‘Prepared to Die’: Hong Kong Protesters Embrace Hard-Core Tactics, Challenge Beijing
The resistance, which has mainstream support, is the biggest rebellion against China’s government since President Xi took power
HONG KONG—In 2014, a protester named Chloe camped out on city streets, chanted slogans and planted “seeds of hope,” part of a 79-day occupation of major roads. The protesters’ demands for greater democracy were ignored.
This summer, the civil servant, who is in her 20s, has zip tied metal barriers together to block roads and dug bricks out of sidewalks to throw at police. Her primary role is to be “arrest support”—ready to hire lawyers for detained protesters and help their families with an emergency plan.
“Some of them are prepared to die for the movement,” said Chloe. “I am also willing to die for it.”
Hong Kong’s protests against the mainland government’s increasing reach are emerging as bigger, more frequent and more violent than previous pro-democracy movements. In a contrast to 2014, when demonstrations were largely led by students, the current action has been embraced by a broader cross-section of Hong Kong society—including civil servants, pop stars, doctors, shopkeepers and people of all ages. And those taking part in more radical acts of civil disobedience are finding wider support.
Hard-core current protesters have largely rejected the strategies of veteran leaders, whose approach is seen to have failed. Actions are mostly organized by anonymous leaders of small groups. In 2014, named student leaders became well known figures.
The shift in attitude means Hong Kong’s resistance has become the biggest open rebellion against China’s ruling Communist Party since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
“There’s a feeling among many that there’s no other option, that some physical confrontation is the only way for the regime to listen to the voices of Hong Kongers,” said Jeffrey Ngo, chief researcher at pro-democracy group Demosisto. Mr. Ngo said he doesn’t use violence himself in the current protests, but understands why some have resorted to it.
Residents have become increasingly dissatisfied as the government has dug in its heels and police have cracked down. Police on the front lines have embraced the use of tear gas—even in residential neighborhoods. Officers have beaten protesters with batons and stormed into shopping malls and subway stations to bring demonstrators to heel. Since June 9, 420 people have been arrested, and some have been charged with crimes that carry up to 10-year prison terms.
Beijing has endorsed the way the police have handled the protests and has sent signals it is losing patience with the unrest. Last week the Chinese army’s Hong Kong garrison released a video showing soldiers performing riot drills and taking part in mock street battles.
Protests across the city continued over the past weekend, the ninth in a row, some with violence, including in tourist and residential areas. On Monday a protester-led strike disrupted the subways and airport, and kept thousands home from work.
The intensity of the protests has alarmed Beijing. Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong have issued rebukes and urged the city’s leaders to punish violent demonstrators, calling a return to law and order Hong Kong’s “most pressing priority.”
Chinese army officers have said they are ready to step in if needed, though Hong Kong’s government has dismissed the possibility of calling in troops, a move that would evoke comparisons to the killing of hundreds of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Chinese officials have at times blamed the crisis on foreign influences.
The uprising is a test of Beijing’s position that Hong Kong must not be used as a base to undermine China’s ruling Communist Party. Mrs. Lam, in her comments Monday, said some extremists’ call for a revolution—a common chant on the streets in recent weeks—has changed the nature of the protest and are a challenge to China’s sovereignty.
In recent years, Mr. Xi has consolidated his power and taken action against dissidents at home, including an iron fist policy in the Muslim-majority Northwest region of Xinjiang. A national security law passed in 2015 empowered the government to make more arrests of rights lawyers and suppress criticism on social media.
Hong Kong citizens have raised the high-profile crackdowns as reasons to distrust the Chinese system.
The protests have largely been mobilized through the encrypted Telegram messaging app,Facebook and a Reddit-like website called LIHKG. When prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, a leader in the 2014 demonstrations, was in prison during the first two weeks of the current protests, his friends ran his social media accounts on his behalf.
People familiar with the Hong Kong government’s strategy say Mrs. Lam plans to wait out the unrest, betting that as students return to school in September the crisis will be contained. Mrs. Lam has made no public effort to reach out to the myriad groups that make up the movement.
Protesters say they have no such timeline and will retreat only if the government responds.
The willingness to use violence during the Hong Kong protests was a fringe idea only five years ago. Since the handover, protests have largely consisted of peaceful marches that ended at sunset, or orderly candlelight vigils. In 2014, the so-called Umbrella Movement protests became large and long-lasting, but the few tussles with police were quickly condemned by the broader movement. Tear gas was used once.
Chloe, the civil servant, said more aggressive protests are the only way to advocate for their cause.
