The confrontation in Hong Kong has entered a new phase with pitched battles across the city running through the week, writes Colin Sparks.
The fourth day of pitched battles between demonstrators and riot police is drawing to a close. There have been running battles across Hong Kong, from the financial district of Central to the working-class towns of the New Territories. The most intense battle has been at the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where students have now kept the cops at bay for three days, braving 1,000 rounds of tear gas, water cannon and repeated baton charges. Other universities have been barricaded and students are preparing to resist an assault.
The wave of anger that followed the death of Chow Tsz Lok last Friday spilled over on Monday into widespread demonstrations and traffic disruptions. The police shooting of another, unarmed, protester that morning added a new bitterness to the mood. Both Tuesday and Wednesday saw damage to the underground system (the MTR), roadblocks and smashed traffic jams. The MTR closed many stations and some of the busiest lines either stopped running or ran a reduced service. As the days wore on, groups of demonstrators confronted the police at transport hubs and by nightfall there were battles raging in Mong Kok, Yuen Long, Tai Po and other urban centres. At the time of writing, there is every indication that the same scenes will be repeated tonight and on Thursday: the toll booths in the main cross-harbour have been set on fire, there are barricades in Central, Kowloon Tong, Mong Kok, Yuen Long and Tai Po. The police are using tear gas against demonstrators across the city. Universities have cancelled classes and several are today fortresses preparing for a siege like the one endured by the students of Chinese University.
The protestors’ tactic is to bring Hong Kong as close to a halt as they can. They are trying for a general strike, but the weakness of independent working-class organisations and the lack of a tradition of struggle has meant that this has not yet caught fire. It is not that many workers do not support the demand for democratization. A glance at any of the photographs of the demonstrations in Central show that well-dressed white-collar workers from the financial services industry are active participants in the struggle. But turning that mood of anger into a street demonstration is one thing; having the confidence in your collective power to go on strike is quite another, and it can’t be wished into being overnight.
Even so, support for those in the front-line remains firm. The battle at Chinese University provided an excellent example of how the movement can organise spontaneously and efficiently. Midway through Tuesday, supplies started to run low on the campus. A call went out on the digital channels used by the movement naming collection points where people could leave the contributions. Hundreds of people brought water, food, umbrellas, helmets, gas-masks, and all the other equipment the students needed, to the collection points. From there it was ferried by volunteer drivers to the university. Supply chains like this are commonplace on street demonstrations, but usually they are at most a few hundred metres long. In this case, the supply chains from the collection points in the city to the suburban campus stretched for several kilometres. This extraordinary feat of logistics was achieved entirely through self-organisation and a strong sense of solidarity with the students defending their university.
For its part, the government is standing firm and refusing to make any concessions, relying on an ever more violent police force as its principle support. The police have defended Monday’s shooting of an unarmed man as it ‘did not deviate from the guidelines’. The level of arrests has risen dramatically – 287 people were arrested on Monday alone – meaning they are no long trying to control demonstrations but to break them up. In the process, they are beating people indiscriminately and the figures for demonstrators needing hospital treatment has rocketed. They plan to add to their numbers by recruiting as ‘special constables’ the Correctional Services Department riot squad and ‘volunteers’ from other uniformed bodies like the immigration service.
Beijing’s local representative has called for the government to ‘decisively adopt all necessary means to forcefully crack down on various act of terrorism.’ There are also renewed rumours that the central government is ready to intervene directly, using the Armed Police or the PLA to help the HK police crush opposition. The fact that the Shenzhen authorities, including the Communist Youth League, are helping to evacuate mainland students from Hong Kong, offering free transport and accommodation to any who want it, adds to the sense that an intervention might take place.
Even if Beijing holds off on this drastic move, they and their local allies are trying to postpone the District Council elections, scheduled for 24 November, on the grounds that candidates would experience risks of violence in the current climate. In reality, they are more and more convinced that democratic candidates will win a landslide victory. While this would not represent a substantial shift in power, it would be an important symbolic victory for the movement and demonstrate the depth of their popular support. Chief Executive Carrie Lam is so far refusing to cancel the elections. Instead, she is trying to use it as a bargaining chip, arguing that the elections can only go ahead if the movement stops its protests.
There is no doubt that these four days of protest have created a real atmosphere of crisis in Hong Kong. Transport is in chaos. Shops are often almost empty of food supplies. The old routine of peaceful weekdays and weekends of turmoil has been upended. The war of attrition between the government and police on one side and the front-line militants and their mass of supporters on the other is now being fought seven days a week.