Support for Hong Kong’s rebels wavers after most violent week yet

Although many remain sympathetic to the cause, citizens are becoming increasingly fearful

One crisp and sunny morning last week, the normally busy road outside the main entrance to the University of Hong Kong was eerily quiet. Overlooked by mango trees, the road was empty, save for piles of bricks that protesters had scattered across it overnight as a barricade to paralyse traffic.

As students guarded the entrance against the potential arrival of riot police, a woman shouted “We support you!” across the road. As soon as she had finished, another man shouted: “I don’t! You people are university students, for crying out loud!”

The anti-government movement in Hong Kong, now in its sixth month, is causing increasingly deep divisions across the community.

The Chinese-ruled city has seen its most violent scenes yet in the past week, with protesters blocking roads and throwing petrol bombs at trains and railway tracks, a police officer shooting a young man at close range, a man set on fire after being doused with flammable liquid by a protester, and police entering university campuses for the first time to battle with students. China has issued stark warnings and the government confirmed the city’s first recession for a decade last week.

With no end in sight, the continued escalation of violence has also caused widespread concerns over the future. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has directly condemned the protests for the first time and the city’s number two official has vowed that the government will adopt “decisive measures” to put an end to violence.

While students say last week’s radical action, which included protesters shooting flaming arrows and petrol bombs at police, were an effort to enforce a citywide paralysis in response to the death of a student who died after a fall during the protests, the wider population is becoming increasingly sceptical.

Grumbles can be heard all over the city about the disruption to people’s lives – from office workers’ 30-minute commutes turning to two-hour journeys on foot to the old and sick, and even doctors, unable to get to hospitals because roads are blocked. “When we ask when the police will stop using violence, can we also ask when the protesters will stop their violence?” said an angry caller on a radio phone-in last week.

But the support for the wider movement remains strong even if Hongkongers are becoming intolerant of violence. A survey released in mid-October conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed 52.5 % of the 751 respondents it surveyed believed the government bore the most responsibility for the conflict, while 18.1% blamed the police and 9.6% blamed the protesters.

There was even considerable support for the movement among the finance and banking sector, which is normally regarded as conservative. During lunch hours over the past week, hundreds of smartly dressed professionals took to the streets in the city’s financial hub condemning police violence. On some days, riot police threw teargas, beat demonstrators and made arrests near the stock exchange building.

“I don’t accept the violence, but I understand the youngsters’ frustrations, because the government has not responded to their demands and keeps using police violence,” said a banker in his 30s who gave his name as Ryan.

“The movement has been hijacked [by radicals] and I question their approach,” said an employee at an investment bank. “I sympathise with the students, but democracy should be about tolerance and not forcing people to go along with you. Both police and students are now led by their anger.”

Even a 70-year-old market stall owner who had been exposed to teargas showed his sympathy. “What kind of a city is this when the kids are not afraid of death? They have no opportunities under this government.”

But regardless of their political stance, Hongkongers are now deeply worried. As the conflict continues to mount, the government shows no desire to give further political concessions while China’s leaders issue stern warnings. In September, the Hong Kong government belatedly scrapped a controversial extradition bill that sparked the political crisis in June, but protesters continue to demand democratic reforms and an independent body to investigate police brutality.

On Thursday, Xi said during a presidential visit to Brazil that the Chinese government was determined to “safeguard national sovereignty and security” and was against “external forces meddling in Hong Kong affairs”. He pledged support for the city’s police and leaders, and said “halting the violence and restoring order is Hong Kong’s most urgent task,” according to the state news agency, Xinhua.

After a key Communist party meeting, the Fourth Plenum, which concluded on 31 October, China signalled it would bring the semi-autonomous city under tighter control. It stressed that national sovereignty should take precedence in the “one country, two systems” policy that has allowed Hong Kong extensive autonomy since the handover from British rule, and warned that it would not tolerate “any actions that split the country”. It said Hong Kong should perfect its legal system to “safeguard national security” – hinting at the revival of a subversion law shelved in 2003 – and increase “patriotic education” among its citizens.

Residents form a human chain to clear debris from a concrete barricade.
Residents form a human chain to clear debris from a concrete barricade. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Analysts in China say the official rhetoric is a clear indication that more draconian measures will be introduced to quash Hong Kong’s pleas for more freedoms. The city’s government has already invoked an emergency law that bypasses the legislature to impose a ban on face masks in public assemblies. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance empowers the government to impose measures including a curfew, censorship of publications and communications, arrest and detention and the freezing of assets.

Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator, said Beijing had set a hardline tone in the Fourth Plenum and its policy towards Hong Kong would only toughen. It may use the current unrest as an excuse to postpone the district election scheduled for 24 November, in which the pro-Beijing candidates are expected to fare badly. It could also use the emergency law to curb more civil freedoms, such as the much-discussed curfew. Zhang said the party may resort to drastic action if it feels its authority is being threatened.

“It is a double-edged sword: it will ruin the city but also ruin itself,” he said, noting China’s extensive business interests in Hong Kong. “But for the sake of preserving its authority, the worst choice cannot be ruled out.”

Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said China was extending its totalitarian governance to Hong Kong, but as it could not implement a Tiananmen-style military crackdown on the city, it would continue to use the police force to violently suppress protesters.

“The party plenum has ruled out political solutions so I expect the crackdown and confrontations to further escalate,” he said. “This may continue for one, two years or even more than a decade, until the Hong Kong problem is forgotten. It will hurt China and Hong Kong’s interests, but China’s politics is rigid and lacks political wisdom. To [preserve] the leadership’s face, it has little choice.”

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

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