In now-or-never mindset, Hong Kong protests keep up pressure

Why We Wrote This

Protesters argue they aren’t just protecting a status quo, but trying to chart Hong Kong’s future. With the territory’s trajectory unclear after 2047, many say they’re motivated by a simple question: If not now, when?

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Pro-democracy protests on Hong Kong Island on Sept. 27, 2019. Last weekend's protests marked the anniversary of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which unsuccessfully pushed for more democratic elections.

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In Beijing, a song and dance pageant marked China’s National Day. But in Hong Kong, police used deadly force for the first time in four months of major pro-democracy protests, shooting one 18-year-old in the chest.

The escalation of violence manifests the determination of Hong Kong’s protesters, even as they confront heightened repression by Hong Kong authorities, backed by the mainland’s Communist Party-led government. Some in Hong Kong remain loyal supporters of the government. But from upscale business districts to traditional villages, people are expressing a willingness to take risks for a do-or-die bid to protect and expand their democratic rights – lest they face even greater suppression by China.

The do-or-die sentiment is heightened because the clock is ticking on Beijing’s requirement to protect the territory’s autonomy until 2047. Under a “one country, two systems” formula, Beijing pledged to guarantee and expand Hong Kong’s basic liberties for 50 years after China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997.

“We know we belong to China ... but if we can get universal suffrage, it will be hard to change in 2047,” says Connie, a petite marketing professional dressed all in black. “And by 2047, we will have an even greater political consciousness.”

As China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule in Beijing today with a huge choreographed military parade reviewed by top leader Xi Jinping, Hong Kong erupted in street battles. Tens of thousands of black-clad protesters defied a ban and staged demonstrations across the territory to mark what they cast as a somber day of mourning.

In stark contrast with the mass pageant of song and dance also on display in Beijing, China’s National Day here brought the bloodiest episode so far in Hong Kong’s uprising against what residents view as Beijing’s growing encroachment on their freedoms. But as violence and police suppression intensify, so does some protesters’ sense that this is a now-or-never moment to push for democratic reform.

For the first time in four months of major pro-democracy protests, police drew their pistols and fired live rounds – shooting and seriously injuring one 18-year-old protester. Police also shot tear gas and water cannons at protesters, who fought throwing sticks and petrol bombs. The two sides also beat each other in hand-to-hand battles in which police at times appeared overwhelmed. By the day’s end, scores of protesters and 25 police officers had reportedly been injured. 

Hong Kong Police Chief Stephen Lo defended the shooting, and said the protester was arrested for assaulting an officer. He said he did not know the protester’s condition, but said he was conscious when he entered the hospital. “I am sad. Our national day is supposed to be a day to celebrate and be happy,” Chief Lo said, denouncing the protesters as “rioters.” “We are in a difficult moment.”

The recent escalation of violence shows the solidarity of protesters’ broad base in the territory of 7 million people, even as they confront heightened repression by Hong Kong authorities.

“No National Day. It’s a day of grief!” shouted one protester, an information technology expert who identified himself as Mr. Ku, along with a crowd of other protesters marching down Hennessy Road today. Some carried black flags and balloons or made shrines of white chrysanthemums – a traditional flower of mourning.

“Of course, I’m afraid,” Mr. Ku said when asked how Hong Kong’s activists feel about standing their ground despite stern warnings from Beijing. “But if we stick together, we can be so powerful,” he said. “We have no choice – it’s about our future.”

Indeed, scores of protesters and residents interviewed over the past week across Hong Kong – from traditional clan villages and market towns in the New Territories to the teeming streets of Kowloon and the upscale business and shopping districts of Hong Kong island – expressed a willingness to take risks and sacrifice for what they view as a last bid to protect and expand their rights, lest they face even greater suppression.

Motivated by 2047

“Fighting is the only way we can survive. We don’t want to be silenced,” said Karen, a housewife and former social worker. “China may crack down, but we are not afraid because we are together,” she said, stopping to scatter fake paper money with other protesters in another mourning ritual.

