HK Protests: Expanding Focus, Sustained Momentum

HK Protests: Expanding Focus, Sustained Momentum

Protests in Hong Kong continued last weekend, with estimated turnout of close to a quarter of a million suggesting sustained momentum after last week’s controversial storming of the city’s legislature. This time, marchers sought a new audience of mainland Chinese visitors, and expressed an expanded array of demands. Dissatisfied with the local government’s response to calls for the full withdrawal of feared extradition rules, many are now pushing for more fundamental political change. Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried offering new reassurance this week, but was met with widespread skepticism. From Lily Kuo and Verna Yu at The Guardian:

At a press conference, Carrie Lam used a Cantonese phrase to say the proposed legislation was “reaching the end of its life”. Her government suspended the progress of the bill after demonstrations last month.

[…] “We suspended it and we have no timetable,” Lam said. “What I said today is not very different from before, but maybe people want to hear a very firm response … the bill has actually died. So people won’t need to worry that there will be renewed discussions on the bill in the current legislature.”

Protesters rejected her remarks and promised to continue the demonstrations. Figo Chan Ho-wun of the Civil Human Rights Front said: “I urge Carrie Lam not to use words to deceive us. Otherwise the Civil Human Rights Front will plan our next action.”

[…] Others criticised Lam’s refusal to formally withdraw the bill. Lokman Tsui, who teaches journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “‘Officially dead’ is not a legal or political term. So it’s still unclear whether it is withdrawn, and we can only assume it is not since she still has not said those words.” [Source]

2014 protest leader Joshua Wong, who was released from prison into the midst of the anti-extradition movement, responded to Lam’s comments on Twitter:

Editor and participant in Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower protests Brian Hioe also commented on Lam’s performance at New Bloom:

It remains somewhat opaque as to why Lam continues to hold press conferences attempting to convince demonstrators that the matter is resolved when, in actuality, she is still refusing to back down on the bill. In the end, such press conferences usually simply are more enraging of demonstrators. Either the Lam administration is incompetent at reading public sentiment and believes that it can still ride out the matter without withdrawing the extradition bill, or Beijing will not allow Lam to back down and withdraw the extradition bill.

[…] On the other hand, it is significant to note that some accounts of the insider baseball behind the push for the extradition suggest that the extradition bill was an initiative of Lam’s and not Beijing. Yet it also possible that Beijing does not wish to back down at all costs at this point. Beijing may fear that Hong Kong will become a positive example of how the CCP can be forced to back down in the face of protest, encouraging a wave of demonstrations domestically. [Source]

An in-depth account of the political maneuvering behind the bill by South China Morning Post’s Jeffie Lam and Gary Cheung similarly concluded that Lam had introduced the extradition bill independently. According to persistent reports, Lam herself may now also be keeping her position on Beijing’s orders.

Fears of mainland contagion like those posited by Hioe will have been further stirred by the most recent protests, whose participants targeted a part of the city frequented by mainland tourists, and made concerted efforts to communicate protesters’ concerns to them. From Alan Wong at Inkstone:

“Now protesters actively reach out to mainlanders in Hong Kong and signal that they distinguish between the Chinese government and the people,” [the University of Vienna’s Christoph Steinhardt] told Inkstone.

“It will probably make it more difficult to frame the protests as ‘anti-China’ in public discourse,” Steinhardt said. “This is why Beijing will have taken note of this move.”

[…] During the hours-long march earlier in the day, protesters chanted slogans in not only Cantonese, the predominant language of the city, but also Mandarin, which is widely spoken in the mainland.

[…] In simplified Chinese characters, as opposed to the traditional characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, protesters did what the media could not do in the mainland: transmit information freely.

“I hope you have a pleasant trip,” one poster explaining the protests concludes. “Experience the march and freedom of assembly.” [Source]

The Financial Times’ Sue-Lin Wong and Ravi Mattu and Quartz’s Mary Hui also reported on efforts to reach visitors from the mainland. Wong and Hui were also among those tracking the events on Twitter:

The impact of Sunday’s protests on mainlanders’ views may be limited, but their scale sheds some light on the state of public opinion within Hong Kong in the wake of the potentially divisive LegCo occupation. The incident prompted strong criticism not only from local and mainland authorities, and from various other quarters in Hong Kong society, but also from the business community that has widely opposed the extradition bill, and from international media that had previously lionized the protesters.

