Thousands of Hongkongers descended on Tamar Park on Saturday (July 28) evening for a rally to mark the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement. As anti-government unrest enters its seventeenth week, some believe the lesson learned is that past peaceful protests have failed to achieve the change that many here continue to agitate for.
Black-clad demonstrators spray-painted the phrase “We are back” along Harcourt Road, a reference to “We will be back” banners that marked the end of the Umbrella Movement, which unfolded over ten weeks in 2014 and saw peaceful civil disobedience protests demanding universal suffrage and mass sit-ins under the banner of “Occupy Central.”
What had then been the largest and most protracted episode of civil disobedience in Hong Kong’s history has since been eclipsed by this year’s ongoing political crisis, which has seen both record-breaking peaceful marches and often violent unrest and clashes between police and protesters shake the Chinese-ruled financial hub for nearly four months.
Saturday’s event, which featured musical performances and rousing political speeches, was cut short over safety concerns after protesters blockaded a road adjacent to the city’s legislature building, bringing traffic to a halt. Police used water cannons to disperse the crowd outside of the Chief Executive’s Office in the evening.
Protesters, in turn, flung petrol bombs over security barricades, while others pointed disorienting green and blue lasers at police. Other demonstrators burned a hammer and sickle flag and denounced the Communist Party of China (CPC), which they accuse of tightening its grip on the territory.
“We do some violent things, but it’s because the government doesn’t listen to us and we think that it can’t be like this anymore,” said a protester who referred to himself as Wilson when asked why some activists have shunned the Umbrella Movement’s emphasis on peaceful civil disobedience, opting instead for more incendiary tactics.
Further protests are slated to unfold in the coming days to mark Global Anti-Totalitarianism Day on September 29 and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. “One thing I promise you is that most of us won’t celebrate on National Day,” the protester added. “We have no reason to celebrate, we are Hongkongers.”
Anti-government protests began in early June in opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be tried in China. Other demands include an amnesty for arrested activists, the formation of a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality and the right for Hong Kong people to directly elect their leader.
Saturday’s unrest came two days after an unprecedented town hall dialogue between Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and members of the public ended in acrimony. Presented as a bid to resolve the city’s political crisis, Lam, 62, was confronted by an often scathing and hostile audience comprised of 150 Hong Kong citizens.
“You were your school’s top scorer, and may be a good administrator, but you are not a good chief executive,” said one dialogue attendee at the high security event held at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai on September 26. “Mrs Lam, aren’t you worried that there will be people killed soon in the conflicts?” asked another member of the public.
Responding to questions from the audience, Lam appealed for calm but said some of the demonstrators’ demands, such as an amnesty for those arrested during recent protests, cannot be accommodated because they are not in line with the rule of law. “I hope our youth can calm down, because escalating violence only injures both sides,” she said.
“I know well that the public does not trust the government much, and we hope to strengthen trust,” Lam told the meeting, adding that her government bore responsibility for resolving the crisis. Outside the stadium, anti-government protesters chanted slogans and prevented Lam’s convoy from leaving the venue for nearly four hours.
Lawrence Ma, a barrister and chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, said that while the dialogue session aimed to vent social dissatisfaction, he doubts it will be effective in calming down protests, as Saturday’s events demonstrated.
Lam “has to reassess whether dialogue is still a good way to move forward” after being prevented from leaving the venue, Ma said.
Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times that the pro-democracy camp had little expectation that dialogue with Lam would yield anything meaningful. “She has made it very clear since two or three weeks ago, that she will make no further concessions after formally withdrawing the controversial extradition bill,” he said.
One key concession protesters are calling for is the formation of an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality against demonstrators, which Lam has rejected. An investigation into police conduct was launched by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in July, though it lacks the legal power to summon witnesses.
Human rights groups have accused police of using excessive force to disperse protests. Footage of protesters on the ground being beaten with batons, cowering passengers on an MTR subway train being sprayed with pepper spray, and injuries sustained by a woman whose right eye was hit with a bean bag round have prompted widespread anger.
Live rounds have also been fired by police as a warning to radical protesters, some of whom have used guerilla tactics such as hurling bricks and petrol bombs at police and central government offices. Some demonstrators have increasingly turned to vandalism, trashing metro stations and setting fires on Hong Kong’s streets.
Some observers believe the rising violence stems from peaceful rallying and non-violent sit-in tactics failing to win concessions and enact change, with the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which saw tent encampments spring up across the city’s major thoroughfares over the course of a 79-day occupation serving as a case in point.
Then as now, protesters sought to directly elect Hong Kong’s chief executive through universal suffrage and democratic reforms promised in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. A 1,200-member election committee comprised of professional and business elites currently selects the chief executive.
The movement energized political participation in the city, with localist and radical candidates from the Umbrella Movement clinching just under one-fifth of the vote at 2016 legislative council elections. But many also became convinced that peacefully campaigning for democracy within Hong Kong’s existing political framework would not effect the change they desired.
“It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless,” read one phrase spray-painted in graffiti on a column outside the city’s legislature when radicals stormed the building on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the handover agreement that saw Hong Kong return to Beijing’s rule.
Police fired just 87 canisters of tear gas against the Umbrella protesters in 2014, the first time such a crowd-control weapon had been used in Hong Kong since the end of British colonial rule. By contrast, more than 3,100 tear gas canisters have thus far been fired by police in 2019, along with hundreds of rubber bullets, sponge grenades and around 80 beanbag rounds, according to police data.
“You see a certain broad pattern,” said academic Cheng. “Chinese authorities always want to tighten control [and] raise the thresholds of political security,” which creates a backlash. “Anger on the part of Hong Kong people continues to grow, and [authorities respond with] further tightening and so on. And again, we expect the same pattern will be repeated.”
Hongkongers are expected to protest en masse on October 1 as Chinese authorities stage a massive military parade in Beijing to mark seven decades of CPC rule. “Violence is expected to escalate, particularly on National Day,” said Ma, who pointed to rising instances of China’s national flag being defaced by black-clad activists during the Hong Kong protests.
“The protesters are taking their anger out on the country, not just on Carrie Lam,” he said. Citizens and people “who have a different view” of the sometimes violent anti-government protests are losing patience, according to barrister Ma. “Hong Kong is pretty divided. The community’s hatred against this violent protesting has gone up,” he told Asia Times.
Cheng said he expects hundreds of thousands of people to take part in Tuesday’s anti-government rallies and marches. “Although it will probably be illegal because it is expected that the police will not allow it, people will go nonetheless. It is certainly expected that there will be clashes with the police on the part of the radical angry young protesters.”
Hong Kong is in for “a very long-term, non-cooperation kind of situation,” Cheng believes. While things could quiet down in the weeks ahead, he expects sporadic protest activities to spring up whenever government actions are seen to have hurt the public interest. “The legitimacy of the government has been very, very badly damaged,” he opined.