This weekend, Hong Kong saw fierce clashes between protesters and police, who for the first time this summer had refused to approve the gatherings. Beyond the protest movement’s original cause—opposition to now-suspended extradition rules—and a subsequent host of related issues, the most recent demonstrations were part of a backlash against an indiscriminate attack by white-shirted men at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, in which 45 people were injured. The failure of police to defend the victims, and suspicions of official collusion with the attackers, have further fueled antagonism between the two sides, as the latest protests graphically illustrated. From Shibani Mahtani at The Washington Post:
Popular central Hong Kong neighborhoods became foggy battlegrounds Sunday as police for the second day in a row fired tear gas and projectiles at thousands of protesters who were again demonstrating without official authorization.
The clouds of gas left bystanders — including children, tourists and the elderly — choking and sputtering, underscoring the growing risks of Hong Kong’s deepening political crisis, now in its eighth weekend. Police said that protesters threw paint bombs, corrosive liquid and bricks at them, and that 49 people were arrested.
[…] Police and protesters alike shouted warnings to residents to close their windows and protect themselves from tear gas. But the noxious gas fired around the trendy Sheung Wan neighborhood just west of central Hong Kong seeped into packed residential buildings, hotels and air-conditioning systems.
[…] Protesters have […] become bolder and more provocative against riot police, ripping up bricks from the sidewalks, fashioning shields from metal and wood and setting fires to keep police back. At one point Sunday, a protester wearing a full-face gas mask picked up a canister of tear gas that landed at his feet back and threw it back at officers. [Source]
Those injured on July 21 included not only protesters but people heading home from work, a reportedly pregnant woman, and a journalist who continued livestreaming even as she was beaten. Anger at the violence was magnified by the failure of police to intervene before most of the attackers had left. Police were photographed talking to men resembling the attackers, and pro-establishment lawmaker Junius Ho was filmed thanking and praising others. On Thursday, Reuters revealed that the director of the Central Government Liaison’s local district office had said at a community banquet a week earlier that "we won’t allow [protesters] to come to Yuen Long to cause trouble," and that "we still have a group of Yuen Long residents with the persistence and courage to maintain social peace and protect our home."
This combination, together with the backgrounds of some of the twelve eventually arrested, fueled suspicions that the incident was executed by triad gangs working with people within the political establishment to deter further protest. Much of the commentary on the topic has cited work by the University of Toronto’s Lynette Ong, who has studied "the Chinese state’s adroit use of non-state or market agents to pre-empt, absorb, and repress social contention and protests, when state actors cannot do it efficiently or effectively." Others have highlighted organized crime’s past political entanglements in Hong Kong and the New Territories in particular. At The New Yorker in 2014, Louisa Lim drew on Ong’s work with reference to groups of assailants "’doing the job the police wished they could do’" in attacking Occupy protesters and supplies.
As a result of outrage over the attack, protests scheduled in other districts over the weekend had been postponed in favor of a show of defiance in Yuen Long on Saturday. This, too, saw violent clashes with police, whose actions prompted fresh comparisons with the triad gangs. From Lily Kuo at The Guardian:
Organisers said almost 300,000 protesters and residents on Saturday afternoon defied a police ban to descend on the town in Hong Kong’s western New Territories. They marched to the mass transit station where masked men in white T-shirts had chased and beaten passengers the previous Sunday, leaving 45 hospitalised.
[…] After hours of standoffs near two of the villages and in various locations throughout the town, police began dispersing the crowd, firing rubber bullets, sponge grenades, and teargas, in some cases near residential areas. The police were also seen firing tear gas and rubber bullets at journalists.
[…] In one episode that protesters and critics have begun comparing to the attack on passengers in Yuen Long last week, a special tactical unit rushed into the train station where protesters had gathered, some getting ready to go home. The police fired pepper spray on them, while beating some with batons.
[…] “It was terrible … it was the same as what happened last week in Yuen Long station,” said Stephy Chan, 19, who was in the station at the time. “Last week it was the men in white. This time it was the police,” she said. [Source]
The weekend’s protests were intensively covered in real time on Twitter:
Now that a march in Yuen Long on Saturday has been banned protesters advise people to come for ‘a stroll,’ to buy pastries, check out the light rail, look for cows. pic.twitter.com/LgRdZ4Oqq2
— Lily Kuo (@lilkuo) July 25, 2019
Masked middle school students (aged 14 to 16) in #YuenLong:
“We want to fight for the freedom of Hong Kong.”
— Kristie Lu Stout✌? (@klustout) July 27, 2019
Directions for people who have come to Yuen Long strictly to play Pokémon Go (and not to assemble and march, which has been banned by the police today) pic.twitter.com/7ISZZe996J
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) July 27, 2019
Riot police charged in, swung their batons and sprayed pepper spray at protesters. The police appeared to corner a few video journalists against a wall, only to have more cameras surround them. Then they retreated.
— Austin Ramzy (@austinramzy) July 27, 2019
The police violated all rules of conduct, by firing without acceptable reason, in residential areas, and with tear gas landing next to an elderly’s home.
