This weekend saw the most violent clashes yet in Hong Kong between demonstrators and riot police. On Sunday, as mass protests entered their 12th week, Hong Kong police deployed water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, and a policeman pointed a gun at a protester and the press. Meanwhile, dissidents threw bricks and grates that they had dug out from the street at riot police. They returned volleys of tear gas canisters with tennis rackets, threw homemade petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails, and used lasers to thwart facial recognition cameras.
The protesters are not backing down on their five demands: full withdrawal of the now-suspended extradition bill; an independent inquiry into police brutality; withdrawal of criminal charges against demonstrators; retracting the government’s label of protesters as ‘rioters’; and universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s executive, which currently must be approved in Beijing. Resentment towards the police has risen since a young woman lost her eye to a rubber bullet. Their chants included ‘Give the girl back her eye’, ‘Eye for an eye’, ‘Hong Kong, stay united’, and ‘All five demands must be met’.
The protests always start peacefully, and they bring together people from all segments of society: doctors, lawyers, civil servants and accountants. On Friday, a Christian rally was held: people sang ‘Hallelujah’. Many Christians in Hong Kong fear that as China takes over, they will suffer the same religious oppression as Christians in mainland China. The Christian rally was then joined by other Hong Kongers and evolved into a human chain that stretched across the entire city, a distance of about 30 miles — not dissimilar to the ‘Baltic Chain’ of three decades ago, a peaceful harbinger of the collapse of the USSR.
On Saturday however, violence broke out as soon as the demonstrators gathered at Kwun Tong, on the Kowloon peninsula. Riot police arrived, and tensions escalated quickly. Tear gas was deployed, and police with batons took on dissidents with baseball bats. ‘It was you who taught me peaceful demonstrations do not work,’ read a poster held by one protester. On Sunday, a similar situation escalated even more quickly and severely next to a park in Tsuen Wan. When the march reached its destination point, most of the children and old people left. Those who remained knew the riot police were waiting for them, and were prepared. Most were young. Some had full body gear, to defend themselves against rubber bullets. They dug out bricks from the ground and used petrol bombs — protection against police, they said. Students as young as 16 – still at school – were severely wounded, one cut by a tear gas canister thrown on his leg, which also blinded him temporarily.
Many protesters held signs urging President Trump to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The bill calls on the United States to ‘uphold freedom and democracy in Hong Kong at a time when its autonomy is increasingly under assault’, and ‘establish punitive measures against government officials in Hong Kong or Mainland China responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in Hong Kong’. Demonstrators also waved American flags and posters with Pepe memes, familiar from alt-right websites such as 4chan. This prompted some left-wing journalists to call them ‘far-right’. However, the protesters were simply unaware that these were controversial symbols in the West. They said they waved the American flag simply because it means ‘democracy and freedom’, and found the Pepe memes ‘cute and cool’. The left-right culture war does not exist in Hong Kong. Their conflict is much simpler: pro- or anti-Beijing. While some Americans burn their own flag, Hong Kongers are longing for the freedoms they believe Americans have.
Chinese state media claim that the protests have been triggered by ‘US intervention’, that they resemble a ‘color revolution’, that American forces are sowing instability abroad. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ a demonstrator holding an American flag told me. ‘I would like to ask those people how they think that two million people can be paid to go on the streets?”’
‘That’s what China’s state propaganda media wants you to believe,’ another said.
Wilson Leung, a lawyer working for a pro-democracy group in Hong Kong, told me that the extradition bill would undermine Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, as agreed to in the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ treaty under which Great Britain ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997. Hong Kong was supposed to remain a Special Autonomous Region (SAR). The independence of its judiciary was a hallmark of that agreement, but the extradition bill, Leung says, would give China the authority to extradite people it doesn’t like.
Leung also said it would be easy for Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to respect most of the wishes of the protesters: ‘She’s making a political decision, not a legal one.’ Other protesters note that Lam, whose appointment was approved by Beijing, is now at the mercy of Beijing, and that her inability to meet the demands of the citizens she should represent shows how far-reaching China’s power is becoming.
The resentment of Hong Kongers towards China also extends to mainland Chinese immigration into their SAR. ‘They drain our resources, from healthcare to education – and are diluting our culture, making it increasingly pro-Beijing,’ one young protester told me. Chinese people want to migrate to Hong Kong, but Hong Kongers do not want to migrate to China. ‘This shows how special Hong Kong is.’
The protesters show no sign of surrender. Every time the police clamp down, the dissidents become even more determined. One thing seems certain: more violence.