Violence ‘Adds Oil’ to the Flames of Protest in HK
Continuing escalations conjure memories of another protest 30 years ago
Pro-Democracy protests have raged for almost 3 months in Hong Kong. Millions have taken to the streets as police respond with increasingly brutal tactics. The shadow of Tienanmen Square looms large in world imagination as the biggest protests in 30 years increasingly embarrass a frustrated government in Beijing.
Protesters decry police brutality, demand the resignation of Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, and insist on the suffrage they were promised by the Chinese government under the “one-country two systems” agreement in 1997.
Beijing has responded by claiming the protests are “riots” and the result of “US meddling”. They have warned that protesters are playing with fire, and that “those who play with fire shall perish by it.”
Government claims are becoming increasingly conspiratorial as they ratchet up propaganda painting the rioters as thugs, CIA funded and incapable of organizing such creative and sophisticated demonstrations.
Is it possible that Beijing will deploy the People’s Liberation Army to crush the rebellion as they did to a student movement 30 years ago?
Activists I spoke with doubt it’s a possibility. They say that’s a misconception among foreigners that doesn’t take into account the leverage the Hong Kong economy has in the mainland.
But one thing is certain- patience in Beijing grows shorter by the day.
“Add Oil!” is a regional Hong Kong phrase in Cantonese of encouragement. During the 2014 protests it also became a symbol of Hong Kong identity- the slogan has become not only a cheer but also a brave scream of defiance against mainland China- a way to assert the cultural independence that Hong Kong has always enjoyed.
The Umbrella Movement has come and gone, but its influence is undeniable on the current Hong Kong movement, which has proven itself more durable, more adaptable and more willing to use violent tactics than its predecessor.
Hong Kongers have learned from their past. The current protests do not depend upon occupying public spaces like the Umbrella movement did. They are spontaneous demonstrations that occur throughout the city, or sit-ins during the weekends at the cities airport, parties mocking Beijing propaganda or disruptions of public transport.
They are hit and run tactics, and unlike the protests in 2014, some demonstrators are confronting the violence of the police with retaliation of their own.
Cara Chan is an activist in Hong Kong. She quit her job to document and promote the protests in English to a world audience (twitter @tweets_hk ). She explains the difference between current protests and those of 2014:
“Protesters have more sense of desperation due to the ever tighter grip of China.” she said by email. “We are more united than in 2014. It’s not groups of occupied zones fending for themselves. We coordinate through internet forums and Telegram (an encrypted messaging service).”
She also described peaceful protesters as growing disgusted with increasingly brutal government tactics, which have involved suspected triad violence as well as brutal repression from Hong Kong Police.
On July 21st, a group of white-clad gangsters attacked students returning from a protest with pipes and bamboo canes. Terrified residents fled in panic as men suspected of being Triads hired by mainland China mercilessly beat protesters and bystanders alike.
It was a solemn reminder to Hong Kongers how protests are often quashed in the mainland. Threatened by a government known for strict censorship, obsessively controlling all aspects of social life and widespread repression against dissidents- the protesters returned the next day in force.
“ Peaceful protesters no longer condemn violence toward police and government buildings, rather they urge every protester to do what they can to protect themselves” Cara said.
Both Cara and another activist I spoke with “Tom”, who asked his name be withheld, describe increasingly common attacks by thugs who dress in white shirts and work in collaboration with the police.
“It isn’t just the attack of July 21st. The police work with gangsters to attack us regularly.” said Tom. “When these thugs show up, magically there’s no police officers. The white shirts do what the police want and we can’t even retaliate in the legal-system because the police protect them.”
The Dragon Bites Back
Lam seems stuck at an impasse for now, and growing increasingly desperate. Hong Kong police significantly escalated their tactics over the weekend in a series of violent brawls that left many protesters wounded, included one young volunteer medic who was reportedly blinded by bean-bag shot in her right eye (the inspiration for the cover image).
Videos of police brutally beating protesters circulated heavily on both traditional and social media.
The increasingly heavy-handed police approach is accompanied by bellicose rhetoric from the mainland. The Chinese government calls the protests an attempt at a “Color Revolution”, paints laser-pointers used by the protesters as weapons, and claims that “criminals and thugs, mislead by foreign powers are damaging the Chinese economy”.
Cara told me that the tactic being employed to end the civil-uprising is one of attrition. She talks of police making superfluous arrests and government attempts to turn the general populace against the supporters, so far unsuccessfully,.
“The aim for police is to scare all of us into submission and drag us down emotionally and financially with charges.” she said.
For now, the protests still enjoy considerable popular support within the city, at least the peaceful ones. The people seem to be more upset at police brutality than at the inconvenience of the demonstrations. Hong Kong government workers even staged a walk-out in support of the movement- an event that was considerably embarrassing to both Lam and Beijing.
But officials hope that with time, economic disruption and continued inconvenience, that sentiment will change.
In the meantime, Chinese mainland media sources spread the government claims both within the country and abroad. They are are helped internationally in their propaganda efforts by Russian news organization RT and “leftist” organizations in the West such as Greyzone and Mintpress.
I usually cover Venezuela, and as the protests wear on I am beginning to see eerie similarities between the two situations, and even the same media figures who defend Maduro backing up the increasingly unbelievable claims from Beijing.
Just as in Venezuela, China wants to paint itself as the victim of international conspiracy as it uses bloody measures to stomp out a revolution that it is at root the fault of a totalitarian regime.
And just as in Venezuela, time is on the side of the regime. Cara told me that she fears the demonstrations need to achieve their goal before Chinese National Day in October.
“ Xi takes ‘face’ very importantly. It would be unacceptable to have social uprising while they celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” she said.
She fears that crackdowns and pressure will only increase as they get closer.
As I filed this story, protesters were gearing up for the biggest sit-in to date at the city’s airport. Their goal is to raise international awareness over the recent actions of police.
“I don’t care what happens to me.” said ‘Tom’. “Maybe the police want us [protesters] dead or in jail. But I’m not stopping. I want to live in a free Hong Kong.”
For now, the demonstrations have staved off the dragon, but Beijing is not known for allowing signs of weakness to persist.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter usually covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.