First young people, then bankers: How Hong Kong protests swelled

Vincent Thian/AP
Protesters gather at a demonstration by civil servants in Hong Kong Aug. 2, 2019. Many have been angered by the government's refusal to answer their demands.
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As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have acted more boldly in the face of government intransigence and harsh police tactics, they have gradually won broader public support. Ordinary citizens who earlier favored strictly peaceful demonstrations increasingly see the confrontations as both legitimate and necessary to bring about change.

Entire neighborhoods – including in normally conservative, pro-government areas of Hong Kong – have turned out to oppose police and shelter the mainly young protesters. Civil servants have also stood with demonstrators against the government that employs them.

But the wider support also brings new risks as the movement runs up against not only Hong Kong authorities but, increasingly, Beijing. China has stridently characterized the protesters as radical rioters backed by foreign forces who seek to separate Hong Kong from the rest of China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam offered a key concession Wednesday when she announced she would withdraw a widely unpopular bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to China to stand trial. Opposition to the bill was the original cause of the protest movement that has been building since June. But critics immediately rejected Ms. Lam’s move as “too little, too late.”

Why We Wrote This

Most citizens want to be heard by their leaders. The lack of government responsiveness has spurred a surprising array of Hong Kongers to join pro-democracy protesters – and support more aggressive tactics.

Five years ago, Hana volunteered with Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a nonviolent democracy movement that hoped to compel Beijing to grant unfettered elections to Hong Kong. The effort, subsumed by a mass student-led occupation, ended in failure. 

So, in June, when militant young people surrounded the city’s government center and tangled with riot police who sprayed the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, Hana, who requested we only use her first name, says she was initially repelled by what the mostly young protesters had wrought. But she acknowledges their efforts worked. The legislature canceled its meeting, and the government suspended a bill that would have allowed China to demand criminal suspects be extradited there. Weeks later, when young people clad in construction helmets broke into the city’s legislative chamber, defacing the emblem and spray-painting slogans, Hana was convinced their tactics had achieved what peaceful sit-ins had not.  

Which is why, on Sunday, after thousands of students tried to blockade the city’s airport, confronting police, she harbored five college students in her home.

Why We Wrote This

Most citizens want to be heard by their leaders. The lack of government responsiveness has spurred a surprising array of Hong Kongers to join pro-democracy protesters – and support more aggressive tactics.

“I have changed over the course of three months,” says Hana. “We’ve tried almost everything and the government doesn’t budge, at all. So even though I don’t agree to use violence, I think credit should be given to them. ... When it’s the people against the authority, you support the people.”

Hong Kong ignites

This summer, Hong Kong ignited. A peaceful campaign of mass marches to defeat the legislative bill burst into a violent and fiery struggle for democracy and human rights against a police force that protesters see as bent on harming civilians. Some protesters who once blocked roads and fended off police pepper spray with umbrellas are now hurling Molotov cocktails and bricks, and beating officers. 

Many activists and supporters who criticized demonstrators who obstructed police during the 2014 Umbrella Movement now concede that people who are ignored by their government or harmed by police must try other methods to defend themselves and compel an official reply. 

In a reversal, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Wednesday that she would withdraw the deeply unpopular extradition bill. But protesters and other critics immediately called the move “too little, too late.”

Increasingly, Hong Kong residents and scholars view Beijing, not Hong Kong, as the main opponent of protesters. With no resolution in sight, the risks to both sides are growing as protests grow more violent and young people far more agitated. Ms. Lam has warned repeatedly that she could enact a law that would allow her to assume emergency powers and impose curfews and censorship. That would enrage the international community.

A wide array of players

The current campaign has been bolstered by various interest groups, none of which is known for radical actions: insurers, bankers, teachers, accountants, financiers, civil servants. Only the most senior officials and police support the current government, says one city employee who attended a packed August rally organized by civil servants.

“There is no other way but to push the government,” says the trade office representative. “We’re supposed to support the government unconditionally. I’m on the side of the protesters.” 

For some activists, peace is the only way. “I don't blame them, but I don't support them,” says a woman from mainland China, who asked to be identified as Ms. Zhu. “There are some people who say only revolution can save Hong Kong,” she says, but adds she fears that will bring bloodshed.

