What is happening in Hong Kong is a question exercising the minds of many. Today is exactly two months to the day since the June 9 mass protest when an estimated 1 million people took to the streets to oppose the now-shelved extradition bill. But that first protest – a peaceful one where people wore white to symbolise how they were at a funeral marking the death of Hong Kong – seemed like a more innocent time.
Since then, there have been nine consecutive weeks of demonstrations, nearly all resulting in clashes with police.
The city has breached uncharted territory again and again. The storming and vandalising of the Legislative Council on July 1 shocked everyone. The appearance of white-shirted men in Yuen Long – some of them suspected triad members – who beat passers-by indiscriminately on July 21 was another shocking turning point, prompting more people to side with protesters.
The defacing of the national emblem at Beijing’s liaison office with black paint stunned many, while last weekend’s spree of violence leading up to Monday’s citywide strike that paralysed the city was another major shock.
But for Sin, it was a day protesters showed the depth of their anger. Sin, who had been taking part in the extradition bill protests from the start, joined a rally in Mong Kok at 1pm. He and hundreds of others then moved en masse to besiege Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station , defacing the walls and throwing eggs and bricks, before they were dispersed by tear gas.
By now trained to defuse the canisters as they land – by snuffing them with a traffic cone or a metal dish – they gathered their supplies and ran off. They then made their way to the Hung Hom tunnel. Quickly, they assembled a barrier of metal fences and emptied water barricades to block the tunnel entrance. Twenty minutes later, they fled, location unknown.
These violent provocations continued late into the night in multiple locations , as they started fires at other police stations, engaged officers in a laser beam battle , and hoisted giant slings to lob bricks at police.
That Monday, police used more than 800 rounds of tear gas , compared with 1,000 rounds in the previous two months.
Two months in, almost everyone can agree on at least one thing: Hong Kong is facing its worst political crisis since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Political observers and top government insiders see no endgame in sight even as some believe the city is on the precipice of permanent decline if peace does not come soon.
What exactly is this movement that has taken hold of Hong Kong society such that police are seen as the biggest enemy, more and more people have become inured to violence and the fabled can-do spirit of Hongkongers seems to be morphing into a collective let’s-see-what-happens-next attitude?
The protesters have a radical core but the broader movement has widespread support across generational and income lines. It started out as a rejection of the controversial extradition bill . But two months on, how has the cause changed?
What do they want?
In February, the government proposed amendments to the Fugitives Offenders Ordinance to allow for ad hoc transfers of criminal suspects to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which the city lacks an agreement. It was to ensure a Hong Kong suspect could be brought to justice over the killing of his girlfriend in Taiwan, and it would also plug a legal loophole with other countries if their citizens who had committed crimes used the city for refuge.
As business chambers one after another voiced their objections to the bill, which they said removed the legal firewall between Hong Kong and mainland China, where fair trials were not guaranteed, other influential institutions like the Catholic Church, the Law Society and the Bar Association
all chimed in and the momentum of opposition grew.
Despite the June 9 protest, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor tabled a second reading of the bill for June 12. But Legco could not sit that day as protesters besieged its premises and clashes broke out between demonstrators and police, with tear gas and rubber bullets used.
On June 15, Lam suspended the bill but did not apologise for her government’s bungling. The next day, an estimated 2 million people, according to organisers, marched, blanketing the city with wave upon wave of black, the new colour of protest.
The seemingly leaderless protest movement voted at first on several demands on their secret social media channels. Even though at first they wanted Lam to resign, they put this aside, deeming it irrelevant – as it would make no difference if the system persisted – and settled on five items: fully withdraw the extradition bill, order an independent inquiry into the clashes between protesters and police, retract the “riot” classification of the clashes of June 12, drop the charges against all arrested demonstrators and relaunch the stalled electoral reform process.
Lam has refused all five demands. Instead of saying the bill was withdrawn, she declared it to be “dead” , insisting it held greater finality than “withdrawn” as the latter meant a piece of legislation could be reintroduced.
This demand is now mired in the morass of semantics as critics accuse her of stubborn pride.
On the call to have the riot charges dropped , Lam said the terminology had no effect on the actual legal case brought to bear on those arrested on June 12. At the time, none of the 64 people arrested had been charged, even though others detained more recently have been served court papers.
On the demand for amnesty , opposition supporters like former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang have called for a one-off exercise to all involved in the June 12 clashes. Again, the government has refused, arguing it would weaken the rule of law if investigations and prosecutions were not followed through.
Of the protesters’ five demands, the one that has won the widest support has been the call for a commission of inquiry to investigate police actions.
Several observers – including eight former political appointees – have said an inquiry to cover the actions of both protesters and police might even be palatable. Lam has insisted that the Independent Police Complaints Council would do just as good a job.
After last weekend’s mayhem and the start of Monday’s citywide strike, Lam took a tougher stance, reframing the protests as an attack on national sovereignty and the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong is promised freedoms not allowed in the rest of China.
Her evidence: the protesters’ slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, and their act of throwing the Chinese national flag into Victoria Harbour.
