World

What’s at the heart of Hong Kong’s discontent, the protesters on the ground and the prospect of a military crackdown. By Jonathan Pearlman.

No end in sight for Hong Kong rebels

A pro-democracy protester walks in front of a burning barricade in Hong Kong.
Credit: Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Beyond bill shock

Last month, Hong Kong’s pro-China leader, Carrie Lam, withdrew a controversial extradition bill that had triggered months of public protests. But the demonstrations did not end, because they were never solely about the extradition bill.

For years, the people of Hong Kong have become more and more concerned about China’s creeping erosion of the city’s freedoms and autonomy. This included an attempt in 2012 to introduce “patriotic education” in schools and a bill introduced this year that, if passed, could impose prison terms on those who insult the Chinese national anthem. In June, an opinion poll by the University of Hong Kong found 71 per cent of Hong Kong residents were “not proud” of being Chinese citizens. This was the highest level recorded since the city was handed over by Britain to China in 1997.

By the time Lam finally moved to withdraw the extradition law, which would have allowed detainees to be extradited to China, her intransigence, and the harsh tactics used by authorities to quell the protests, had added to the broader sources of discontent. The demands of the protesters have expanded to include Lam’s resignation and an inquiry into police brutality. And the protests have continued, almost daily, with escalating violence on both sides that causes further grievances.

Last week, police shot a protester with live ammunition for the first time. Lam then invoked colonial-era emergency laws to impose a ban on face masks. A man and woman were arrested for violating the ban, leading to a court hearing on Monday at which supporters turned up wearing masks.

There have been mass marches, general strikes, targeted actions such as disrupting air traffic at the airport, and outbreaks of small demonstrations across the city. These have increasingly turned violent. Not all protesters agree with all the demands, and not all agree with the tactics or the use of force. This is, above all, a leaderless protest, which makes it harder to shut down.

Front-line defences

Tim Tim Cheng, a 26-year-old high school teacher, joined a mass march on June 9, which was attended by more than 500,000 people. She has been protesting ever since.

“It is time to draw a line between us and China,” Cheng tells The Saturday Paper.

“I think if Hong Kong is becoming more like the PRC [People’s Republic of China], we will lose something human in us. That is what I don’t want to see.”

Cheng says she initially attended every organised event but, as the summer wore on, “I became exhausted”. Also, the protests have changed – they have multiplied and spread beyond the city centre. It is impossible to attend them all. So, Cheng says, she now joins protests close to her work or to her home. She checks social media sites and online forums and looks for local protests.

Speaking via Skype during a break between teaching classes, she sniffs constantly and regularly coughs – the result, she explains, of “a shower of tear gas” at a protest two days previously. At that protest, she provided water and towels to those at the front line and brought colourful clothes to help protesters change out of their black uniforms, which they wear at the front but then remove to avoid attracting the attention of police.

“I can’t be at the front line of violent protests,” she says. “I am too weak. This is the least risk that I can take for people.”

The chaos of the past four months, Cheng says, has produced displays of public charity and solidarity. Strangers talk to each other on public transport, while restaurants hand out free food and water to protesters. It has changed the way she sees her city.

“Before all this, Hong Kong was just a place I happened to grow up in,” she says. “The concept of belonging to a country, to devoting yourself to a country or a place, never occurred to me before the recent protests.”

Another pro-democracy supporter, Rachel Ka Yin Leung, a 21-year-old who spent the summer in Hong Kong during a break in her psychology studies at Oxford, says the protests stemmed from frustration at the Beijing-backed policies but have broadened into a show of opposition to totalitarianism. The people are protesting, she says, not only for the rights of Hong Kong but also for those of their compatriots on the mainland.

“It was not really until I was 15 or 16 that I realised there were a lot of differences between Hong Kong and China,” says Leung.

“A lot of people in China grow up under this veil of ignorance – they live their whole lives not really knowing what the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has done. They don’t know about June 4 [the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989], about the Uygurs, about Tibet… After the umbrella movement [a series of protests in 2014], Hong Kong people started to feel that they had a duty to educate mainland Chinese people about fighting for democracy and justice, and to explain to the mainland Chinese people what they are fighting for.”

Future tense

Last Sunday, Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong intervened for the first time since the protests began. The troops, standing on the roof of a military barracks, warned the protesters below that they could be arrested for shining laser lights at the soldiers. “Bear consequences for your actions,” an officer yelled at the protesters in broken Cantonese.

Since the protests began, China has reportedly doubled its troop presence to an estimated 10,000-12,000 soldiers. It has also conducted drills in Shenzhen, a mainland city that borders Hong Kong.

This has raised the prospect of a military crackdown.

In China, officials and the state media have blamed the protests on foreign interference, accusing the United States of being a “black hand” and fomenting an uprising.

At an event in Beijing on October 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced support for the “one country, two systems” principle that is supposed to apply to Hong Kong until China gains complete control in 2047. In a speech in September, he reportedly said that Beijing should exercise restraint and allow the local police to resolve the crisis.

If Xi maintains this position for long enough, the protests might lose momentum. The violence of some protesters has reportedly affected public support, which could wane further. Tourism has plunged and the economy has been badly affected. Lam could yet resign, or offer meaningful negotiations or concessions.

But there is also the prospect of a military intervention. Xi has repeatedly made it clear that he would use force to ensure China’s territorial integrity, warning in 2017 that challenging Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong “crosses the red line”.

As the protests have continued, there have been growing murmurings about raising a call for independence. According to Tim Tim Cheng, the current standoff, with its long history, makes such a call seem inevitable, whether in this bout of protests or the next.

“Even if the [protesters’] five demands are met completely, people will still go out,” she says. “It is scary to think about. People are thinking, ‘Do we have to go through another Tiananmen massacre to get what we want?’ … Deep down people know that the only answer is independence. They don’t want to say it because it will give a bad name to the movement.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "No end in sight for Hong Kong rebels". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.