Many residents believe Ms. Lam fanned the problem. Prior to Wednesday’s concession on the extradition bill, she had refused to meet any of the protesters’ five demands, which include introducing election reforms and an independent inquiry into police actions. She opened discussions with certain groups in closed-door sessions with hand-picked participants. On Tuesday, she denied a report by Reuters, based on a leaked audio recording, that indicated she wanted to resign because her tenure was causing “unforgivable havoc” in the city. In the taped address, Ms. Lam said the current crisis exceeded her brief to address it because it involved matters of national security and sovereignty.

Ms. Lam has steadfastly backed the police and their actions as lawful responses to riotous mobs. That’s not how international experts have seen it. The U.N. human rights office says Hong Kong police firing tear gas canisters directly at individual protesters risks causing death or serious injury.

For many people, acceptance that force might be a useful option began on June 12, after police tried to clear the area around the legislative center by firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds, and flogging people with batons amid crowds that were doing little but standing in roadways.  

Profoundly unjust response?

On July 1, as hundreds of thousands of people finished a peaceful march, hundreds of young people hacked through glass windows and occupied the legislative chambers as the riot police moved in. One young man, Brian Kai-ping Leung, ripped off his mask and urged the crowd to stay as he demanded democracy for the city, an effort that many viewed as heroic and selfless because he will no doubt become a prosecution target. 

The decision by police to chase young people wearing black, the protesters’ favorite hue, or charge people carrying laser pointers with weapons possession, struck many activists as profoundly unjust, the actions of a police state. “What’s the difference between being jailed and being outside in a bigger jail?” asked Ho Chi Kwun, a longtime activist and retired social work professor who has always used civil disobedience methods.

Each weekend after, when protesters amassed, riot squads began lobbing tear gas indiscriminately – near apartment houses, inside subway stations, toward the backs of fleeing protesters. The breaking point came on July 21, when a mob of white-shirted rural thugs attacked customers inside a rail station, wounding more than 40 people. It took the police 39 minutes to arrive in force, a wait many saw as callous and cruel, if not criminal. 

Police have continued to say they use justifiable force in trying to suppress violent rioters. The police force’s actions during the mob attack are under investigation by the city’s watchdog agency.

Just four men have been charged in the attacks in Yuen Long, a district near the border with mainland China. The following weekend, police chased and beat protesters in that same train station. The next day, more than 40 young people, blocking roads on Hong Kong Island, were charged with rioting. Each faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. 

Such sentences have stunned many activists and supporters. Many people firmly believe the police response invites violence, and that people betrayed by their government have a legitimate right to defend themselves.

“We have to help ourselves. We are facing the most powerful autocratic regime in the world,” says Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Even with all that suppression, people keep coming out, and ordinary people keep coming out.” 

Beijing's view

As support spread in the normally conservative, pro-government quarters such as low-income housing estates, Beijing officials and newspapers tried to cast the campaign as an independence crusade bent on splitting the nation. Hong Kong protests were the work of separatists fomenting a “color revolution,” they said. But such efforts to divide the movement between “radicals” and ordinary marchers have failed. “There is a lot of tolerance,” Professor Ngok says. “We understand, strong solidarity.” 

As Ms. Lam remained intransigent, protesters stepped up their tactics. And many residents did not flinch – not when protesters ripped down surveillance cameras or blocked passengers at the airport, essentially paralyzing the air hub.

In frustration, police have employed new ways to contain and control crowds. The nights start with tear gas. A special tactical unit, nicknamed the raptors, race after members of the crowd, beating and sitting on them. 

“The extradition amendment caused all of whatever happened,” said Ms. Ho, the retired academic. “Lam’s reluctance, for whatever reason, is the real cause of all this violence. Her inaction … is causing all these escalations.”

Residents uninvolved in the protests were swept into the crackdown. Riot police have marched into many residential neighborhoods, housing estates, and rail stations to confront jeering crowds. Police shoot tear gas to disperse people who live on those same streets, drawing more people into the streets.

Entire neighborhoods have risen up. The working-class housing estate of Wong Tai Sin endured three nights as riot police tried to disperse residents who spent hours taunting officers and came back after they were gassed. On Aug. 11, residents in Sai Wan Ho, a middle-class area on Hong Kong Island, sheltered protesters before officers arrived. As more people amassed on the street, residents surrounded the police, screaming “black cops” and curses.

When the police began to retreat, some people banged on a police van, one witness recalled. As police charged, batons raised, hitting journalists on the head and shoving women wearing flip-flops, a few residents blocked the van. “I dare you to cross me! I dare you!” one shouted. Residents chased the van, tossing bottles, until the driver sped off.

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