“Do we have to gamble with the stable lives of 7 million people and the city’s future?” Lam asked. “Our society is becoming unsafe and unstable. This approach, which some people said was to bring collateral damage, will push Hong Kong onto a path of no return.”
A movement with broad support
Yet hours after Lam spoke, the violence escalated and while people might have been shocked by it all, surveys showed more protesters had come around to the need for such action.
Polls by a research team from Chinese, Baptist and Lingnan universities on the marchers found growing acceptance of violent means.
Among 875 respondents who took part in the June 16 march, 69 per cent agreed it was understandable for protesters to resort to force if the government was ignoring their demands. This was the weekend after the violent clashes of June 12.
The proportion surged to 94.7 per cent of 680 polled in the July 21 march, and 96 per cent of the 717 polled at the Tseung Kwan O march on Sunday.
The profile of protesters also showed many are young and well educated. More than 60 per cent of participants at various marches and protests since June 9 polled had tertiary education or above.
Three in five, or 59 per cent of the more than 1,200 polled at the Tseung Kwan O and Western district protests on Sunday were aged under 29. More than three-quarters in this age group had tertiary education or above.
Lingnan University political scientist Samson Yuen Wai-hei, one of the academics behind the polls, said the findings debunked the perception that many protesters were poorly educated or lacked good jobs.
Asked which of eight slogans could represent the movement since June, 92.6 per cent in Tseung Kwan O and Western district chose “No rioters, only tyranny”, compared with 68.5 per cent who chose “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, the slogan that surfaced in the past two weeks or so.
Yuen however said this slogan was “actually not so popular among protesters”, adding: “It is not widely accepted as the main objective of the ongoing protests.”
The slogan was used by pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei when he ran for the legislature in a 2016 by-election. Leung, now serving a six-year jail term over his role in the 2016 Mong Kok riot, said then he was representing an era of people willing to spend “blood and sweat” to fight for their freedoms.
But Beijing loyalist Ip Kwok-him read it as a separatist slogan aimed at overthrowing the central and local governments.
Interviews with protesters who do not take part in the violence, however, did bear this out. Many still believed the government ought to meet them halfway, and brushed aside Lam’s stern redefining of the fight as one over sovereignty. Even if her words contained the threat that the central government could order a crackdown, they were unfazed.
Most whom the Post spoke to on Monday had a common wish among their demands: an independent inquiry into recent clashes between protesters and police.
Housewife Cherry Mok, 40, who was with her teenage son at the rally in Mong Kok on Monday, insisted protesters were still calling for the five demands to be met and, for her, the most important was to have an independent inquiry. “It can help cool down the crisis by unearthing the truth. It can probe both police and protesters,” she said. “People can then seek some comfort to address their emotions.”
Matthew Chung, a 29-year-old who runs a music company, felt the movement was no longer focused on the bill but on police’s handling of the protests.
“The first thing to be done should be the launch of an independent inquiry [into police actions]. This is the bottom line,” he said. “We just want justice.”
The businessman said he and other protesters shouted “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” because they wanted to revive the city’s spirit and call for freedom and democracy, not to seek independence.
Thus the claim that they were trying to launch a revolution was false, he said.
A poll from July 24 to July 26 by opinion survey agency Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that nearly 80 per cent of 1,007 respondents supported a commission of inquiry and 73 per cent backed a full withdrawal of the bill.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun’s own encounters with protesters convinced him this was the right way out of the impasse. On Monday, at about 3pm, when hundreds were besieging the Tsuen Wan police district headquarters, Tien, a district councillor of the area, rushed to the scene. He tried speaking to them but they ignored him and so he chatted with the demonstrators looking on and chanting slogans in support of the radical bunch.
Tien claimed the protesters told him they would stop taking part in further demonstrations if the government launched an independent inquiry and formally withdrew the extradition bill. “They believed half of the peaceful protesters would no longer take to the streets if these two demands were met,” he said.
On these demonstrators’ empathy for the radicals in the front line, he said: “It’s a kind of delicate connection between the radical minority and peaceful majority.”
The demonstrators have been keeping faith in a key slogan of the marches since June 9 – “bat got zek”. It means: To stay united and not cut ties with people whose aspirations you disagree with.
For Tien, things also got personal that day. A black-clad man in his 20s patted him on the shoulder near the MTR station. “He told me he was a sales executive of my company and took leave to join the rally and besiege the police station,” said Tien, who is chairman of clothing chain G2000.
The lawmaker realised then how widespread support was for the anti-government protests, including among his own employees. “The government needs to respond to the reasonable demands of peaceful demonstrators,” he said.
Independent inquiry the only way out?
For Tien, one reasonable response is to have an independent judge-led commission of inquiry. The list of those advocating this commission is growing. They range from former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang and Lan Kwai Fong Group chairman – and ardent Lam supporter – Allan Zeman to the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the city’s biggest business chamber.
But Lam has insisted the matter should be left to the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), the police watchdog. It has had a special panel looking into the clashes since June.
Cheung Chor-yung, a senior teaching fellow of public policy at City University, said all sectors, including government employees, should join forces to urge Lam to set up a commission of inquiry while calling for an end to violence by all sides. “The commission could have a more general set of terms of reference to avoid targeting police, and be given another task, to facilitate reconciliation,” he said.
