mar. 14-20, 2009), pp. 41-47. Published by Economic and Political Weekly. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Parekh, Bikhu C. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: a Critical Examination. Macmillan, 1989, Basingstoke.

Qin, Amy. “China Hits Back at U.S. Over Hong Kong Bill in a Mostly Symbolic Move.” The New York Times. 2 December 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Quit India Movement.” New World Encylopedia. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.Rajmohan, R. “Gandhi on Violence.” Peace Research, vol. 28, no. 2 (May 1996), pp. 27-38. Published by Canadian Mennonite University. JSTOR. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Ramzy, Austin. “Hong Kong March: Vast Protest of Extradition Bill Shows Fear of Eroding

Freedoms.” The New York Times. 9 June 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Ramzy, Austin and Ezra Cheung. “Anger in Hong Kong After Student Dies From Fall Following

Clash With Police.” The New York Times. 7 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/images/basiclaw_full_text_en.pdf

Torode, Greg and James Pomfret. “Explainer: Hong Kong’s ‘borrowed time’– worry about 2047 hangs over protests.” Reuters. 23 August 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Tsung-gan, Kong. “The Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still to do.” Hong Kong Free Press. 24 September 2017. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

“Voters in Hong Kong deliver powerful snub to Beijing.” The Economist. 25 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Wong, Edward. “Senate Passes Bill to Support Hong Kong Protesters, Putting Pressure on Trump.” The New York Times. 19 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Wong, Edward and Alan Wong. “Seeking Identity, ‘Hong Kong People’ Look to City, Not State.” The New York Times.  7 October 2014. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

Wong, Edward and Ezra Cheung. “Hong Kong Colleges Become Besieged Citadels as Police Close In.” The New York Times. 13 November 2019. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.


References

[1] Lo, Sonny. Hong Kong’s Indigenous Democracy: Origins, Evolution and Contentions. Palgrave

Macmillan, 2015, New York, NY, 17-18.

[2] The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

[3] Tsung-gan, Kong. “The Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still

to do.” Hong Kong Free Press. 24 September 2017.

[4] “Voters in Hong Kong deliver powerful snub to Beijing.” The Economist. 25 November 2019.

[5] Hui, Cora Y. T. Securitization of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Routledge, 10 July 2019,

New York, NY, 17.

[6] Hui, 18.

[7] Gandhi. Selected Political Writings. Ed. Dennis Dalton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996,

Indianapolis, Indiana, 19.

[8] Gandhi, 40.

[9] “Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence.” The Economist. 21 November 2019.

[10] Gokhale, Balkrishna Govind. “Gandhi and History.” History and Theory, vol. 11, no. 2 (1972), pp.

214-225. Published by Wiley for Wesleyan University, 222.

[11] Iyer, Raghavan N. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford University Press,

2004, New Delhi, New York, 309.

[12] Parekh, Bikhu C. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: a Critical Examination. Macmillan, 1989, Basingstoke, 201.

[13] Parekh, 165.

[14] Klitgaard, Robert E. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 8, no. 2

(1971), pp. 143-153. Published by Sage Publications, Ltd, 146.

[15] Gandhi, 62.

[16] “Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence.”

[17] Klitgaard, 148.

[18] Leff, Alex and Emliy Feng. “Trump Angers China by Signing Law Backing Hong Kong Protestors.”

npr. Online. Accessed 7 December 2019.

[19] Gandhi, 44.

[20] Gandhi, 61.

[21] Kamath, M. V. Gandhi’s Coolie: Life and Times of Ramkrishna Bajaj. Allied Publishers, 1995, 31-32.

[22] Parekh, 169.

[23] Loomba, Ania. “The Violence of Gandhi’s Non-Violence.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol.

41, no. 1 (Summer 2014), pp. 19-37. Published by India International Centre, 26.

[24] Loomba, 26.

[25] Engler, Mark and Paul Engler. This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First

Century. Nation Books, 2016, New York, NY, 7.

[26] Lo, 108.

[27] Hui, 18.

[28] “Hong Kong stares into the abyss amid growing violence.”

[29] Torode, Greg and James Pomfret. “Explainer: Hong Kong’s ‘borrowed time’– worry about 2047 hangs over

protests.” Reuters. 23 August 2019.

[30] Melchior, Jillian Kay. “Hong Kong’s Revolutionary Turn.” WSJ. 24 October 2019.

[31] Gandhi, 70.

[32] Rajmohan, R. “Gandhi on Violence.” Peace Research, vol. 28, no. 2 (May 1996), pp. 27-38. Published

by Canadian Mennonite University, 18.

[33] Rajmohan, 33.

[34] Gandhi, 70.

[35] Rajmohan, 35.

[36] Rajmohan, 37.

[37] Lo, 107.

[38] Bush, Richard C. “Hong Kong: Examining the Impact of the ‘Umbrella Movement.’” Brookings. 3

December 2014.

[39] Parekh, 153.

[40] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960, New York, NY, 242.

[41] Gandhi, 40.

Isabella Epstein Yale'21
Isabella Epstein is a rising senior in Berkeley College majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics and a current member of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. She is currently working with the ERA Coalition to strategize and advocate for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and is particularly interested in constitutional law and political philosophy.