This went on until nearly midnight, where they charged into the same mtr station as last Sunday’s mob terrorists attack.
— Denise Ho (HOCC) (@hoccgoomusic) July 27, 2019
"Police and thugs, one big family." A new chant has also just gone up: 香港警察 全部垃圾 "HK Police. All rubbish!" pic.twitter.com/2GgLe89W5d
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) July 27, 2019
For non-Canto speakers: in this clip protesters in #YuenLong are shouting「香港警察 知法犯法」(“#HongKong police – knowingly breaking the law”) at a group of onlooking police officers inside the police station, some filming the protesters in parallel. https://t.co/luSV8pfSV7
— Carmen Ng 吳嘉文 (@Carmen_NgKaMan) July 27, 2019
— Alex Hofford (@alexhofford) July 28, 2019
— Carmen Ng 吳嘉文 (@Carmen_NgKaMan) July 28, 2019
The backlash against the Yuen Long attack was already well underway before the march on Saturday. On Friday, in an escalation of earlier efforts to reach mainland Chinese by marching in tourist-heavy areas as well as other forms of international outreach, protesters had flooded the arrivals hall at Hong Kong airport, offering a pointed welcome to travelers. From Felix Tam and Clare Jim at Reuters:
Some protesters, dressed in helmets and seated on the ground of the arrivals hall, held up signs calling on the government to withdraw the extradition bill completely, while chants of “Free Hong Kong” reverberated around the building.
The crowds swelled to fill almost half the arrivals hall.
“The world has been watching us in the past few weeks,” said Jeremy Tam, a former pilot and lawmaker who helped organize the protest with other aviation sector employees.
“We simply believe that the airport is the most direct way for all tourists to explain what is happening in Hong Kong.”
An impromptu “tourist information” booth was set up by the protesters, with pictures and captions detailing the allegations of police brutality and the Yuen Long train station attack. [Source]
A sea of black has flooded #HongKong International Airport, as flight attendants and airport staff hold a fresh #extraditionbill rally condemning police for its inaction in the Yuen Long metro attack.
(Photo credit: Lee Cheuk Yan/ Facebook) pic.twitter.com/CeyGTa0diY
— Eric Cheung (@EricCheungwc) July 26, 2019
I just got off a 15 hour flight from Chicago to this welcome home in Hong Kong ?? pic.twitter.com/YkdZtzHxSm
— Erin Hale (@erinhale) July 26, 2019
Protest signs and placards in Spanish, Japanese, Korean, French, German and more. pic.twitter.com/8mV1ayKRLF
— Elaine Yu (@yuenok) July 26, 2019
A group of flight attendants joined the sit-in as soon as they landed, their luggage still with them.
“No matter where we go, Hong Kong is always our home and our roots. Whether it’s before or after work, we have to fight for time to show our support in rallies,” one said. pic.twitter.com/iwNlSSDyAr
— Elaine Yu (@yuenok) July 26, 2019
Earlier in the week, traditionally neutral civil servants had set up a "Lennon Wall" supporting the protests in at least one government department’s office, and issued a series of calls for the government to change course, including one threatening possible strike action next month. From RTHK:
The letter calls on the government to respond to the five demands of anti-extradition protesters – to withdraw the now-suspended extradition bill completely; investigate the police’s decision to fire weapons at protesters; stop all prosecutions against protesters; retract the characterisation of the June 12 protest outside Legco as ‘a riot’; and for the CE, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng, Security Secretary John Lee and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo to step down over the controversy.
The civil servants, including some from RTHK, are also calling for an independent inquiry into the police’s use of force, and urge the government to introduce universal suffrage so that Hong Kong “becomes truly free and democratic”.
[…] The [Yuen Long] attacks have led civil servants to think the government is not serving the people faithfully, but is using the Civil Service to “tear apart the society”, the letter adds.
Those behind the letter say they have taken a neutral stance so far, but have decided to “break their silence", because "as civil servants, we should respond to the public’s demands reasonably". [Source]
In a swipe at Carrie Lam’s studious avoidance of the word "withdrawal" regarding the extradition bill’s fate, the satirical current affairs TV show Headliner "withdrew" its summer break, saying that "we believe that the bedrock of Hong Kong is Freedom of Expression. We reaffirm our pledge to stand by the people of Hong Kong and to be a voice to conscience."
Gestures of support and protests also came from other quarters last week:
— isabella steger (@stegersaurus) July 23, 2019
— isabella steger (@stegersaurus) July 24, 2019
A similar thread of MTR staff angered by Sunday’s triad/thug attacks at Yuen Long station, who are also posting their staff cards online. They’re being posted with protest messages and keys to platform gates(?) and train cabins(?)
(Source: Telegram)#antiELAB #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/oOyKbApOug
— Alex Hofford (@alexhofford) July 25, 2019
In govt’s Policy Innovation and Coordination Office (PICO), a dept directly reporting to CE, a Lennon Wall is also set up by staff after the attacks in Yuen Long. “What do you want Carrie Lam?” one wrote.
