Within the authentic telling of David versus Goliath, the smaller David unexpectedly defeats his big foe with a number of well-aimed pebble pictures to the pinnacle. However let’s think about a distinct sort of showdown: one through which the underdog, conscious of the not possible odds, grips on to the opponent as they wrestle to the demise, ultimately tumbling off a cliff and crashing down in mutual destruction.

That’s laam caau (攬炒, pronounced “lahm tsow”), the technique {that a} sizable fraction of Hong Kong protesters assume is the one means they stand a preventing likelihood in opposition to their formidable authoritarian foe, the Chinese language Communist Occasion (CCP). The phrase, which accurately interprets to “embrace and fry” in Cantonese, is borrowed from poker to imply making your opponent undergo as a lot as you do. Some name it a scorched earth, or an “if we burn, you burn with us” philosophy. At its core, it’s the assumption that the prevailing political framework is so rigged that working beneath the present guidelines of engagement, as dictated by China, will solely result in defeat.

“Basically, laam caau is our approach to strike again on the Chinese language Communist Occasion,” mentioned a protester who requested to be recognized as Finn, and who’s extensively identified for writing beneath the username “I wish to laam caau” on the favored protester online forum, LIHKG. Finn provides that laam caau is “a bargaining transfer for Hong Kong in opposition to a significant energy on the earth… if we aren’t allowed to be autonomous, we are going to use our personal leverage to convey CCP down with us.”

Laam caau entails pursuing motion in numerous spheres of affect, as Finn outlined it in a video manifesto (hyperlink in Chinese language): road protests, the native legislature, and worldwide diplomatic outreach. It could possibly additionally imply favoring small pro-democracy businesses—the “yellow financial circle”—as a substitute of chains owned by pro-Beijing tycoons. Every part reinforces the opposite, and solely by combining battle strains can Hong Kong “leverage [its] distinctive place as a particular metropolis in opposition to the CCP.”

The high-stakes technique is now being put to the take a look at as China makes its most aggressive transfer but—exerting direct management over Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping nationwide safety legislation that will criminalize an enormous and obscure set of acts.

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Geopolitical brinksmanship

After tolerating final yr’s large-scale protests with out sending in troops as many had feared—and some laam caau proponents had hoped—Beijing took benefit of the world’s distraction with the pandemic to move swiftly to dismantle Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms. In a end result of these steps, China’s prime legislature today passed a national security law, completely bypassing the territory’s personal legislative procedures. It comes into effect simply in time for the anniversary of the territory’s handover from Britain to China—and protests are anticipated despite the fact that town’s annual July 1 democracy march has been banned.

The Hong Kong authorities has barely seen the legislation’s full textual content, not to mention anybody else, however leaked particulars of the laws counsel that Chinese language safety brokers can be allowed to operate within the metropolis for the primary time; suspects may very well be held indefinitely in particular detention amenities; and people convicted could face life imprisonment.

The legislation is ready to vary Hong Kong in precisely the best way the protesters have feared—but a lot of them virtually welcome it, keen China to accentuate its crackdown in hopes of triggering worldwide punishment. That very same want spurred many protesters final yr to undertake more and more confrontational and at occasions violent techniques, similar to throwing molotov cocktails and vandalizing China-friendly companies. Final yr, on July 1, they stormed the city’s legislature. Additionally they lobbied governments worldwide, from working a massive global ad campaign forward of the G20 summit, to waving US flags throughout road protests, and assembly with US politicians to make the case for sanctioning Beijing.

China seems to be defiantly urgent forward, wagering that it’ll name the world’s bluff on Hong Kong. The chips are down, and the query now’s the place they may fall. That query is considerably moot for laam caau protesters supporters: they wish to see the cardboard desk overturned completely. That in the end means redrawing Hong Kong’s relations with the world, as a result of protesters see Beijing utilizing Hong Kong to energy its personal world financial ambitions whereas systematically eroding the territory’s freedoms.