The do-or-die sentiment gripping Hong Kong’s protesters is heightened by their knowledge that the clock is ticking on Beijing’s legal requirement to protect the territory’s autonomy until 2047. Under a “one country, two systems” formula, Beijing pledged to protect Hong Kong’s basic liberties for 50 years after China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997; what happens after that is unclear.

But more than 20 years along, Hong Kong people have yet to be granted democratic elections for the city’s leaders, as promised by Beijing, albeit without a timeline. This has heightened distrust of China’s intentions, even as Mr. Xi vowed to uphold “one country, two systems” in his National Day speech today.

“The [2047] guarantee seems to have run out already,” says Karen, citing repeated moves to impose unpopular national policies on Hong Kong. “The Chinese government always breaks its promises – they have no credibility.” (To protect their identities, Karen and other protesters disclosed only their first or last names.)

Hong Kong’s protests – the biggest since 1997 – ignited in the spring out of concerns over a proposed bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to China for trial in courts that are controlled by the Communist Party. Large-scale demonstrations, including one with as many as 2 million people, led Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to pledge to withdraw the proposed bill. But by that time, protester demands had morphed into a broader push for democracy and government and police accountability, as well as amnesty for the nearly 2,000 people arrested so far in the unrest.

Rising political consciousness

Hong Kong’s marchers believe that if they can fight successfully to protect their existing rights and gain new ones, such as universal suffrage, they will put themselves in a stronger position to resist any backtracking by Beijing come 2047. Political awareness is rising, they say, along with the constant refrains of Hong Kong’s unofficial new anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.”

“We know we belong to China ... but if we can get universal suffrage, it will be hard to change in 2047,” says Connie, a petite marketing professional dressed all in black. “And by 2047, we will have an even greater political consciousness,” she says as she joins the flood of marchers moving through the commercial district of Wan Chai.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2019, the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. In an escalation of violence in Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, an 18-year-old man was shot by police on Tuesday.

Indeed, important shifts in public opinion indicate heightened concern over fundamental political issues related to Hong Kong’s future. For example, the percentage of residents who place high importance on Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, has risen 25 points from a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

And while public distrust of the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing has risen sharply, Hong Kong residents are feeling better about themselves – with those feeling “very positive” or “quite positive” about Hong Kong people rising from 50% to 63% over the past year, according to institute surveys. Protesters often voice pride and a forceful sense of their unique identity as Hong Kongers. 

“Hong Kong people are standing very strong. We are actually fighting the Chinese Communist Party, which is a big machine. It’s the largest dictatorship right now in the world, but Hong Kong people are not giving up,” said Tina, a public relations professional, as she joined a march on Saturday, the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, which also pressed for universal suffrage but failed to attain it.

Protest mood largely peaceful, festive

Some people remain supportive of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. “China is good. Hong Kong should gradually change and get closer to China during this 50 years,” said Mrs. Chu, selling jade bracelets in an outdoor stall in the Chun Yeung Street Market of North Point, known as a pro-Beijing community. But among dozens of residents in North Point asked for their views on China’s government, she was the only one to speak up – others said they were neutral or apolitical, or simply declined to be interviewed.

Despite the crescendo of violence that often comes later in protests, as hard-core demonstrators directly confront police, the atmosphere of many rallies and marches is overwhelmingly peaceful and festive, with singing, chanting, and people from all walks of life willing to lend a hand. Doctors volunteer as medics; business owners contribute food, water, and other supplies; and pastors open the doors of their churches to provide places to rest. 

Alvin, a secondary school teacher, carried his 3-year-old daughter through today’s sweltering heat on the march as his wife held their 1-year-old son. “As parents, we are very upset that we have [gained] no more freedom since we went back to China in 1997,” Alvin says, as his daughter naps on his shoulder. “We are very worried the next generation won’t have the rights to go in the street – so we want to protect our rights. We really hope the government will listen to our voices,” he says.

Either way, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are showing no signs of letting up.

“This time we stand firm. We know it may be the last time,” says Connie. “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

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