How Hong Kong fell from peaceful marches to violence, destruction and a divided society

Can the protesters rein in the increasing violence?
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

All was peaceful when an estimated 1 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 9 to protest against an extradition bill that would have allowed fugitives to be sent to mainland China, among other jurisdictions.

They marched for 7½ hours that day, without any incident.

No window panes were broken. No bricks were hurled at police officers. No fires were set. No MTR stations were trashed.

Today, four months later, that event seems like a distant memory of a very different Hong Kong.

Since then, the city has experienced 18 consecutive weeks of increasingly violent protests, nearly all including clashes between masked, black-clad crowds and police.

The more radical among the protesters have blocked roads, set off fires, hurled petrol bombs, destroyed MTR stations and vandalised banks and restaurants regarded as having links with Beijing.

In separate incidents, protesters stormed the Legislative Council complex, and besieged the Beijing liaison office, pelting it with eggs, defacing the national emblem and spray-painting anti-Beijing expletives on its walls.

Protests have disrupted flights at Hong Kong's international airport and caused the MTR system to be shut down completely for the first time in 40 years.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her government have yet to produce a plan to quell the social unrest and get Hong Kong back to normal.

The protesters made five demands: the withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent inquiry into use of force by the police, amnesty for arrested protesters, a halt to describing the protests as riots, and the implementation of universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Lam went so far as to suspend the unpopular bill, but it took three months before she finally gave in and announced that it would be formally withdrawn.

Protesters responded with a new rallying call: "Five demands, not one less."

Police said on Tuesday that 2,363 people have been arrested since June 9, with about half over the past month alone.

Those arrested include 77 suspected of disregarding the law banning masks, which came into force last Saturday.

With no end to the worsening violence, vandalism and disruption, observers have come round to saying that Hong Kong is now experiencing a new normal of social unrest that is not about to end any time soon.

A source close to the Hong Kong government said Beijing was unwilling to make concessions to the protesters' remaining demands, particularly their call for political reform.

"Violence and skirmishes between police and protesters will continue and escalate possibly till the first half of next year," the source said.

"Like it or not, this could become the 'new normal'. Society, and even Beijing, may get used to this if things are confined to 'weekend rituals' and do not go really out of control. The Hong Kong government and police will not hesitate to arrest more protesters to scare off the outer layers of the anti-government movement."

The source said the only realistic hope was that the government would be forced to set up a commission of inquiry after the Independent Police Complaints Council presents its report on the police action since June.

It is due to be released by early January.

BEIJING AND THE HONG KONG GOVERNMENT: WHAT IS THE STRATEGY HERE?

For Beijing, the siege of its liaison office in the city on July 21 marked a turning point on how it viewed the protests.

At the end of a peaceful march organised by the Civil Human Right Front, hundreds of radical protesters pelted the premises with eggs, defaced the national emblem and spray painted anti-Beijing expletives on the wall.

At the very start of the anti-government protests in June, Wang Zhimin, director of the liaison office, noted that most Hong Kong residents expressed their aspirations through peaceful and rational means and said this showed how civilised the city was.

All that has changed too.

Beijing has stressed that ending the chaos and violence is the top priority and it is leaving it to Lam's embattled government to restore law and order.

Its patience was also being tested, it indicated in its latest statement at the end of last week when it said "the current chaotic situation … cannot continue indefinitely".

A mainland Chinese expert familiar with Hong Kong affairs warned that the small but persistent signs of separatism among some young protesters in the city were red flags.

"Hong Kong people must recognise the severity when many young people chant slogans like 'Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times'," said the expert, who declined to be named.

"Such slogans are unacceptable to the central government. If you look at the history of Tibet and Xinjiang, it is impossible to break Hong Kong away from mainland [China]."

Lam said on Tuesday that, aside from last weekend's ban on masks which provoked more protests, she had no immediate plans for more legislation or to invoke emergency powers.

But a source familiar with the government's position said: "All options are on the table when the government ponders possible measures to curb violence."

The source declined to comment on the possibility that emergency laws might be invoked to extend the 48-hour period of detention before an arrested person is charged.

The emergency laws give the chief executive the authority to "make any regulations whatsoever which he [or she] may consider desirable in the public interest" if she considers it an occasion of "emergency or public danger".

The wide range of powers extends to the appropriation of property, censorship of media, arrests, detentions and deportations, and the power to enter and search premises.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said the Hong Kong government appeared clueless as it did not seem to know whether to take a tough or moderate stance in the face of ongoing protests.

He felt that Lam's plan to speak directly with Hongkongers to find a way to end the unrest was now in disarray.

"Carrie Lam introduced the anti-mask law eight days after organising the community dialogue on September 26. I think it's nearly impossible to launch another round of dialogues as the tension escalates," he said.

PROTESTERS: CAN THEY PULL BACK FROM THE BRINK? 

While Lam's government appears unable to get a grip on solving the crisis, the same, ironically, can be said of the protesters on how to soldier on with their cause.

The level of violence they have employed has escalated to such an extent that ordinary Hongkongers now shrug off earlier events such as the storming of the Legislative Council building on July 1 as minor compared with the destruction seen in recent weeks.

Intriguingly, there appears to be have been some self-reflection within the seemingly leaderless movement.

Hours after mobs trashed MTR stations and vandalised shops and banks with mainland Chinese links last Friday night in response to the anti-mask law, several posts popped up on the protesters' virtual command centre, the Reddit-like site LIHKG, questioning the wisdom of such moves.

Someone soon offered new "guidelines", reminding protesters to trash only businesses run by gangsters, as well as government offices and offices of pro-Beijing politicians.

