Hong Kong’s peace prospects recede amid teargas and smoke

As protests intensify it is hard to see how deadlock can end without death or serious injury

Over the last few weeks, protesters in Hong Kong have taken to spraypainting traffic barriers, bridges, police stations and more with the words: “If we burn, you burn with us.”

On Monday, much of the city burned under clouds of teargas, hails of rubber bullets, and fires lit by angry protesters facing off against riot police. Protesters and a group of men brawled on the street, hitting each other with wooden rods and traffic cones. In another neighbourhood, two people were knifed. Three cars rammed through crowds of protesters, injuring one person.

After nine weeks of protests, demonstrators and the local government, backed by Beijing, find themselves in a stalemate where the possibility of a peaceful resolution has become more and more unlikely.

The protests, triggered by an extradition bill that would send suspects to mainland China, have gained momentum and taken on new demands after weeks of clashes with police.

The government under the chief executive, Carrie Lam, has held fast to its position that the protesters are rioters and deployed the city’s police force to deal with weekly protests that regularly devolve into clashes. Police have used teargas in 13 of Hong Kong’s 18 districts and more than 500 people have been arrested.

Protesters, incensed by the police tactics and the government’s continued lack of response, are undeterred by such increasingly harsh measures. Some are adopting more extreme, violent tactics – taunting the police, defacing emblems of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, throwing bricks and petrol bombs.

Protesters call it the “scorched earth” policy, that in order to compel authorities to pay attention a price must be paid – whether that is in the form of heavy criminal charges, getting repeatedly hit by teargas, or damaged job prospects if the Hong Kong economy suffers from political unrest.

“I don’t think the government is willing to give ground and there’s no indication that the protesters are willing to settle,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Australia.

Ni believes the protests will continue to escalate, growing more violent, until another inflection point is reached – probably the death or serious injury of a protester, police officer or bystander.

“Without the government giving in to demands of the people on the street, I don’t see that the protests will end peacefully,” he said.

As political unrest continues, the possibility that Beijing could intervene looms larger. Chinese and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly denied plans to deploy the People’s Liberation Army, which has a garrison in Hong Kong – a scenario that would be reminiscent of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989.

Yet, China has released two promotional videos showing Chinese military and police battling residents in black, the signature colour of the protesters. A senior military official recently referred to the part of Hong Kong’s garrison law which says the PLA can intervene to “maintain public order” if Hong Kong requests it.

Observers say sending in troops or taking over the governing of Hong Kong directly is an extreme last resort. “That would have huge costs to the mainland government, to the Hong Kong government,” said John Burns, a professor emeritus at Hong Kong University focusing on Hong Kong.

“All of this would be put under tight party control and then you have people in Hong Kong still with their ideas, seething under this kind of military occupation. Is that the way to go?”

Not all protesters appear concerned about the possibility of the PLA entering their streets, knowing it would hurt Beijing as much as Hong Kong.

“We are not afraid. If the Chinese army comes out, we will celebrate,” said one protester.

Others say Hong Kong authorities, under pressure from China to take a harder line on protesters, can turn to methods used before. After a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2014 known as the Umbrella movement, the government disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers and jailed leaders of the movement.

Yet it’s not clear those measures worked, given the resurgence of mass protests this summer. “When resistance came back, it came back with a vengeance,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame University.

Many protesters are not optimistic. Jason Keung, a lanky 22-year old in glasses, trainers and a surgical mask, was sitting alone on a kerb, mentally preparing to do battle with the police. He says he tries not to focus on how things will end.

“I don’t think about the future because I just want to live in the now,” he said. “Hong Kong is controlled by China, yes. I don’t think we can fight them but we have to try. We don’t have any choice but to fight.”


Lily Kuo in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hong Kong police fire teargas and charge at protesters
Officers move to disperse crowds after breakaway group stormed parliament building

Guardian reporter and Christy Choi in Hong Kong

01, Jul, 2019 @11:14 PM

Article image
Sound of Hong Kong's defiance reverberates in Beijing
Beijing’s public support for Hong Kong leader likely hides private fury, but letting her go would be another humiliation

Emma Graham-Harrison in Hong Kong

17, Jun, 2019 @9:15 PM

Article image
Hong Kong protesters use new flashmob strategy to avoid arrest
‘Blossom everywhere’ tactic is a reaction to politicisation of MTR subway system

Erin Hale in Hong Kong

13, Oct, 2019 @2:49 PM

Article image
Conflict breaks out in Hong Kong after latest extradition bill protests
Police in riot gear beat protesters as demonstration continued into late evening

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

08, Jul, 2019 @3:29 AM

Article image
Concern as Hong Kong postpones elections for a year, citing Covid-19
The government’s decision is ‘an assault on fundamental freedoms’, says Hong Kong Watch, as democracy deteriorates

Helen Davidson and agencies

31, Jul, 2020 @1:04 PM

Article image
Wave of arrests in new push by Hong Kong police to thwart protests
Former student leaders among dozens detained in move critics say is attempt to deter protesters from planned rally

Lily Kuo and Erin Hale in Hong Kong

30, Aug, 2019 @5:21 PM

Article image
Clashes in Hong Kong after vast protest against extradition law
Critics say law will allow China to pursue political opponents and legitimise abductions

Helen Davidson in Hong Kong

09, Jun, 2019 @5:22 PM

Article image
Hong Kong protesters pledge to stand up to thugs after attack
Anger growing against police and authorities after masked men left 45 people in hospital

Lily Kuo in Hong Kong

23, Jul, 2019 @5:48 PM

Article image
Hong Kong protests descend into chaos during citywide strike
Police fire teargas and rubber bullets in clashes with thousands of demonstrators

Lily Kuo and Christy Choi in Hong Kong

05, Aug, 2019 @4:20 PM

Article image
Flowers and tears for 'first martyr' of Hong Kong protests
Unknown activist died after unfurling banner near government headquarters

Guardian reporter and Emma Graham-Harrison in Hong Kong

16, Jun, 2019 @4:58 PM