Some of the more sympathetic critics warned, in the words of one Financial Times editorial, that the occupation had “sapped the moral advantage that previously lay with the rallies,” and risked “alienating the more conservative parts of Hong Kong’s society.” CNN’s Jessie Yeung reported this week that protesters’ broadening demands and hardening methods are indeed playing into existing intergenerational rifts:

While a wide spectrum of people oppose or feel conflicted about the bill, and support the broader pro-democracy demands of the July 1 protesters, loose generational lines have emerged.

The more extreme anti-bill, pro-democracy protesters tend to be younger — millennials and even teenagers — while the pro-government camp leans toward the older generation.

[…] The older generation “had hope, because they could anticipate rising income over the years,” said Cheng — with new opportunities and a flourishing economy, they could expect promotions and pay raises down the line. “But now, Hong Kong’s younger generation basically doesn’t have this kind of hope,” he added.

[…] Today, the number of people identifying as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese has hit a record high since 1997, according to the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program.

[…] Though some in the older generation also identify as Hong Kongers, many instead identify as Chinese and call China their motherland. After all, a sizable number of their own parents came from China — in the 1940s, a huge wave of mainland emigrants fled the Chinese Civil War to Hong Kong. From 1946 to 1956, the city’s population jumped from 1.55 million to 2.677 million, according to a 1969 report by Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department. [Source]

But lawyer and author Antony Dapiran argued at The New Statesman on Tuesday that the latest protests showed fears about the cohesion of the protest movement were exaggerated:

[… I]f the government thought the resulting fallout would take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement, they would quickly be proven much mistaken. Over the past weekend, Hong Kong has seen a rally of several thousand “mothers” in support of the young protesters on Friday night, another thousands-strong protest against mainland street performers in a suburban park on Saturday, and on Sunday another massive anti-government march — police put the numbers at some 56,000; organisers said 230,000 took part — which culminated in riot police baton charges against protesters late on Sunday night. At this stage Hong Kong’s police are treating protesters as street thugs whom they can treat with impunity. On the impunity point they are probably correct — the government is unlikely to hold the police accountable for their actions (an independent inquiry into police violence is one of the protesters’ demands). However, if the government thinks that public sentiment has turned against the protesters, the scale of Sunday’s turnout shows they are mistaken.

In her latest public appearance this week, Lam tried to meet protesters half-way, stating that the extradition bill had “died a natural death” — a characterisation that was immediately ridiculed by protesters as mere word games as Lam appeared to have trawled through her thesaurus of Chinese idioms to avoid using the protester’s preferred word, “withdrawn”. Many speculated whether Beijing was tying her hands, refusing to permit her to accede directly to protesters’ demands. Lam also stated that the Independent Police Complaints Council (but not an independent judicial enquiry) would look into the police violence and offered to meet for a dialogue with university student union leaders. The students rejected her offer unless Lam agreed to have the meeting in public and to drop all charges against protesters, conditions she has refused.

As a result, protests planned for the coming weekend will be going ahead, and the pressure on Lam and her government will continue. Lam will no doubt continue trying to find compromise positions aimed at easing community sentiment, within the constraints permitted her by Beijing. But Lam seems constitutionally unable to compromise — she is, after all, a lifetime bureaucrat, not a politician. In this environment, the cycle appears set to continue. Hong Kong appears to be set for a long hot summer of discontent. [Source]

Dapiran commented that “the event appeared at first so convenient to the government that suspicions were high it had been effectively allowed to happen.” The withdrawal of police to allow the occupation seemed at odds with their often aggressive actions before (and since). A police statement citing safety concerns was skeptically received. One former police officer found the retreat “just staggering,” while a pro-democracy lawmaker suspected a trap, and Sinologist Geremie Barmé went as far as to compare it with the actions of Beijing police before the June 4, 1989 massacre.