Shops and restaurants owned by Beijing-friendly businessmen should only be "decorated" with graffiti and "Lennon Walls" of colourful sticky notes bearing anti-government and pro-democracy messages.

"We are largely fighting for democracy and freedom, but what we are doing now appears to be attacking those who are not with us," a user wrote on LIHKG.

Another said: "Only dictators are intolerant of dissenting views. What's the difference between the Communist Party and us, if we 'renovate' the stores just because their owners have a different point of view?"

Anti-government protesters damage a branch of the China Construction Bank on October 5. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Others called for the violence to be reduced to retain international support, particularly from the United States.

But others heaped scorn on such advice.

"It's not a matter of having different political views now, but … those who are still supporting the police force are no longer human," one said.

The notion of seeing the other side as less than human underscores how far the movement has strayed from its peaceful origins on June 9, when the main aim was to block the extradition bill.

The protesters are becoming aware though, that ordinary Hongkongers are affected by the trashing of MTR stations, ATMs, bank fronts and shops, the closure of supermarkets and convenience stores, and the disruption to daily life.

Political scientists monitoring the protesters say there is a dynamic "collective restraint mechanism" within the movement, and that the radicals pull back each time they realise they have gone too far.

"It is clear that the mechanism has been weakened," said Lingnan University academic Samson Yuen Wai-hei, who has been doing field work during the protests.

"With the police force escalating its use of force and the government invoking emergency powers to implement the mask ban, it has become difficult for those peaceful demonstrators to restrain their peers."

Yuen warned that the protesters' new attitude of taking the law into their own hands could prove fatal to the movement if someone was killed by such vigilantism.

Last Sunday, for example, the police hit out at brutal attacks on ordinary citizens after three cases of bloody fist fights.

"They are walking a very fine line," Yuen said.

"If someone dies, it will be impossible for peaceful protesters to advise their comrades in a friendly way - they will have to condemn them as they won't want the movement to be associated with the incident."

An anti-mask ban was brought into law on Saturday and brought protesters back to the streets. PHOTO: Reuters

But Chinese University political scientist Dr Ma Ngok noted that protesters scaled down their actions on Monday and Tuesday, partly because frontline radicals had been arrested and others were reflecting on what they had done.

"One of the characteristics of this movement is that no one knows what types of protest will work and they keep coming up with different ideas, such as singing songs and forming human chains," he said.

But he felt the movement had suffered a setback, noting the smaller crowds of protesters over the weekend.

"Fewer people are now taking to the streets with their family members due to intimidation, as it has become a more dangerous activity," he said.

Anti-government supporters offer words of encouragement at the ‘Lennon Wall’ in Kowloon Bay. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The police force has banned most mass marches and rallies since late July and warned that anyone participating would be breaking the law.

So there is a higher chance of protesters being arrested.

But Yuen expects that the movement will keep up its momentum, as people remain unhappy with the police force's handling of protests.

He conceded however that recent developments had "made it difficult for supporters to backup the protesters confidently and righteously".

A 17-year old student surnamed Yeung, who has been at the frontline of the protests, said she feared that moderate supporters would distance themselves from the movement following the latest incidents of vandalism.

But she remained confident of broad support from the public.

"I believe people will understand if we explain the reasons for our actions in our publicity materials, and show why the government should be blamed for all these inconveniences."

POLICE: CAN THEY RESTORE LAW AND ORDER? 

The police force has struggled to keep up with containing the protesters, often appearing to be losing the battle. There has also been an unrelenting campaign to portray the police as evil.

Unable to cope with protesters who engage in urban guerilla warfare, move from district to district to create chaos and attack officers in their buildings or on the streets, police have found themselves stretched to the limit.

Since the end of last month, some protesters have raised what they call the sixth demand - the disbandment of the Hong Kong police force.

Stephen Chiu Wing-kai, chair professor of sociology at the Education University, said it was unfortunate that the police had been used by the government to tackle political and governance issues.

"The image of the force has been improving since the 1970s but I can't see the tension between it and a substantial number of residents being eased in the near future. It could take at least several years to mend fences."

A senior police officer at management level stressed it was the force's mission to safeguard the city's law and order, and blamed online rumours and biased news reports for distorting its image.

"What have Hong Kong police done in the past four months, that other advanced countries' police forces would not do when dealing with a riot, for example, the 2011 London riots and the 2018 yellow vests movement in France," the insider said.

He called on people to compare the reported fatalities and injuries in those riots with the Hong Kong situation.

"What standards are these people referring to, when judging that police were using excessive force and abusing power? They cannot compare the way we handled a riot with a normal street crime."

He pointed out that many netizens had been spreading online rumours and news to smear the force, but not many people or media had condemned the protesters' violence.

That, in turn, resulted in more violence, as rioters believed their behaviour was widely condoned.

The police source added that relations with the public might be in tatters, it was more urgent for the force to restore law and order as "people are taking the law into their own hands".

"Even though our staff work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week and are being sworn at every day, every officer is trying his utmost best to safeguard the city and maintain the force's reputation as 'Asia's finest'," he said.

While he declined to comment on the tactics used by police against protesters, he said members of the public could be doing more to help the police.

He said many onlookers often challenged police or jeered at the officers when they were making arrests or conducting searches.

"If the citizens don't do it any more, the officers can concentrate on dealing with the rioters," he said.

He said the force was confident about handling any unrest and had been working to show the world that the accusations against it were unfounded.

Another senior officer told international media last month that the force had been pushed to the limit by the ongoing political crisis.

"If it escalates any more, we will be eating into other areas of policing," he warned.

Four months on, none of the three key players - neither the government, nor the protesters, nor the police - are any the wiser on when and how it will all end.

What is evident though is all sides are running ragged. And the Hong Kong of four months ago seemed a more innocent time.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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