The week Beijing let Hong Kong burn

Unrest and violence in the six-month-long protests have peaked. 

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This past week, Hong Kong has burned. In the most chaotic week since the current anti-government protest movement began almost six months ago, the city's streets were lit with burning barricades, petrol bombs hurled at police lines, and cars torched, their petrol tanks exploding. Hong Kong this week feels a city balanced on the edge of a precipice.

The immediate trigger was the first death to have directly arisen as the result of a protest: 22-year-old university student Alex Chow Tsz-lok was believed to be fleeing police in a housing estate carpark when he tried to escape over a wall earlier this month, not realising there was a full one-storey drop onto concrete on the other side. He died several days later from his injuries.

Protesters vowed to escalate their protest actions in response and planned a general strike, originally planned to last for three days but which ended up ushering in a week of unprecedented violence. Protesters began by blockading roads and disrupting transport networks. Last Monday morning, 11 November, Hong Kong woke to truly shocking scenes as a police officer, scuffling with two young protesters at a road blockade in a Hong Kong suburb, shot the protesters with live ammunition at near-point blank range. The entire incident was live-streamed and videos quickly circulated online, immediately sparking anger.

In the central business district, white-collar office workers have emerged at lunchtime every single day for the past seven consecutive working days, blockading the streets and chanting protest slogans. Every day, the riot police have arrived, and on several occasions fired tear gas in the middle of central’s busiest intersection at the height of the lunchtime rush-hour. Imagine riot police firing teargas in the middle of Finsbury Circus in London's City financial district during the average week-day lunch hour and you get the idea.

Office workers protesting in central Hong Kong. Credit: Getty

The protesters have not been entirely blameless on their side. In another, horrific, live-streamed incident last Monday, a man arguing with protesters was doused in flammable liquid and set alight. And during a mêlée between protesters and pro-Beijing gangs, a 70-year-old man, apparently an innocent bystander, was hit in the head with a thrown brick, and later died of his injury. While both sides of the fight were throwing bricks during the fight, and two different videos of the incident are not entirely conclusive, it appears likely that the offending brick was thrown by a protester.

While these incidents of violence do not seem to have significantly undermined support for the protesters, traffic disruptions seem to have tested the patience of some. In the past week, Hong Kong’s roads have become moonscapes, as protesters dig up paving stones from the footpaths and use them to blockade the roads, either casually tossed onto the asphalt or constructed into miniature trilithons to block traffic and impede the progress of police. As a result of the chaos and traffic disruption, schools have been closed for over a week.

University campuses became the latest flashpoint for conflict, with tear gas fired and clashes between students and police on the campuses of all four of the city’s largest universities. Last Monday and Tuesday, student protesters and police waged a continuous 24-hour pitched battle for control of a bridge leading to the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus over a major expressway and railway lines. Police said that protesters had thrown objects from the bridge to disrupt traffic. Protesters said they wanted to prevent the police from entering the campus. Protesters launched petrol bombs, threw rocks and even fired arrows, while police subjected them to an hours-long barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, before eventually withdrawing. In the wake of the Chinese University incident, and following minor incidents on other campuses, the city’s universities declared that semester would be finishing two weeks early. However, the most dramatic development was still to come.

On Sunday, the focus moved to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or PolyU, where upwards of a thousand students and protesters fortified themselves inside the campus and police laid siege to the building. Students again threw petrol bombs, built makeshift catapults on the terraced roofs of the university to launch petrol bombs and rocks at police lines. Police responded by drenching the protesters with pepper water from water cannons, as well as tear gas and other projectiles. As the hostilities escalated, with pedestrian bridges in flames and a police armoured vehicle which attempted to break through a protest barricade set alight by a barrage of protester petrol bombs, police declared the entire site a riot, and announced that anyone present would be arrested and charged with rioting, serious charges carrying a ten-year jail term.

A protester throws a molotov cocktail. Credit: Getty

More worryingly, police declared that if protesters continued to attack police, they would be forced to respond with lethal ammunition. As both sides refused to step down, the entire city held its breath, many openly wondering whether Hong Kong was about to witness a repeat of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Over the past two days, thousands have rallied in nearby streets, clashing with police as they tried to breach the police lines in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the trapped protesters.

Through all these events, the Hong Kong government has been shockingly absent. In any other city undergoing the traumatic events Hong Kong has endured, political leaders would be front-and-centre, explaining, justifying, reassuring, visiting the sites of conflict and speaking to all sides involved. Instead, Hong Kong has had to console itself with deafening silence. The PolyU siege had been underway for over two days before Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally emerged to give a press conference on Tuesday morning at which she announced that protesters under the age of 18 (over which there were over 100) would be permitted to leave the site without being arrested, while asking that the other protesters surrender themselves to avoid further violence. As at the time of writing the siege continues.

Police fire on protesters trying to escape Poly U. Credit: Getty

Stepping into this vacuum of leadership has been Beijing. Over the weekend, as groups of citizens organised by pro-Beijing politicians began clearing protester roadblocks, the People’s Liberation Army garrison sent its troops out onto the streets on what they said was a purely spontaneous, “voluntary” exercise to assist with clearing the roads. In response to media questioning, their commanding officer said the troops were there to spread “positive energy”. This raised eyebrows given the sensitivity of the PLA’s presence in Hong Kong, not to mention the legal restrictions that permit the PLA to operate in Hong Kong only at the request of the Hong Kong government. The government admitted that no such request was made in this case, but that the restriction did not apply to voluntary “charitable” work of this nature.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first public comments on the topic of Hong Kong, unsurprisingly offering support for the Hong Kong government and emphasising the need to restore order in Hong Kong “in accordance with the law”. He also pointedly said that the ongoing violence was “a blatant challenge to the bottom line of "one country, two systems”. However, beyond that, Xi offered no new measures to bring Hong Kong to heel.

With no signs of any compromise on the horizon, it appears that Beijing’s strategy for the moment is simply to let Hong Kong burn, with the expectation that the growing disruption and violence will ultimately undermine support for the protest movement, deepen the divisions in Hong Kong society, and create fertile conditions for Beijing to step in and impose order on a society-wide basis in the medium term. In the meantime, Hong Kong serves as a convenient object lesson for domestic propaganda purposes: look at what happens, Beijing can tell the rest of China, if you defy to the party.

US-based China analyst Bill Bishop has pointed out that the following comments by Mao Zedong on Tibet in 1959 have been doing the rounds on Chinese social media recently: “The more chaotic Tibet gets, the better. We can train troops and toughen the masses. Furthermore, this furnishes sufficient reason for future pacification and reform.”

It offers an ominous picture of one possible future for Hong Kong. Although with the world watching, and the sophisticated, highly-educated populace of a global city now seemingly in open defiance of Beijing’s rule, it is far from a forgone conclusion.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong. Twitter: @antd