The Disillusion and Frustration of a New Generation is Fuelling Hong Kong’s Protests
July 1st, the twenty-second anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, formerly a British colony, to Chinese rule, began with a champagne toast between Carrie Lam, the city’s elected chief executive, and officials from China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, the local enforcers of Beijing’s will. The rest of the day was marked by a stark contrast between staid official celebrations of the event, including a lavish flag-raising ceremony, and the actions of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators peacefully protesting the intensifying erosion of civil liberties suffered by the island city. The date, though, will likely be remembered most vividly for the storming of the city’s legislative building by a small group of activists who sought to signal to the world their despondence over their city’s fate.
Although Beijing has been encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy for decades, citizens have recently been galvanized by a controversial bill that would give authorities the power to extradite suspects to mainland China, a step that would tear down the firewall between the city’s independent judiciary and China’s famously opaque, Party-controlled courts. Since early June, protesters have swarmed the streets in some of the largest demonstrations of the city’s history. A few days after the police used rubber bullets, pepper spray, and water cannons against civilians, some two million people—more than a quarter of the city’s population—again flooded the streets in peaceful protest. Since then, the government has indefinitely suspended the bill, but has not officially withdrawn it, as demonstrators have demanded, or addressed the troubling instances of police brutality.
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On Monday, several thousand mostly younger protesters broke off from the main march and surrounded the office of the Legislative Council, also known as Legco, which serves as Hong Kong’s parliament. Wearing goggles and helmets, and armed with bars, carts, and makeshift battering rams, they smashed their way through metal barricades, shattered glass doors, and stormed the building. Inside, they tore down portraits of pro-Beijing officials and sprayed anti-establishment slogans on the walls, including “Hong Kong is not China!” and “freedom.” They defaced the portion of the city’s emblem bearing the word “China”, without marring the part that read “Hong Kong.” They drew up a declaration that counted among its demands the overthrow of the “puppet Legislative Council and the Government.” The most enduring image of the day, though, was in the Council chamber, the tiered, circular room where the city’s lawmakers held their first reading of the extradition bill this spring. Protesters draped a Union Jack-emblazoned colonial flag across the Council president’s desk and hoisted a handwritten banner above the podium that said, “There are no rioters, only a tyrannical regime!”
How had this happened in a city with a police force known for its vigilance and, at times, excessive force? July 1st has traditionally been a day of protest, and the Legco has long been the city’s most high-profile political symbol. Yet the uniformed officers who were present for much of the day near the Legco mysteriously retreated around 9:00 p.m., when the crowds swelled most visibly around its premises. “It was a very strange situation,” Denise Ho, a Hong Kong singer and democracy activist, whom I profiled earlier this year for the magazine, told me. “At one point, they just disappeared.” The official explanation, given by the chief of police Stephen Lo at a press conference held at 4 A.M. the following day, was the inability of officers to use their usual tactics in such an enclosed space. Antony Dapiran, a Hong-Kong-based lawyer and the author of the book “City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong” wrote on Twitter that the police had “splashed around pepper spray in [the] same place (barriers outside the LegCo) often before.” What’s more, as protesters drew closer, “police reportedly warned them they would be arrested immediately” if they broke into the building, “but then withdrew entirely and let them stroll in.” Dapiran goes on to ask, “The police had ample opportunity (hours!) to intervene & push protesters back but did not. Why?” (It wasn’t until shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning—eight hours after the protests outside the Legco began—that the police used tear gas and projectiles to disperse the crowds).
Ho speculated that the disappearance was an “intentional move” by the government. She wasn’t alone. The lawmaker Fernando Cheung characterized the government’s withdrawal as “bait,” designed to invite chaos, incite a public backlash, and sway sympathies against the protesters. In a piece in the Times, the Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai framed the escalating tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing as a “new cold war, one in which the otherwise unarmed Hong Kong people wield the most powerful weapon in the fight against the Chinese Communist Party: moral force.”
The remarkable grace and civility that millions of Hong Kong citizens have shown in their demonstrations corroborate that assertion. In addition to meticulously cleaning up after themselves after each event, they have voluntarily opened up paths for ambulances, supported fellow-protesters by providing food and water, and avoided destruction of private property. Even inside the Legco, protesters were careful not to touch historical artifacts and left behind money for the cold drinks they took from the canteen. As the protests enter their second month, it is worth asking how much moral forbearance must the demonstrators display to make their voices heard? Or, more relevantly, what is the value of their voice when it is ignored by the unswerving dictate of a heedless authoritarian behemoth?
The recent suicides of three young protesters who left behind notes supporting the demonstrations against the extradition bill have cast a nihilistic pall over the city. If the young are pointlessly killing themselves for their city, what more is there to be done? In a thoughtful piece published in StandNews, a Hong Kong writer wrote about why the protesters who stormed the Legco had chosen that path. “They are not hooligans or moles but martyrs,” he wrote. “A few dozen had already prepared to sacrifice their lives.” Joshua Wong, a prominent student leader during the 2014 Umbrella Movement who was recently released from prison, wrote on Twitter that he believed the youths “wanted to make the regime hear Hong Kongers’ voice, and they had no other option. WE ALREADY TRIED EVERYTHING ELSE.”
Geremie Barmé, a China scholar from Australia who co-wrote “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a groundbreaking documentary about the protests at Tiananmen Square, and the subsequent Beijing Massacre, told me that the escalating clash between the people of Hong Kong and the government reminded him of the days leading up to the 1989 mass killings in Beijing. Coaxing peaceful protesters into engaging in violence is a classic tactic of authoritarian regimes. “Why did Beijing withdraw police from the square during the days of the students’ hunger strike in the spring of 1989?” Barmé asked. “It was to mount a case of untenable social disorder to justify the use of martial law.” He argued that the power struggle in Hong Kong is a microcosm of the global conflict between frustrated youths and sclerotic authoritarians. “The old are consuming the young to maintain their longevity,” he told me. By stonewalling, the government fuels public anger that, in some cases, results in extremism. Then, displaying faux sorrow, the government quells the “riot” and crushes the opposition, citing “public safety.” Yesterday, China’s state media pledged a policy of “zero tolerance” for Hong Kong’s “open and symbolic attack.” Without this policy, the Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times said, “it would be similar to opening a Pandora’s Box.”
The storming of the Legco is testing the unity and coherence of a legitimate movement that has spanned the spectrum of Hong Kong society. It is also expressing the impotence and disillusion of a generation that was meant to represent the city’s future. Today, that generation feels like it has nothing to gain or lose. “That is what’s most frightening and heartbreaking,” Barmé told me: the old are eating not just the heart but the soul of their progeny while the young bleed out.” Barme predicted continued tension: “The result is always festering resentment, unresolved problems and long-term bitterness. In a word, it is the cycle of Chinese politics: a society that is never allowed to mature, while the old and entrenched repeat the same pattern of failure.”