As Hong Kong gears up for another weekend of protests, the fallout is still being felt from this week, which saw some of the most powerful, but also ugliest scenes since the city’s anti-government movement began more than two months ago.
For five days, thousands of protesters occupied the main terminal at Hong Kong International Airport, ultimately leading to two days of cancelled flights at one of the world’s busiest transit hubs.
The demonstration was as much a statement against leader Carrie Lam as it was about escalating police violence towards protesters in recent weeks. Two key rallying cries of the airport protest were for police to “return the eye” of a protester who was seriously injured on Sunday by close-range non-lethal police fire, and “Fight for freedom! Stand for Hong Kong!”
Both slogans encapsulate many of Hong Kongers’ fears that they are losing their promised rights and liberties – which on paper will distinguish them from mainland China until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement – as well as their rage at seemingly unchecked police violence.
“The reason we are staying here is, first of all it’s not just about today, it’s from the very beginning; it’s about our voices, about the five big [demands], and all that nasty stuff that the police has done to the people,” protester Andy Chu said on Monday night, while wearing a sticker with the phone numbers of several lawyers should he be arrested. “[On Sunday] what police have done to citizens was outrageous.”
Other protesters repeated a common frustration that the government has not “replied” to a single request, including Lam’s refusal to permanently shelve the legislative bill that triggered the protests on 9 June. Although it was this bill, which would have allowed Hong Kongers to stand trial in mainland China, that prompted record-breaking marches two months ago, it’s Lam’s failure to meet protesters halfway – and the feeling that the police operate without oversight – that has kept demonstrations going.
In recent weeks, many protesters – the majority of who are under 30 and university-educated – have added the demand of democracy to their wishlist, claiming Hong Kong’s half-democratic, half-appointed legislative system is clearly broken. They also question whether or not Lam is even in charge of the city anymore, or if is now Beijing calling most of the shots despite Hong Kong’s promised semi-autonomy.
Despite the high heat and humidity, and an exhausting schedule of increasingly intense demonstrations, protests remain as steadfast as ever. Many appear to be fighting for what they see as the last battle for Hong Kong and against the loss of their rights and freedoms, but it appears to have become a war of attrition as both the government and protesters refuse to give in. After nearly 11 weeks of protest, fatigue and tightly wound emotions appear to be leading to some poor decisions.
While initially peaceful, the airport demonstration became unhinged, however, when protesters began to search for undercover officers after police admitted they are now in use. They found and detained a suspected policeman from mainland China as well as a reporter for Chinese state news outlet the Global Times, before riot police entered in a dramatic rescue with pepper spray and shields.
The scenes led to outrage in both Hong Kong and particularly in China, where Beijing has recently begun to refer to protesters as similar to “terrorists” in an escalating rhetoric that paints the protesters as largely a violent fringe element. Carrie Lam has done much the same in her appeals to the broader Hong Kong public. Protesters appear to have played into their hands for the moment.
Willy Lam, a frequent political commentator and adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, said protesters, particularly the more radical ones, should be wary of not overplaying their hand.
He said it was easy to see that “Beijing laid a trap for them” by failing to meet any demands, prompting protesters to escalate their tactics, threatening broad public support. “There are already people who think that what happened Monday night at the airport could constitute one of the turning points of public opinion,” he said. “Ordinary members of the public could get fed up with these disruptions.”
On Wednesday, many protesters, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, began a public apology campaign that saw them distribute letters to passengers as well as the general public for the disruptions they caused and the escalating emotions on show at the airport. They have not stopped, however, from going forward with two large events planned for the upcoming weekend.
Sunday will be a particularly crucial day as it will see a march organised by Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has largely attracted masses of ordinary protesters, families and elderly people to the protest movement. In June, one of their marches drew a record two million people, according to protesters’ estimates, many of whom said they have seldom protested in the past. The next one will tell the more radical protesters whether they still retain broad support.
Erin Hale is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.