"No police, no violence.": Hong Kong protesters ease up after airport clashes

The protesters have offered the government an olive branch. The world will be watching to see what it does with it. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Hong Kong did a remarkable thing this weekend. After 11 weeks of protests against a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to China, the territory went three whole days without a single canister of tear gas being fired, despite 1.7 million people taking to the streets on Sunday. As confrontations between protesters and police have escalated, the absence of the tear gas in the city’s streets has become headline news.

The relative calm of the weekend’s protests were an invitation to the territory’s leader Carrie Lam, who has said that she will only consider the movement’s demands for reform when tensions have cooled, to make good on her word. But this was more than just a peace offering to the government: it was also an attempt to rebuild relations between protesters. When hardliners shut down Hong Kong’s airport on Tuesday and surrounded men accused of being police spies, berating and abusing one for over four hours, they alienated many moderates. It looked as though the movement had lost the plot, and would become irreparably fractured. But they hadn’t accounted for a powerful neologism in the Hong Kong lexicon: "not cutting ties".

Recognising their tendency to turn on their own ranks, the pro-democracy movement has resolved to stay united in spite of differing strategies. Radicals used their platforms for direct digital democracy to reflect upon what happened at the airport, apologise for their mistakes, and draft new ground rules for protesters. In press conferences, pro-democracy legislators announced that they would not turn on the youth to save face.

The weekend began promisingly with a Friday night forum attended by 60,000 people on international support for the anti-extradicton and democracy movements. On Saturday, thousands of local teachers marched to the department of justice, calling on the courts to "protect the conscience of the next generation" and asking police to "stop beating our students". Later in the day, a march in Kowloon saw riot police deployed to the headquarters of the pro-Communist Federation of Trade Unions and Mong Kok Police Station where marchers had surrounded the buildings, but in both cases the protesters were quick to disperse and call it an early night.

They were saving their energy for the main event on Sunday: a rally organised by the decidedly mainstream Civil Human Rights Front in Victoria Park, the stomping ground of the fusty, old-school democrats much maligned by the new generation of firebrands who see such rallies as accomplishing nothing. The site of annual Tiananmen Square memorials for the past three decades, it has become synonymous with fruitless appeals to the principles of unflinching authoritarians. In Hong Kong’s political parlance, these two factions are known as "peaceful, rational, nonviolent" camp whilst the latter earned the moniker "valiants".

In a move that shocked and disappointed many, the police issued a letter of objection to the march, meaning that if the gathering overflowed from the park and spilled out onto the streets, participants could be liable to "unlawful assembly" charges. And overflow it did:  Victoria Park has a maximum capacity of 300,000 people, and about a quarter of the city’s population of 7.3 million turned up, despite a torrential rainstorm and gale-force winds. Before the event was due to officially begin, the streets were choked.

The majority of marchers went home after they reached the intended endpoint of the march, where legislative councillor Leung Yiu-chung counted the day a success. "Even in this nasty weather a lot of people came and maintained good order," he said. "We showed that if there’s no police, there’s no violence."

This was a point that the valiants were just as keen to make. A contingent of blackclad, "geared-up" young protesters continued to occupy the roads outside Central Government Offices until the stroke of midnight. At moments, it felt like the city’s tear gas-free streak was about to end, as riot police assembled and some protesters taunted them by banging the barriers and yelling obscenities. But before this delicate peace was broken a call rippled through the crowd, broadcast by loudspeakers and chanting troupes: "Everyone go home! We win if we leave!" It took a sweeping human chain to pry away the last from the frontline, but they walked away. Peaceful, rational, non-violent. On LIHKG, the online forum widely used by protesters, a post calling on the crowd to besiege the heavily guarded Chinese Liaison Office was quickly shot down, down-voted thousands of times and branded the work of an agent provocateur. 

For weeks, Carrie Lam has said in perfunctory press conferences that it is only once the turmoil has subsided that she will only consider the protesters’ five demands: full withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent inquiry into police misconduct, retraction of the 12 June "rioting" charge, full amnesty for all arrested protesters and full universal suffrage. This weekend showed that opposition toward the extradition bill is still immense, that the pro-democracy has remained united in spite of internal criticism, and that by returning to the peaceful, rational, nonviolent tactics that earlier had little effect on the government, they are inviting her to fulfil her promise. At a civic press conference on Monday morning, protester Brian Tong said he hoped to see "a quick resolution to this [crisis] from the government, so that we don't have to protest anymore."

The world will be watching what Lam does with this olive branch.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a freelance writer and archaeologist born and based in Hong Kong.