Many anecdotal reports had previously suggested widespread public sympathy for the invasion of the LegCo, if not unqualified support. In an unscientific online poll that attracted over 350,000 votes last week, 83% expressed support for the occupation. In an opinion piece on Sunday, The New York Times’ Stéphanie Giry argued against viewing the event as “exposing divisions over tactics that threaten to tear the pro-democracy camp apart.”

Of course, there are differences among the many people who have rallied against the extradition bill and the Hong Kong government: How could there not be when the opposition has grown so big, the issues it is taking on seem intractable and the stakes are so high? That there are differences between protesters isn’t notable; what’s notable is the protesters’ will to stick together despite those differences.

[…] And yes, perhaps the protesters’ case would now be simpler and tidier — more morally photogenic — if once inside LegCo they had touched nothing and staged a massive sit-in, arms locked, or something reassuringly Gandhian and abstemious like that. But considering the circumstances, it seems oddly squeamish and rather perverse to be scandalized by broken glass and tagged walls. Far more troubling than anything the protesters did last Monday is what the police didn’t do — and what the government hasn’t done.

[…] However muddled some of the protesters’ methods may seem, their underlying purpose and principles couldn’t be clearer. There is no arguing about the heart, the spirit and the extraordinary decency of the small group who went back into LegCo to drag out the few who remained or the many more who stayed outside the building to act as a buffer against the police.

Something similar goes for that large segment of the broader public that has mobilized against the extradition bill, the Lam administration and creeping encroachment by the Chinese government. My sense, based on conversations, anecdotal evidence and intuition, is that solidarity prevails within this movement despite any disagreements, however deep, over tactics. [Source]

Although Sunday’s turnout was far lower than those of the largest earlier protests, it has still been cited as evidence for the continued cohesion of the extradition resistance movement. From South China Morning Post:

Speaking after Sunday’s protest in Kowloon that organisers said was attended by more than 230,000 people, Dr Cheung Chor-yung, a senior teaching fellow at the City University’s department of public policy, said: “By whatever measure, the turnout was huge.

“Some people are getting more sympathetic to the protesters because they see that the government is too stubborn and has not responded to the demands by the protesters despite rounds of protests, be they peaceful or violent.

[…] Political analyst Dr Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, also said: “Members of the public have not distanced themselves from the young protesters. It is clear that people have more sympathy and understanding towards their actions.”

[…] A 73-year-old protester, surnamed Hung, said he could understand the youngsters’ anger.

“The ideal case was that we wouldn’t need to storm [the Legco],” Hung said. “But the students and the citizens could bear no more. They felt that the government would not respond to their demands.

“The government won’t take you seriously If you are too peaceful. Sometimes force is needed. We can understand If the protesters go further.” [Source]

One slogan graffitied in the LegCo chamber has been especially widely quoted in this context:

This argument was stated at greater length by 25-year-old Brian Leung Kai-ping, who unmasked himself in the LegCo in order to read a list of demands. From an interview with Alvin Lum at South China Morning Post:

It is worthwhile to note the graffiti was not merely vandalising. For instance, protesters spray-painted and covered up “People’s Republic of China”, leaving behind only “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”. That is a clear mistrust of the two-systems principle. Most of the other graffiti was about commemorating the three lives lost in this movement.

So they were only telling the public that this was not just mob action but to register the accumulated frustrations of an unfair electoral system. Compared with the death of three people who used their lives to deliver a message, does the damage to several glass frames even count?

It is time to see past the short burst of “violence” committed, and read deeper into what people, particularly the younger generation, are really thinking about.

[…] At the outset of the protests against this bill, people called for Carrie Lam to step down. But gradually, we came to realise the root of the problem stems from the undemocratic system in selecting the chief executive. Whether Lam remained in office became a secondary issue.

[…] Civil society has already exhausted every possible peaceful means, and it is not trying to exercise violence for the sake of violence. The government needs to reflect on its response. [Source]

The AP’s Dake Kang presented more accounts from protesters in or near the LegCo during the occupation, while Brian Hioe reflected on his past meetings with Brian Leung Kai-ping, and on his actions and the broader protests at Popula.

Joshua Wong also addressed doubts about the occupation in a Twitter thread last week, reformatted here for readability.

Dear world, I want to say a few words about what happened in #HongKong yesterday.

