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Hong Kong is no stranger to protests, and students have often been on their front lines. But Wednesday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators massed around the territory’s government headquarters, the demonstrations and police response reached their most intense levels in years, with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray used to drive back the crowds.
The source of protesters’ anger? A proposal that could make it easier to extradite suspects of certain crimes. But in a city constantly wary of Beijing’s growing grip, many fear it would be used to try government critics on the mainland. The bill has become a focal point for anxieties about Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy, especially among young residents who will live longest with the consequences.
“We need to let our government know we have the power to demand democracy,” said Eden Choi, a 22-year-old who works in marketing.
The protesters pulled off their immediate goal: blocking traffic around the legislature to delay a scheduled reading of the bill. But the game of cat and mouse with police continued through the evening – and the bill’s passage, once it comes to vote, seems near certain.
At dawn on Wednesday, thousands of young people gathered outside Hong Kong’s government complex, determined to stop what the adults had not.
The city’s legislature was scheduled that morning to discuss an extradition plan that would make it easier to ship criminal suspects elsewhere, including mainland China. The bill has drawn the ire of residents, government opponents, religious groups, businesses, and international governments, all saying that such a law would endanger people critical of the Chinese government.
Thousands of teenagers and college students, many wearing black clothes and sanitary masks, surged onto the city’s major highway during morning rush hour, aiming to thwart entrance to the legislature. Within hours they were joined by tens of thousands of people. The throng managed to hold six traffic lanes for eight hours until police drove them off using pepper spray, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and many rounds of tear gas.
Watching the determined young people wearing construction helmets and gripping umbrellas as they stared down the cops, some crowd members grew confident. “I think we’ll win,” said a 24-year-old graduate student who would identify himself only as Tommy. “We’re going to last. We have the power. We have the spirit.”
It was the second time in five years that protesters held this stretch of road, fighting what they consider to be mainland China’s threats to their freedom. In 2014, tens of thousands of people joined the Umbrella Revolution, named for the device they used to fend off pepper spray. Then, the participants sought democratic elections, which had been promised in 2017, but their pleas and a 79-day sit-in failed to sway Beijing.
By many measures, Beijing’s intrusions and directives in recent years have eroded the city’s independence and provoked anxiety in the former British colony. When handed back to China in 1997, Hong Kong received its own constitution under a “one country, two systems” framework, and those rights and freedoms, greater than elsewhere in China, were supposed to last until at least 2047. But many residents question how many protections will even last to 2047, let alone after – and young people say that, since they will live longer under Beijing’s rule, they will bear the highest cost.
That fear drove thousands of them to risk their safety in defiance of police orders Wednesday. The demonstrations and police response churned to one of the most serious confrontations since 2014.
Officials labeled the protest a riot and accused protestors of “life-threatening acts.” That indicates the government might impose serious public disorder charges against those arrested, with prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Hours earlier, young people who donned masks and handed out gloves and protective cling wrap were not cowed. “We need to let our government know we have the power to demand democracy,” said Eden Choi, a 22-year-old who works in marketing. “We are not like before, in the Umbrella Revolution. We are more strong and powerful.”
Despite taking the highway, many protesters remained on edge. They won a temporary victory when lawmakers delayed the bill’s reading. But protests continued into the evening. By nightfall, several hundred protesters were on the move, playing cat and mouse with police as they sought new turf in a nearby business district.
The extradition bill debate has been boiling since February, with two demonstrations so far in June. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the city center on Sunday against the rendition bill, one of the biggest demonstrations in the city’s history. Organizers estimated that more than 1 million people joined, although police put the number at about a quarter of that.
Despite the massive turnout, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said the bill’s passage must go ahead quickly, lest the city become a fugitive haven. Chinese leaders support the bill, and its passage is a near certainty because Beijing loyalists dominate Hong Kong’s legislative body.
Ms. Lam and her secretaries have tried to reassure the public and critics that the extradition bill would impact fugitives of serious crimes only. But activists, lawyers, and legal scholars have argued that Beijing could easily write up charges that ensnare dissidents, who could then be sent to face charges on the mainland, whose legal system is often accused of arbitrary detention and torture.
“We had a protest of 1.03 million, but the government simply ignores and neglects the opinion of the Hong Kong people,” says William Cheung, a 23-year-old student. “They’re worried about Hong Kong’s safety. They’re worried about Hong Kong’s future.”
Young residents – the majority of whom see themselves as Hong Konger, not Chinese – have often become the face of pushback against Beijing. In 2012, students organized a massive campaign against a patriotic curriculum, arguing that it would amount to brainwashing. Joshua Wong, a student activist who became a leader of the Umbrella Revolution as a teenager, is now serving a two-month sentence related to a 2014 protest.
Bringing traffic to a standstill
Wednesday’s events were chaotic, unplanned, and peppered with contradictory actions. The protesters first stepped onto Harcourt Road, packed with rush-hour commuters, shortly after 8 a.m. on a muggy, cloudy day. A few young men dragged some stanchions in place, but then got spooked and fled. Minutes later, several protesters tried again. On both sides of the highway the protesters wound their way past rumbling buses and idled cars.
Longtime protest leaders showed up in the afternoon to offer support and, perhaps, some direction. Avery Ng, leader of the League of Social Democrats, one of the leading pro-democracy parties, addressed people atop a bus depot to stand their ground. “The police can’t do anything,” he told them. “We are so many people.” Below, volunteers poured saline solution into the eyes of young people who police soaked with pepper spray.
Later in the afternoon, police returned in force. Units of riot police entered over footbridges. They confronted hunger strikers sitting on the ground, a few praying aloud. Other units shot off tear gas in a park nearby along Victoria Harbour. They then fired into crowds standing near a stage to hear speakers. When dusk came, police moved down the highway and its off-roads, firing more. Some protesters tried to douse the fallen canisters with wet rags, hoping to minimize the effect of the acrid gas.
By nightfall, police chased a few thousand protesters into Pacific Place, a luxury mall just off a central roadway. Some young people napped, snacked, and enjoyed an air-conditioning break after a day spent in the clammy air.
Throughout the day, many young people owned up to their worries.
“All of Hong Kong is scared,” says a young woman who identified herself as Tam, a 21-year-old college student. “But we have no choice.”