Hong Kong is teetering on the edge as protests take a darker turn

Posted at 12:58 AM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 22:24:12-04

Where is all this going?

That was the question many in Hong Kong were asking themselves Monday, as the city saw a seventh weekend of protests take a darker, more violent turn.

On Friday, police raided a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area of the city, seizing a large cache of high-powered explosives, petrol bombs and other weapons. Three men, all in their twenties with alleged links to a pro-independence group, have been arrested in connection with the seizure.

Following another anti-government march Sunday, masked men, wielding iron bars and bamboo sticks, rushed into a metro station in Yuen Long, in the far northwest of Hong Kong, and indiscriminately attacked anyone wearing black or other identifiers of the protest movement.

At least 45 people were injured, some seriously, and videos showed people being beaten on the floor and left bloodied and dazed. Police took around an hour to arrive on the scene, further outraging protesters and increasing bitterness between them and the force.

No developments have so far shown any signs of dampening the protests, with a new rally already planned for Yuen Long this weekend, but nor is there any sign the government is ready to make the kind of concessions that could mollify enough anger to restore calm.

With violence becoming more common — and the terrifying thought of potential bombings raised by Friday’s raid — there is always the possibility that the Chinese government, which has so far taken a seemingly hands-off approach, will step in and exercise more control.

Turn to violence?

While recent decades have been characterized by peaceful protests, Hong Kong does have a history of violent clashes.

During labor unrest and riots in the late 1960s, a series of bombings took place, and police exchanged firewith violent protesters. More than 50 people died in the clashes, which were followed by numerous social reforms — including expanded public housing and local government amendments — by the colonial administration.

The tactics used by protestors in recent weeks — while not comparable to the 1960s — have grown increasingly radical.

On July 1, hundreds of protesters stormed the city’s legislative building, vandalizing and briefly occupying it before they were cleared by police. Protesters have also thrown bricks and other objects at police, who also claim they have been targeted by petrol bombs. Police have responded with rubber bullets and tear gas, amid allegations of excessive force.

What began as demonstration intended to block the passing of a now suspended extradition bill has evolved, to take in a range of issues broadly associated with universal suffrage and independence from China. Many protesters have begun describing the movement as a “revolution,” and chants of “liberate Hong Kong” and “fight for Hong Kong” have become more common. Academics from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University said that a survey of around a thousand protesters on Sunday found 80% supported radical and even violent action if the government continued to not respond to their demands.

The use of bombs would be a huge escalation, one never before seen from the modern pro-democracy movement, which has typically been characterized by peaceful marches attended by large swaths of society. Any violence would be the actions of a tiny minority of protesters, the vast majority of whom have been and continue to be peaceful, but there is not necessarily any pathway for the largely leaderless movement to reign in its most radical elements.

Many of those protesters also believe they have no other avenue to voice their frustrations — radical lawmakers have been ejected from the legislature, and others banned from standing for office, cutting off Hong Kong’s already limited democratic organs from their influence.

Pro-democracy politicians and other members of the opposition establishment — many of whom are older and do not share the pro-independence views of many younger protesters — reacted to the storming of the legislature with shock, and attempts by them to exert control or even influence over the direction of the protests have been mostly unsuccessful.

“The pan-democrats acknowledge in this new era of movement, we are not the leaders and politicians cannot take up the role of leaders like they did in the old days,” Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said Monday. “The political matter can only be resolved politically.”

Both Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have denied there are any plans to deploy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops — who have a large but discreet presence in Hong Kong — to deal with the ongoing unrest, but there is no guarantee this would continue to be the case were there to be significant escalation in protesters’ tactics.

Beijing’s reaction is always the most difficult to predict to any development, due to the lack of transparency over how it handles Hong Kong — and its influence and direction of the city’s semi-autonomous government.

Officials reacted furiously to the targeting on Sunday of the Chinese government’s Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative in the city, where a splinter group from the main march threw eggs and vandalized a government seal in front of the building.

A spokesman for the State Council, China’s ruling body, said the actions “openly challenge the authority of the Central Government, touch the bottom line” of the “one country, two systems” model that has operated in Hong Kong since the city transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Writing on Facebook in response to the vandalizing of the national emblem, former Hong Kong leader CY Leung said that “Hong Kongers will never tolerate these frantic rioters who forget their ancestors.”

While peaceful anti-government protests have been largely censored in China, Sunday’s violence was covered in state media, accompanied by outraged editorials.

“The radical protesters’ acts are open challenges to the central government’s authority,” state news agency Xinhua said. “It is a matter of serious nature and very bad influence. It is absolutely intolerable and must be strongly condemned. The criminals must be punished according to the law.”

The People’s Daily, in its condemnation of the protests, adopted an iconic phrase — “if this can be tolerated, what can not?” — previously used in editorials leading up to the Sino-Indian and Sino-Vietnamese wars of the 1960s and ’70s.

New players

Many protesters were themselves calling for police to uphold the law Sunday and Monday, as the attacks in Yuen Long were accompanied by claims the police response was delayed, along with videos of officers and a local pro-government lawmaker appearing to greet the men in white who assaulted people inside the subway station.

Similar claims of collusion were made in 2014, when masked men with alleged links to organized crime attacked Umbrella Movement protesters who had occupied the city’s Mong Kok district for weeks. Protesters said police failed to protect them and did not arrest people seen committing violence, a charge the force denied at the time.

In recent weeks, gangs of men have also been filmed tearing down Lennon Walls — collections of pro-democracy posters and post-it notes that have sprung up over the city — and clashing with and assaulting protesters who attempt to protect them.

Pro-government protests — another of which took place Saturday — have attracted tens of thousands of participants and been largely peaceful, though some participants have been recorded shouting abuse and threats at counter demonstrators and journalists.

The emergence of a more extremist pro-government group, one more than willing to use violence against protesters even as they return to their homes, adds another element of instability to an already confused and dangerous situation.

As Hong Kong looks ahead to another weekend of protests, no one appears to have much idea of where this is all heading, but few are confident that the destination is a good one. A city once renowned for stability and peacefulness now feels like it is teetering on the edge of chaos.