An estimated 550,000 Hong Kongers made yesterday’s annual July 1 protest the highest ever in turnout. It marked 22nd anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover to China, now only 28 years before ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is set to expire due to the ‘50-year no change’ policy. Simultaneously as the peaceful demonstrations were taking place, other young protesters attempted to enter the Legislative Council complex. To understand WHY it happened, we must examine what happened over the past month.

Hong Kongers’ strong resistance against proposed extradition arrangements with China was heard loud and clear around the world. Solidarity rallies took place in over 30 cities, and the international community spoke up. We tried EVERYTHING available to us. On June 9, one million Hong Kongers took to the streets peacefully. But before the night had even ended, Chief Executive Carrie Lam released a statement saying she would press ahead with the bill in three days. That’s why, in the morning of June 12, when the Legislative Council debate was set to take place, Hong Kongers were bracing for our last fight. We knew there would be no turning back. Beijing had enough votes because only 40 out of 70 seats are directly elected by the people. And then there was miracle. Protesters managed to blockade the complex completely. Well-documented evidence published by the international media show excessive force used by the police. Many injuries ensued, but in any case lawmakers could not convene.

It was only after this escalation that Lam made a small compromise to pause the bill’s reading. Even she acknowledged events on June 12, NOT June 9, that changed her mind. Months of Hong Kongers and the world expressing concern did not matter to her at all until she saw blood.

But Lam called protesters ‘rioters’. She would not agree to an independent investigation on police brutality. She stopped short of withdrawing the bill, let alone stepping down. Combined with the first death of a protester, TWO MILLION people marched on June 16. Hong Kong has 7.5 million people, so an equivalent of ONE IN FOUR out of the entire population protested in a single occasion. I am not aware of anything comparable to this level of discontent against a government in modern history. Lam finally apologized two days later, but for what? For failing to “properly communicate” to Hong Kongers what the extradition bill was all about. Even up until that point, then, the subtext was that she was still right and we were too stupid.

[…] In a democracy, this extradition bill would long ago have been terminated. Polls consistently show some 70% of Hong Kongers in favor of a full withdrawal. The political career of any other leader would also have been over with this level of resistance over such a long period.

The protesters who broke into the Legislative Council complex were NOT rioters. They were NOT violent. Their objective was never to harm any individuals. They wanted to make the regime hear Hong Kongers’ voice, and they had no other option. WE ALREADY TRIED EVERYTHING ELSE. Perhaps not all of you will agree with every single action they took yesterday. But what are a few pieces of glass worth in comparison to the deaths of three young men and women? What are a few portraits worth in comparison to the very survival of Hong Kong as a place?

The moment they stepped into the building, they knew what awaited them. They would face almost certain prosecution and probable imprisonment over rioting charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. They have a whole life ahead of them. Some well-intentioned opposition lawmakers tried to persuade protesters out of it. But they replied that since others had already perished, whatever physical and legal consequences they would face immediately paled in comparison. Watching this exchange put tears in my eyes. [Source]

While Leung, Wong, and others have continued to highlight the protesters’ famous civility even amid the damage to the LegCo, others have objected to this defense. From Yan Sham-Shackleton at Hong Kong Free Press:

Much has been made about the civic-mindedness of our protests compared to other countries, but holding ourselves above other resistance movements did us a disservice to begin with. It removes ourselves from the context of protest history and larger social-justice movements around the world. After all, there are other less orderly, more spontaneous, messier movements that have succeeded-such as recently in Sudan-being best behaved and cleanest does not automatically lead to the most successful results. Of course, being polite and respectful should be encouraged, but it’s not an indicator to the world or to ourselves how worthy our cause is. [Source]

UCLA sociology professor Ching Kwan Lee echoed some of Leung and Wong’s points in an op-ed at The Los Angeles Times:

Never in my lifetime has existential “desperation” been the talk of the town. Hong Kongers, who built a world-class city, like to speak of hope, aspiration and diligence, even in the face of grotesque inequality. Desperation in public discourse is new to the city’s emotional landscape. For young and old, there is a common belief that our future is all but doomed by the extradition bill, the last straw in a long list of legislation and policies chipping away Hong Kong’s freedom, civil liberty and rule of law, and with these, its identity and essence.