Former Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh Wing-tai, who has been involved in four independent inquiries, said a judge-led commission could help bring some closure by allowing all sides to air their grievances. “You have to assume some reasonableness on the part of the general public, who, if they see a sensible demand is not acceded to, their sympathy or grievance may not go away,” Shieh said. “But if a reasonable demand is acceded to, and one continues to press for not-so-reasonable demands, the sympathy will dry up.”
The government was being ineffectual in merely condemning the violence committed or asking the public to calm down, without getting to the root causes of the grievances, he said.
“Some say the kids are disillusioned by the way ‘one country, two systems’ has been working. Some say no, these are ‘rubbish youth’ who cannot afford to buy a flat, they have no jobs, and they are jealous of China, therefore they stage riots,” Shieh said.
The government has been reluctant to have an independent inquiry, according to multiple inside sources, because it does not want to affect police morale. But Shieh said this was precisely the reason to hold one, to avoid further harm to police.
A government source said that, no matter how wide the scope, police would unavoidably be targeted in the inquiry.
Another senior counsel, who has represented the government before, also said the commission’s inquiry could prompt a review into offences such as rioting. The veteran lawyer, who requested anonymity as he feared potential conflict, said the judicial setting of the inquiry would give the greatest benefit of openness to examine any claim, including that of foreign intervention.
“Every party will know it will be broadcast to the public, and ... we will also try to conduct it in a way easily understood by the layman,” he said.
“The inquiry could help contain the political conflict and redirect focus back towards improving the system.”
But Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said an independent probe would not solve the crisis if Lam stayed in office. “People no longer trust that Lam will appoint someone who would independently and impartially investigate the matter and subsequently hold the relevant police officers accountable,” he said.
Whither the movement?
As tensions between police and protesters escalate in recent weeks, pro-independence activist Edward Leung, author of the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” made an emotional appeal from behind bars.
In a letter published on his Facebook page on July 29 and which attracted 49,000 likes, Leung said he was pained by the bloody scenes of the recent protests. “But I hope you can understand that with your love for Hong Kong, you all have already demonstrated your unparalleled courage and rewritten the city’s history,” he wrote.
It was important “not to be dominated by hatred – one should always stay vigilant and keep thinking when in peril”, he said.
Similarly, in the aftermath of Monday’s madness, pan-democratic figures like lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung urged protesters to refrain from violence. “Violent acts like besieging police stations and starting fires outside the quarters of disciplined services staff can’t help win public support,” he said.
Lingnan University academic Samson Yuen said while the government appeared to be adopting the strategy of attrition to wear out protesters like during the Occupy protests in 2014, it was also “now deploying a higher intensity of repression to handle radical protesters”.
“The harm inflicted on society and the resultant divisions are more serious than what happened five years ago,” he warned.
Yuen also said many protesters were adaptable and cared about public opinion. Hence, after Monday’s events, there were posts on popular local online forum LIHKG urging them to become peaceful.
He said the protests might gradually fade out in September with the new school year, because university and senior secondary school students formed the backbone of frontline protesters. “The arrests of hundreds of protesters has also unavoidably dealt a blow to the anti-government protests,” he said.
But Cheung Chor-yung said protesters recently resorted to guerilla warfare, wandering around different areas to cause trouble for police and avoiding arrest. And even if public opinion soured on the radicals, he doubted that it meant Lam could gain back support.
As tensions escalate, Beijing has eyed the movement with concern but thrown its support fully behind Lam. All talk about the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army, which maintains a garrison in the city, is nuanced but clear in that deploying soldiers is not by any means imminent. Right now, though, Beijing is keen to get the pro-establishment camp to rally to bring about a semblance of peace. At a meeting with 500 loyalists in Shenzhen on Wednesday, the key official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Xiaoming, said ending the chaos and violence was a key priority.
But Beijing would not sit and watch if things deteriorated further, according to Zhang. “According to the Basic Law, the central authorities have ample methods as well as sufficient strength to promptly settle any possible turmoil should it occur,” he said. At the same time, he did not rule out a commission of inquiry, once peace was restored.
For now, Beijing has cast the deep-seated problem as one about economic opportunity, with Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, saying this week the government needed to solve issues such as young people’s mobility, and career and housing prospects.
But the poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute last month found only 58 per cent of respondents aged 14 to 29 felt their discontent stemmed from housing problems, compared with 84 per cent attributing it to their distrust of the chief executive. Another 87 per cent opted for the “pursuit of democracy”.
Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of think tank the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, warned that the government had a mountain to climb in governance as it had lost the hearts and minds of a huge swathe of young people.
“Hong Kong people hope the government will show its leadership to defuse the tension but it has failed to come up with feasible solutions, apart from condemning protesters’ radical actions. We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
On Monday, protesters like Angus Chow, a 26-year construction consultant, echoed the sentiment when he joined others to surround the government office in Mong Kok.
“Today, the government forced us to do this. It’s been nearly two months ... If they still refuse to listen to the public, the crisis will continue to escalate.”
Like the young Jay Sin, he was in a hurry to get to the next protest site. And the one after.
The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.