Hong Kong Ablaze: Evolution of the 2019 Protests

LU ZHENG delves into the 2019 Hong Kong protests and how they have evolved over time.

Hong Kong Xi's Dilemma
Vincent Yu | AP

“I didn’t think I would ever do this again. But this time, society is waking up,” declares Chong, who recently quit his job to fully devote himself to the protests. Chong had been part of the Umbrella Movement, a series of sit-in protests in 2014 in Hong Kong that was quelled after a few months. He took to the streets of Hong Kong again this summer to join hundreds of thousands of others.

The Umbrella Movement lasted 79 days. The current protests have passed 200 days and counting. Both protests originally stemmed from a desire to preserve Hong Kong’s liberal freedoms and democratic system. Why have the current ones lasted so much longer?

The 2014 protests, dubbed the Umbrella Movement, Umbrella Revolution, or Occupy Central Movement, started when Beijing announced it would vet candidates for the 2017 Hong Kong elections. The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain created the “one country, two systems” model, allowing Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” until 2047. Indeed, Hong Kong is granted greater freedoms than mainland China, but Beijing’s list of pre-approved candidates incited fear that China was encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Starting in September of 2014, thousands of activists, many of them students, began protesting on the streets, demanding fully democratic elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. After riot police used tear gas to control the crowds, tens of thousands more protestors filled the streets.

Umbrellas became an essential piece of equipment for protection during protests, and became a symbol of the movement. In terms of immediate repercussions, more than 900 people were arrested, the Hong Kong dollar fell to a six-month low, and the stock market dropped to a three-month low. Schools, banks, and businesses closed, and a few hundred bus lines were suspended. However, after nearly three months, the Hong Kong government gave no substantial concessions, and leaders urged students to retreat.

The current protests started off as mass opposition to an extradition bill that could subject Hong Kong residents to mainland Chinese jurisdiction, but they have evolved into something both more complex and violent. There have been over 2,000 arrests made, 4,000 tear gas canisters used, and 1,700 rubber bullets fired. The protestors’ demands have expanded beyond withdrawal of the extradition bill to the “Five Demands,” which also include an independent investigation into alleged police brutality, amnesty for those arrested, withdrawal of the term “riot” in framing the protests, and democratic reforms for universal suffrage.

After Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers in early October to ban face masks, spurring another wave of opposition and violence, protestors released two new demands: a reorganization of the police department and the removal of the ban on face masks. As of yet, Lam and Beijing have given no concessions other than formally withdrawing the extradition bill, which many criticized as “too little, too late.”

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Gregor Fischer | DPA

The 2014 protests were characterized by mostly peaceful sit-in protests that ended partly due to disagreement over the use of violence, with most organizers and groups widely condemning the destruction of buildings and windows. Perhaps frustrated by the lack of concessions from the government in 2014, this summer’s protestors have increasingly used more violent tactics. “We had to upgrade our protests,” Peter Mok, a 26-year-old clerk, says. “Peaceful protests weren’t working. The government said they don’t care.”

The movement has progressed so that there is little restraint against destruction or whatever restraint left is not enough to hold back the masses. “It was you who taught us that peaceful protests don’t work,” reads one graffiti message in the Legislative Council, directed towards pro-Beijing politicians.

A poll released in January of this year also revealed that nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong college students, from a sample of about 1,500 students, supported violence in pursuit of political rights. Others disagree. “Violent attacks on fellow human beings, including murders, setting people on fire, arson, and mob attacks on individuals, are simply morally wrong, as well as being extremely serious crimes, that cannot be tolerated by any civilized society which purport to have the rule of law. Even in the name of democracy, it is not justified,” says Eddie Tam, the founder and CEO of Central Asset Investments, an Asia-based hedge fund. “I am supportive of democracy, but I do not endorse that violence.” No citywide poll has been conducted yet that could authoritatively reflect how much support there is for the protest movement or the violence that accompanies it.