For the younger generations, the darkness seems total. On LIHKG, the online platform that has become the headquarters of protests, young people lament hopeless and dreamless lives of poorly paid dead-end jobs in the world’s most expensive housing market. Their parents’ generation echoes with a sense of guilt that it did not fight hard enough for democracy when it might have been more possible. It was this deep emotional connection across generations, united by a sense that “we have nothing more to lose,” that sent millions of people to the streets in June.

[…] In 2014, the Umbrella Movement and the jailing of the Occupy Central leaders popularized civil disobedience in Hong Kong and its principle of breaking the law to achieve justice. Now, with ever more blatant abuses by the government of our public institutions, the term “institutional violence” has entered everyday parlance. In the wake of the government and pro-establishment elite’s condemnation of physical violence, public opinion largely swayed in protesters’ favor, as people asked, “Is the destruction of some glass doors more violent than the destruction of young lives?” [Source]

At China Heritage, Geremie Barmé translated a supportive Apple Daily column by journalist Lee Yee:

When the events of 1 July unfolded many people, including me, asked: Is it safe? Politic? Popular? But the only thing that concerned those who stormed LegCo [the Legislative Council building that is the official seat of the Hong Kong government] that day was the issue of Right vs. Wrong. Was it a trap laid by the authorities? Was it led by blackguards who had insinuated themselves into the crowd of protesters? In the final analysis, these questions are meaningless. The determination of the majority of young protesters who regard the Anti Extradition Bill Movement as the Ultimate Battle, an Endgame, being fought between Right and Wrong is not something predicated on success, but rather it comes from moral awareness; they pose their questions about justice without a carefully calibrated consideration of the consequences. I’m afraid it is the kind of logic that simply eludes those ensconced in their comfortable sense of aloofness.

[…] Some online comments regarding the Hong Kong Black Bloc point out that to overthrow autocracy requires a multidimensional battle. The millions of demonstrators overwhelming the city are merely the foot soldiers; the student activists are akin to navy ‘SEALs’. They are the most courageous and they take the greatest risks. In relation to them, people shouldn’t hide their cowardice behind calls for ‘peaceful, rational and non-violent’ behavior. If you don’t have the courage to join in the charge, then take up a position behind the lines working on logistical support. Just don’t criticise the SEALS! [Source]

At The New York Times, Louisa Lim described the occupation as “a collective roar of rage against a government that has failed, by design, to represent the people.” (Lim has also covered the protests on the Little Red Podcast and in an account of her experiences at The Financial Times.)

I was among the journalists covering the break-in of the building, and I watched as protesters ripped metal bars from the side of the building to smash their way through the windows. Their actions seemed like a breathtaking act of defilement of one of Hong Kong’s institutions.

Yet on closer inspection, I saw that they had zeroed in on certain totems of power. Inside the legislative chamber, someone had blacked out Hong Kong’s emblem — a white bauhinia flower on a red background. They had torn up the Basic Law, effectively Hong Kong’s constitution, on the rostrum. Above it, someone had spray-painted over the words “The People’s Republic of China” in black. There were other graffiti messages on the walls, including, “There are no rioters, only tyranny,” a reference to the government’s announcement that an earlier demonstration, broken up by police firing rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, constituted “a riot.” But certain parts of the building, like the library, were left untouched. Notes reminded protesters not to damage fragile items such as vases on display. Protesters even left money in the fridge to pay for the soda they drank.

[…] When it comes to Hong Kong politics, it isn’t just that the playing field is tilted. The rules of the game, even the point of the game, are constantly being redrawn. By vandalizing the legislature, protesters have aimed their anger not just at one law but at an entire system that has disenfranchised them.

[…] No one knows what will come next. The protest movement could subside or split into moderate and radical camps. Or the escalating cycles of violence, followed by tear gas, could become commonplace. Much now depends on whether the government will respond to the voices on the street with action. The turmoil is already damaging Hong Kong’s institutions, its international reputation and its desirability as a home. That fear was voiced on another banner, suspended on a wall on the other side of the legislative building, which read, “If we burn, you burn with us.” [Source]

Some more perspectives, via Twitter:


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