PICO said it respected colleagues to express their personal opinion. pic.twitter.com/3gttRZIb1t
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) July 25, 2019
Now it's the turn of doctors & nurses. They vow to stand with the people of Hong Kong, condemning Yuen Long thugs attack, demanding the Hong Kong police to do their job professionally #antielab #hongkongprotests (pic: Apple Daily live) pic.twitter.com/kcAdYXtPXF
— Vivienne Chow (@VivienneChow) July 26, 2019
"Without social justice, how can we speak of political neutrality?" This flyer calling for unprecedented civil servants rally and strike designed to look like HK govt cardboard file covers which I remember well from my @rthk_enews days pic.twitter.com/yDsEGIa3sJ
— Yuen Chan (@xinwenxiaojie) July 28, 2019
At The Guardian on Sunday, Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala reflected on recent shifts in Hong Kong:
The absence of authority reflects the disappearance of governance during this political crisis, which has allowed a spiral to pick up speed, shattering confidence in all that Hong Kong holds dear.
[…] It is as if Hong Kong has come unmoored and the unspoken social contracts that govern life no longer hold true. The unanchoring of this city is reflected in a mass mental health crisis for residents thrown into this sudden new reality. The fallout is eroding the very institutions that distinguish Hong Kong from mainland China. So how did things unravel so quickly in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan, most orderly, most law-abiding cities?
[…] The breakdown in governance has undermined the administration’s performance legitimacy, while Hongkongers, through their acts of civil disobedience, have shown they are withdrawing their consent to be governed. In truth, that consent was always resting on the promise of future political reform and the well-worn mantra of “one country, two systems”. But the past 22 years under Chinese rule have shown that this formula was never an equation: one country always took precedence over two systems.
[…] In the absence of dialogue, violence is the only conversation between the two sides and every weekend the stakes are ratcheted higher. Nobody can predict what Hong Kong will look like at the end of the summer. What is certain, though, is that the city can no longer return to the way it once was. [Source]
At China Heritage, Geremie Barmé translated a column by veteran commentator Lee Yee, who described his own similarly fundamental reassessment of Hong Kong’s situation. (Barmé has translated other recent Lee Yee columns including one commentary on closing generational gaps in Hong Kong politics, and another on growing support for Taiwanese independence and declining identification with China in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.)
These young protesters aren’t in sympathy with the familiar approach of oldsters like me who have always argued along the lines that ‘as long as there is life there is hope’. Generally, we have felt that it was enough to express our views in a free and unfettered way. These protesters, however, believe that they must go further. A friend of mine encounters a group of ‘Black Clothes’ [the signature outfit of protesters, moreso since the street thugs of Yuen Long dressed in white] on a bus and observed that looking into their eyes they detected a steely determination, a roiling anger, as well as a sense of tragic hopelessness.
[…] But what chance do [the protesters] have of success? Finn [a Telegram group organizer] told the journalist:
‘Now they may be but vague and distant hopes. However, up until now there was only a 0.1 percent possibility of any success; now that’s increased to one percent. That means the potential has increased tenfold.’
And that’s why they persist.
The attitude of this ‘Dare-to-Die’ group is that they have turned a situation in which ‘everything is impossible’ into one in which ‘anything is possible’. They have forced older people like me who think of our experience as a kind of ‘capital’ realise that all we really have is debts.
[…] I’ve learned a great deal over the past few months; I’m also profoundly ashamed. I’m ashamed because I now realise that if, in the past, we had had the courage that Young Hong Kong has today, we would not be in the present predicament. That’s simply the truth. [Source]
Karen Cheung summed up the emotional toll of this predicament in a widely shared Medium post on July 21:
How do we discuss the collective trauma HongKongers across generations have been grappling with for the past couple of years? Imagine this: you’re in your late thirties, and you were part of the post-80s activists who tried to save Choi Yuen village from being torn down to make way for the high speed rail, you were there when the government announces its plans to gentrify our “Wedding Card Street” in Wan Chai, and you were there during the northeast New Territories protests. Nothing you’ve done prevented the government from getting their way. You’re in your twenties, and you lived through the Umbrella Movement when you were still a young university student, you watched your closest friends getting hit by pepper spray and tear gas, you watched as the city descends into what watchers later call a “low” in participation in social movements. You’re eighteen and vote for the first time, and the candidate you chose won, but later got kicked out of the legislature after an interpretation of the law. You’re fourteen and taking part in political activism for the first time, and even though you hadn’t done anything except hold placards and chant slogans all day, the government calls you a “rioter”. How does one not despair?
I get teary-eyed a lot these days. When I learn of yet another suicide. When I come across graphics telling me no one gets left behind. When I see footage of the guy on his knees, pleading with the thugs to spare the people. When I realise some of those on the frontlines that have fled the city since may never come back. When I walk pass a Lennon Wall. When the silver-haired came out in support of the young, reminding me of the scene that made me bawl in Ten Years: an elderly woman setting herself on fire in Admiralty after witnessing a young protester being brutally beaten up by the police. Sometimes I worry I’ll be teary-eyed for another thirty years. [Source]