It is now two months since 12 June, when the Hong Kong police fired 150 canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.
That caused a city-wide outrage against the excessive use of force, which forced the Chief Executive on 14 June to “indefinitely delay” introducing the proposed extradition law.
The conflict has now escalated further, with a protesters’ occupation shutting down the airport today (12 August), after a horrific series of street battles over the weekend.
After their initial victory on 14 June, the protesters continued to press for their five demands:
• full withdrawal of the Bill
• Withdrawing the designation of the 12 June protest as a “riot”
• Release of all arrested protesters
• Accountability for the decision to fire on protesters on 12 June
• The resignation of the Chief Executive
As the protest continued to spread to many parts of the city, a critical incident occurred in the district of Yuen Long on 21 July. Hundreds of men wearing white T shorts, many not even bothering to wear masks to hide their identities, attacked protesters in the high street, chasing them into the underground station and beating passengers as well as retreating protesters indiscriminately with rattan canes and batons.
It took the police 39 long minutes to arrive at the scene, giving the gangsters plenty of time to disperse. Amidst widespread accusations of police / triad collusion, the city was outraged, the police commissioner was clearly embarrassed and the tide of public opinion turned further against the Government and the already untrusted police force.
An evening rally of civil servants against the Government drew over 40,000 despite heavy exhortations about “political neutrality”. Senior retired civil servants spoke out to defend civil servants’ civil liberties, arguing that their political neutrality is not compromised by such protests and that their allegiance is to the civil service system and to the public, not to individual leaders of the Government.
One in seven of Hong Kong’s Administrative Officers, the elite of the civil service, petitioned Carrie Lam to hold an independent inquiry. Hundreds of members of the legal profession held a second silent march through the streets of Central.
The rallies and protests escalated, leading the Beijing liaison office to issue press statements to support the Chief Executive and the police, and to condemn “rioters attempting a colour revolution”. The emboldened police has recently gone on the offensive, battering and arresting many more protesters (over 700 to date).
On 4 August, the police declared that they have fired over 1,000 rounds of teargas and hundreds of rubber bullets. Three water cannons are being prepared for active service, and rumours abound that Chinese troops across the border are conducting anti-riot exercises.
The protest movement called for a one day general strike for 5 August. Although this did not receive support from the Beijing-controlled trade unions, it did bring the city to a partial halt, interrupting public transport networks and causing around a third of scheduled flights to be cancelled because of large numbers of air traffic controllers and airline staff calling in sick.
For the past week, there has been almost daily clashes between protesters and the police across many different parts of the city, with the indiscriminate use of teargas affecting many bystanders in local neighbourhoods.
Whilst protesters who are prepared to repeatedly take to the streets are now reduced to an active minority, they have adopted guerrilla tactics of disrupting traffic and moving on to the next location, rather than risk more arrests through set piece clashes with the heavily armed riot police. On Sunday 11 August, police further escalated their offensive. Teargas was fired into Kwai Fong underground station and protesters were repeatedly clubbed as they tried to escape down the escalators of another underground station in Tai Koo. A woman protester received a horrific eye injury from a bean-bag bullet and may become blinded.
The police openly admitted and justified the use of elite crack units dressed up in black T-shirts to infiltrate the ranks of protesters as agent provocateurs. 149 people were arrested in just one day.
As this article goes to press, there are now (12 August) hundreds of social workers protesting outside the police headquarters about their excessive use of force in wrongfully arresting a neighbourhood social worker who was not protesting, and against the eye injury caused to the female protester. More significantly there is a mass occupation of the airport this evening which has led to all flights being cancelled.
The Hong Kong economy has taken a big hit with tourist alerts declared in 22 countries, many families staying at home, a reduction of mainland Chinese tourists and of course the adverse effects of the US-China so-called “trade war”.
The Government is quick to blame this on the rioters, aiming to split the active minority away from the mainstream of society who are still very angry at police collusion with gangsters and their excessive use of force.
The increasing menace of Beijing, the rising number of injuries and arrests, the Government’s hard line stance and the lack of further success on the 5 demands now present the protest movement with major challenges.
The coming month of September, running up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October, will be critical. All eyes will be on Beijing to see how the regime handles Hong Kong, the forthcoming elections in Taiwan, the worsening domestic economy and a hardened Trump administration eager to achieve a victory in the economic conflict in order to secure Trump’s re-election.
Provided the protest movement keeps its nerve, continues to be tactically flexible and keeps up its challenge over this crucial month while maintaining public sympathy, it can cause Beijing significant discomfort, despite the regime’s seemingly hard line distance and aura of invincible power.