She describes herself as someone who would rather go shopping and buy makeup than be out all night in the stifling summer heat to battle police officers. Now, like many protesters, she gets geared up before each protest: umbrellas to shield against pepper spray and gun-fired bean bag rounds; eye goggles to help reduce the effects of tear gas; a helmet; and face mask to hide her identity from police and media cameras. She often changes out of sight of security cameras, or behind comrades’ umbrellas.
Justin, another protester on the front lines, talks less about ideology. The 19-year-old unemployed school dropout was radicalized after he choked on tear gas in the first major protester clash with the police on June 12. That day’s images of riot police pointing rubber-bullet guns at protesters and chasing them down city streets shocked city residents.
The day’s clash also prompted Mrs. Lam to suspend the extradition bill. “They would ignore you unless you do something to show how firm you are,” Justin said. “Carrie Lam is the one that taught us this.”
“If we ask for the sky, we’ll get a window,” said Justin. “If we just ask for the window, we get nothing.”
In a challenge for authorities, most groups of more-radical protesters are self-organized and unpredictable, and coordinators avoid the limelight. Protests can spring up within minutes via encrypted message apps or even just among clusters of people on the streets. Participants sometimes have no idea what is occurring a block over. As many as 10,000 can gather quickly and occupy streets for hours, faced off against riot police, then disappear in a flash.
The Civil Human Rights Front, an old-guard umbrella organization that comprises about 50 NGOs, pan-democratic parties and other organizations focusing on human-rights issues, has organized some of the biggest rallies over the past two months, including one that they said attracted two million people on June 16.
Bonnie Leung, the group’s 32-year-old vice-convener, said she now receives inquiries from citizens asking for help on how to organize their own marches: for example, how to apply for a permit or arrange field marshals. The group itself is also planning more protests.
“The people of Hong Kong have woken up in the past two months, and they know that this time it will take more to get the government to listen to us,” said Ms. Leung, whose group doesn’t advocate violence but said they understand why some feel it is necessary. “The government has left us with no choice. Until they address our demands, we will not stand down.”
The Rebellion in Hong Kong Is Intensifying
Massive demonstrations in Hong Kong have forced the government to shelve a bill that could muzzle dissident voices. But the protesters are still on the streets — and they’re demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Last month, the million-strong marches forced the Hong Kong government to shelve its China extradition bill, which critics say would allow Beijing to muzzle dissident voices in the former British colony. Unsatisfied with mere suspension, protesters have demanded the bill’s complete withdrawal and the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved chief executive, Carrie Lam.
Unlike Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, which had multiple spokespersons, the youthful protesters reject any leadership and show no interest in channeling their anger into electoral directions. Instead, they have escalated their direct actions, fighting pitched battles with police, momentarily occupying the Legislative Council, and protesting inside the Hong Kong International Airport.
The Chinese government has warned the protesters of touching its “bottom line” of “one country, two systems” (the principle, first devised by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, that treats Hong Kong as part of China but gives it a measure of autonomy). Beijing has even hinted at possible military intervention. Thus far it has refrained from more direct involvement, but the threat of a serious crackdown hangs over the increasingly physical battles, with forty-four protesters just charged with rioting for the first time in two months of demonstrations.
Neither Hong Kong and Beijing nor the protesters show signs of backing down. And given the widespread anger among ordinary citizens of Hong Kong — who still lack the ability to choose their chief executive without Beijing’s involvement — it is not certain that even Carrie Lam’s resignation would resolve the impasse.
Since the mass rallies in June, we have seen more militant actions by groups of protesters targeting the Hong Kong authorities. What should we make of this escalation?
Within the “yellow ribbon” camp — those who support democratic reform — there are two factions: the radical youth (who play the vanguard role) and adult supporters and pan-democrats (the liberal opposition since the 1980s that has pushed for universal suffrage while maintaining the “free market” of Hong Kong). The young generation is more determined than the older generation to demand the government withdraw the China extradition bill. There is strong anxiety and bitterness among them — and fear that, if they cannot win this time, they will lose forever.
Since July 6 there have been three big protests in different districts. We have also seen cycles of violence between the two sides, although it is always the police who are much more provocative and violent. Despite the violence, the young people are still widely supported by the broader yellow ribbon camp. How big is the yellow ribbon camp? The turnout on June 9, June 16, and July 1 was 1 million, 2 million, and half a million, respectively. In contrast, the pro-Beijing “blue ribbon” camp mobilized no more than 150,000.
There is also growing anger among older citizens now. Not only were they duped into believing Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage, but also their children may end up with the same disappointment and face even worse social mobility.