“It’s a big gamble,” mentioned Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economic system at Johns Hopkins College. “In the long run, they may not achieve something and lose one thing extra, even when they assume they don’t have anything to lose anyway.” Nonetheless, he mentioned, final yr’s protests merely accelerated China’s transfer to take full management of town. “The selection is between dying quietly with out the world noticing, or dying with dignity with the world noticing, and on the similar time creating the prospect of inflicting some harm to the individuals who kill Hong Kong.”

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A serious victory for the laam caau-supporting protesters got here when the US mentioned it could start to revoke the city’s special trade status, which could have unpredictable—however undoubtedly painful—penalties for each Hong Kong and China. Two-thirds of all international direct funding in China is channelled by means of Hong Kong, based on nationwide statistics, and town is a big depository of assets. Disrupting such a large financing conduit dangers destabilizing an already-slowing Chinese language economic system. In the meantime, Washington has moved to impose sanctions on Chinese language officers, threatened to sanction banks, and halted exports of protection and delicate applied sciences to Hong Kong.

For the laam caau camp, this upheaval in Hong Kong’s world place, regardless of its value, is healthier than extra “inaction,” as Finn describes the a long time when Hong Kong’s pro-democracy moderates engaged with Beijing beneath the “one nation, two methods” framework. Underneath it, Beijing promised to protect the territory’s freedoms, and in addition demanded endurance in change for ultimately granting the democratic proper to decide on the territory’s chief—which by no means got here.

“We now have already wasted a long time bargaining for our promised freedoms,” mentioned Finn. “When you understand that there isn’t any means again and the veneer of freedom prior to now has peeled off, then taking motion is the one actual reply.”

Burning for a lifeline

The laam caau technique has divided Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp.

The older, extra reasonable faction, see it as a recklessly naïve method that may convey no beneficial properties—and will even trigger losses come the September legislative elections, undoing the opposition’s landslide victory in November’s native district elections. Whereas polling (pdf) by the Chinese language College of Hong Kong confirmed that as of December, 97.5% of respondents agreed with using radical protest techniques by protesters, because the protests have dragged on, current polling has additionally proven a dip in support.

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As a substitute, the moderates urge Hong Kongers to try to protect their present freedoms. In an interview with the New York Instances, Martin Lee, the founding father of Hong Kong’s first pro-democracy celebration who was arrested this yr, put it this way: “For those who begin the revolution, and you then’re utterly defeated, many individuals will die with you. So how does that assist Hong Kong?”

Laam caau supporters disagree. A protester in his 20s, who declined to be named, mentioned he would have most well-liked to not need to subscribe to laam caauwhich he referred to as “a final breath earlier than demise”—if there have been alternate options.

“Underneath the present system, Hong Kong will solely grow to be extra like China,” he mentioned. “And when a regime is totalitarian, who suffers is the individuals. The regime by no means suffers.”

The laam caau faction might nicely win moderates over in time.  Hung, the professor, pointed to legal scholar Benny Tai, one of many key masterminds of the peaceable occupation of roads throughout the 2014 Umbrella Motion, as a reasonable determine who has since embraced the doctrine of mutual destruction. In an essay final month, he wrote (hyperlink in Chinese language): “Even when moderates prior to now have expressed doubts over laam caau, now there isn’t any selection: Hong Kong has already jumped off the cliff.”

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, is one other reasonable who mentioned she is more and more “tilting in direction of” laam caau—and China’s continued efforts to dismiss all protesters as violent extremists will solely draw extra Hong Kongers in the identical course, she added.

Hong Kong’s protesters know they face a steep uphill battle. However in opposition to formidable odds and restricted choices, laam caau holds out some extent of hope.

“Laam caau shouldn’t be burning for burning’s sake,” mentioned Finn. “Laam caau is about wrecking the outdated to construct the brand new, and throwing Hong Kong a lifeline.”

The submit “Laam Caau:” The high-stakes game that Hong Kong protesters are waging with China appeared first on Quartz.

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