The protests are intensifying in Hong Kong following the death of student Chow Tsz Lok, and in response to police violence more broadly. Public support is greater than ever, but the need to link up with the mainland is becoming pressing, writes Colin Sparks.
Monday saw another young protester shot by the police as demonstrators attempted to stop public transport in order to win support for a general strike. The young man was shot in the stomach at point-blank range. He is now in a critical condition in intensive care following an emergency operation. In another incident, a police motorcyclist repeatedly ran his machine into retreating protestors.
There has been widespread disruption of transport and at least six of Hong Kong’s universities have been closed in response to protest actions. A lunch-time rally by financial sector workers in the city’s Central business district was broken up by police firing tear gas, forcing the protestors to retreat into the Landmark shopping mall, home to some of the most expensive luxury brands in the world. By 4 pm local time, 64 people had been admitted to hospitals with injuries, and two of them were in a critical condition. At the time of writing, sporadic demonstrations and battles were continuing in several locations. A whole day of confrontations looks likely to continue late into the night.
The strike attempt follows a weekend of protest in response to the death of a young student who fell four metres in a multi-story car park on 3 November. The student, Chow Tsz Lok, sustained serious injuries. The circumstances of his injury are disputed, but many protesters believe he was attempting to avoid the effects of tear gas fired by the police. The announcement of his death from his injuries on Friday provoked immediate widespread anger. Students at Hong Kong University of Science of Technology, where Chow Tsz Lok was a student, attacked China-linked businesses and demanded that the university president condemn police violence. On Saturday there was a large memorial rally in Tamar Park, which passed off peacefully, but on Sunday demonstrators clashed with police in at least nine location.
The week had already seen big demonstrations. On 5 November a large and illegal march against the ban on wearing masks took place in Tsim Sha Tsui, a tourist centre at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. The level of outrage and anger rose when police confirmed persistent rumours that a woman had filed a complaint saying that she had been seized from the street and gang raped inside Tsuen Wan Police station. Her complaint is the first confirmation of long-standing rumours of violence and sexual assault in police stations and in the San Uk Ling detention centre, which has now been closed in response to fierce criticisms.
Police are denying that they have escalated the level of violence following orders from Beijing but there certainly has been a toughening of attitudes by both central government and their local satraps. On 1 November the Communist Party concluded its ’19th Central Committee 4th Plenum’ – an important policy-making event. In the couple of weeks leading up to the meeting there had been press reports that Beijing was preparing to ditch the local Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and replace her with another one of their toadies. In the event, the Plenum issued statements saying that Beijing would intervene more systematically in Hong Kong, introducing ‘patriotic education’ in schools and for civil servants, forcing through a ‘National Security Law’, extending their control over senior appointments, and pressuring judges to toe the party line.
Opposition to a National Security Law, which would likely extend the reach of Beijing into the policing of Hong Kong, has long been a major theme in local politics. Back in 2003, the Chief Executive was forced to withdraw a draft when a then-unprecedented 500,000 people marched against it, forcing the immediate resignation of his security advisor, followed by his own a couple of year later. For Beijing, the fact that the Hong Kong legislature has still not passed a law mandated by the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, 22 years after the handover is an important symbol of Hong Kongers’ refusal to accept integration into the mainland system. From Hong Kongers’ standpoint, much of the worry about the now-abandoned Extradition Bill was that it would pave the way for another attempt to pass the disputed law and to subordinate them even more to Beijing’s will.
As if to emphasise the new hard line, Carrie Lam was granted an unexpected audience with Xi Jinping in Shanghai on Monday 4 November, before flying on to Beijing to meet the Vice-President, Han Zheng, who spelt out to her, but not to the public, exactly what the central government wants its servants to do. There is some debate over whether this public show of support for Lam means that she is safe for the remainder of her term of office or if it is simply a temporary measure.
There is, however, no doubt that Beijing has decided that, while they might push to address economic problems like the housing crisis, there will be no political concessions, and that they want the movement defeated. The level of ‘White Terror’ has risen in the last few days. The police have long been happy to use force against protestors and journalists, but their aggression is now leading them to attack ambulance and fire-brigade staff responding to emergency calls.
There have also been political moves which may lead to the cancellation of the District Council elections scheduled for 24 November, in which the government looks set to suffer a heavy defeat. On 9 November, police arrested seven democratic members of the Legislative Council, accusing them of illegally disrupting its meetings back in May. The decision to take this action now, more than six months after the alleged offences, is a demonstration – directed at Beijing as much as at the movement – that the government will use any tactics to defeat its opponents.
For their part, the core of militants remains active and determined, although according to reports their numbers have fallen somewhat. Nevertheless, public support has, if anything, increased. Militants are cheered and applauded by passers-bye and every time heavy-handed police open fire on demonstrators, invade a housing estate, fire tear gas next to an old people’s home, or arrest innocent bystanders whose only crime is being too close to an enraged copper, that public support is cemented even further. Police bans on marches and rallies have meant that expressing that public support is difficult. It is impossible to organise the vast demonstrations of a few months ago, so there are few ways publicly to express mass discontent. This is why the upcoming District Council elections are so important. The councils have limited substantive power, but a huge democratic victory in the election will have immense symbolic significance.
The movement, however brave and determined its militants, and however loyal its mass support, faces some real difficulties: they need support from the mainland as well as in Hong Kong. The fact that very few people have any interest in gaining such support, let alone a strategy for winning it, is an ever-present weakness. In the last couple of weeks, that problem has been exacerbated by a series of attacks on mainlanders. Some have been responses to provocations, but growing anti-mainlander sentiment has led to some ugly scenes. Such confrontations, even if they arise in the heat of the moment, do not carry the movement forward. They simply provide invaluable ammunition for Beijing’s propaganda efforts to isolate Hong Kongers from any sympathy on the mainland.
The movement may well be strong enough to win some concessions like a public enquiry into the crisis but the long-term aim of democratic consolidation in Hong Kong needs to be part of a movement that also challenges Beijing on the mainland.