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Here’s a line from a letter to the editor in the South China Morning Post:

“When a government does not allow the free selection of its leaders and is not willing to respond to the wishes of its people, it leaves its people no other choice. ”

Here’s the headline of an opinion column:

“What choice do Hong Kong protesters have when the options are the PLA or dictator-in-the-making Carrie Lam?”

The idea that the protesters, even the violent ones, have “no choice” is oft-repeated. These are only two of the most recent examples I can recall, but I read something along these lines every day. What these two pieces have in common are authors who are highly educated – doctoral degree holders. Yet, their arguments are disingenuous.

In the first case, the people actually do have another choice – they can accept the situation as is, and get on with their lives. Lives that in some cases are not ideal, but are largely above the standard of people in many parts of the world. Or they could continue to press their views through different channels, waiting for a more opportune time.

There are many problems in Hong Kong, but a lack of choice is not one of them. Yet.

In the second case, the (Hobson’s) choices are even spelled out in the headline. In fact, those are not the only two options. The spectre of the PLA in the streets is ever-present but has not become a reality, and is not expected to become one, unless violence is sustained and escalates further (it has actually surprised everyone why China hasn’t sent in the army yet, especially after their October 1 national day celebrations finished).

Again, there are choices other than violent confrontation and fighting to the end – compromising and negotiating hard would be one (understandably, no one wants to stick their neck out to negotiate with the government individually because the last time around the government went after these “leaders” and prosecuted them, but surely there are ways to negotiate as a collective).

Till yesterday, there were young protesters holed up in a local university refusing to come out because they believed that they would be arrested, beaten by police and even killed by police (the idea that police are killing protesters  wily nily is very prevalent, and repeated even by people who went to graduate school with me though I have seen no evidence of this). In fact, they were offered the option of being escorted out by university staff who would make sure they were treated fairly by police. But they believe they have no choice but to fight to the end.


It’s not just protesters and their supporters spouting the “no choice” mantra. The police have been at it too. Here’s a line from and RTHK article:

“I hereby warn the rioters: stop using petrol bombs, arrows, vehicles or any other lethal weapons to attack police officers, and stop all acts of assault. If they continue these dangerous acts, we will have no choice but to use the necessary minimal force, including live ammunition, to hit back”,

No, sir, actually you do have a choice. You can always choose not to shoot. You can decide that this battle is not worth fighting. In fact, famously, when the protesters broke into and trashed the Legislative Council building, the police did exactly that.

They retreated and let protesters do their worst, demonstrating to the public what they would do if left alone. Unfortunately, they have proved themselves capable of worse than trashing buildings.

The police were roundly criticised from both sides for not confronting protesters sooner – by protest supporters who said they had laid a trap and by ex-police officers who said they should have acted sooner – thereby proving that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Regardless, they are hardly without choices.

The police “no choice” shtick reminds me of my early days in journalism when I naively decided to rewrite a little piece a crime reporter had filed on criminal who had opened fire on the police leaving them “no choice” but to gun him down. Having read at least two pieces that read almost exactly the same in the recent past, I decided to make it sound less formulaic at least.

The crime reporter rushed over and told me I absolutely must not change the wording. Apparently, newspapers are expected to run the police propoganda narrative as is.

No choice indeed.