While the results of the 2014 protests make it understandable why demonstrators have switched to more violent tactics, pro-democracy residents against violence may now be seen as opponents of democracy. “I have tried many times on forums like LIHKG, Reddit, Facebook to speak out, and my voice is always drowned out by others excusing the violence, saying it is justified because clearly the words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ excuse any acts, no matter how violent, cruel, or disgusting,” a commentator wrote to the South China Morning Post. Peaceful protestors who originally wanted the withdrawal of the extradition bill now have to decide if they want to join the radical protestors willing to use violence in pursuit of political rights. If they don’t, they might be seen as anti-democracy or pro-Beijing. Yet again, because of Beijing’s passive response in 2014, the viewpoints of both peaceful and violent protestors can be sympathized with.

In the past five months, Chinese banks, businesses, and subway stations have been vandalized, burned, and destroyed, with special vitriol directed towards Chinese and foreign businesses that have expressed disapproval regarding the protests. A homemade bomb was recently detonated, a first for the movement, but fortunately did not harm anyone. Demonstrators regularly throw firebombs at the police, who respond with tear gas and water cannons. Windows are frequently broken, protective barriers for subway stations are graffitied, and small fires are set on the streets. On November 11th, a 57-year-old construction worker who reprimanded protestors for vandalizing a train station and lacking patriotism was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. He is in critical condition, and police said they are investigating the incident as an attempted murder by the protestors. 

In addition to the nine reported suicides directly linked to the demonstrations, two other deaths have also occurred: one student fell off a building, and a 70-year-old man government cleaner was hit on the head with a brick during a clash between anti-government protestors and residents in Sheung Shui. The latter is being investigated as a murder, but the attacker is currently unknown. 

People pay their respects at the site where a man fell from a scaffolding at the Pacific Place complex while protesting against a proposed extradition bill, in Hong Kong
Athit Perawongmetha | Reuters

Protestors accuse the police of causing the student’s death, despite it being unclear as to why the student fell off the building, which happened during an attempt to disrupt a police officer’s wedding nearby. Two protestors have also been shot in confrontation with the police. Ms. Yu, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong police, asserted that the shot had been fired to “save himself and his colleagues.” The police commissioner, Stephen Lo, explained that the officer gave a verbal warning before opening fire and had been assaulted at close quarters, thus giving him no choice but to fire a bullet. “The range was not determined by the police officer, but the perpetrator,” Lo said.

However, the protestors’ demand for an independent investigation into alleged police brutality also stems from other past incidents. Pictures and videos of bloody and injured protestors have circulated on social media, including a clip of a police officer using pepper spray on a man’s face, who was sitting next to bushes. Another video shows officers from the Special Tactical Squad repeatedly hitting protestors with batons, even after already being restrained. Other videos show protestors being shot at close range, tear gas being deployed in dangerous situations, and more bloody beatings of demonstrators on the ground. Justification for an independent investigation also stems from the requirements in the Police General Orders, which state officers should exercise a high degree of restraint when dealing with the public.

Stephen Lo, on the other hand, has denied the “excessive force” claims, pointing out how many of his officers have also been injured. He has mentioned that the weapons used, including batons, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets, are up to international standards and are widely used by other countries when dealing with riots. In an interview conducted in August, an officer stated that “If [an officer] killed somebody, they would face a murder charge.” Some officers also describe their occupation as “public servant” rather than “police officer” when they receive treatment in hospitals, out of fear of retribution. There has been an increase in the number of police resignations due the protests as well.

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Associated Press

These incidents show that there is much eagerness to assign blame and defend, but neither side is exactly innocent. The violence from both sides benefits no one. Society is not only physically being destroyed through the fighting, vandalism, burning, and overall destruction of Hong Kong itself, but the protests are also inflicting severe mental harm. In addition to the nine existing suicides, public health advocates, NGOs, and counselors have also reported an increase in the number of calls and threats of suicide, especially in recent weeks. And these calls are not limited to protestors. A study by Hong Kong University released in July found that nearly 1 in 10 were suffering from probably depression and an increase in suicidal thoughts, compared to only 1.1% in 2010. There was little difference in prevalence among those who attended or refrained from the protests, suggesting a “community-wide spillover effect,” said Gabriel Leung, head of the study. He called it a “mental health epidemic.”

In Hong Kong’s airport, English leaflets that read, “Please forgive us for the ‘unexpected’ Hong Kong. You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city, not the one you have once pictured. Yet for this Hong Kong, we fight,” are scattered about. Messages like these help the protestors garner support from an international audience, which is one of their goals, and it has worked. On October 15th, the United States House passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bipartisan bill that sanctions individuals who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. Multiple US senators have also visited Hong Kong in support of the protests, including Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican representing Missouri. “It is important that the pro-democracy protests continue to be nonviolent, that they do not mimic the behavior of Beijing and its supporters,” Hawley said, who is one of the Senate bill’s cosponsors. He added that he understood people’s desires to defend themselves and applauded the movement’s leaderless nature.

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Vincent Yu | AP Photo

On November 11th, after a protestor was shot and a man set ablaze, the US State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, emphasized that the United States government condemns “violence on all sides” and believes “the increased polarization within Hong Kong society underscores the need for a broad-based and sincere dialogue between the government, protestors, and citizenry writ large.” 

These divisions, including protestors vs. police and pro-Hong Kong vs. pro-Beijing, have fractured virtually all aspects of Hong Kong society, making it impossible to apportion blame. How will Hong Kong society recover and move forward? What will the future look like?

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been stationed in Hong Kong since 1997, but they usually stay in their barracks and have not interfered with the protests thus far. However, on November 16th, mainland Chinese soldiers came out of their barracks to help clear bricks, metal bars, and other debris left by demonstrators on the streets. A Hong Kong government spokesman said the help was not requested by the Hong Kong government and was “purely a voluntary community activity.” In general, PLA are meant to operate only if Hong Kong asks for their assistance. While China has committed to a mostly passive response to the protests, there have been reports that Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong has doubled recently, and it includes members of the People’s Armed Police, a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force separate from the PLA. In early September, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said China would “not sit idly by” if the protests threatened “the country’s sovereignty.” These events indicate that while China is eager to avoid a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and subsequent international backlash, they can readily deploy the PLA.

Considering the 2014 protests and the military presence, it is doubtful that the Five Demands’ condition of universal suffrage will be met, especially with the “one country, two systems” arrangement set to expire in 2047. Independence for Hong Kong is not yet touted as a demand by most protestors, but if the movement shifts in that direction, China will likely not hesitate to deploy its military, and the number of deaths and injuries will only increase. International peacemaking experts have said that to bring the protests to a resolution, the Hong Kong government should hold open dialogue with the protestors without preconditions. The way to ease into that dialogue might be through an act of “goodwill” — namely, granting the amnesty for those arrested, independent police investigation, or withdrawal of the “riot” term demands. 

Hong Kong has entered its first recession in a decade, and China is committed to financially boosting the nearby city of Shenzhen as a competitor. However, it is indisputable that Hong Kong cannot and will not be replaced. The conditions that led to Hong Kong being ranked as the world’s freest economy, such as low taxation and lack of internet censorship, will see that Hong Kong remains one of the world’s top financial centers. A peaceful end to the protests will push Hong Kong society onto the path of recovery, which it desperately needs, but it remains to be seen if Beijing will agree to an open dialogue. However, considering the results of the recent Hong Kong district council elections, which saw pro-democracy candidates winning 389 of 452 elected seats and pro-Beijing candidates with only 58 seats, a steep drop from their original 300, Beijing might be pressured to concede to some sort of dialogue with Hong Kong.

A protestor mentions that Lam herself used to participate in social movements when she was a student. “We’re afraid we could become the people we hated so much,” he says. “We are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. We will keep reminding ourselves why we stood on the streets this summer.”

Lu Zheng can be contacted at lu.zheng@yale.edu.

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