What a Protest in Hong Kong Looks Like When Pro-Democracy Marchers Lose Their Fear of the Police

A video report from Hong Kong, where protests are planned for every weekend in August and calls to “liberate Hong Kong” have appeared on the city's walls.

Hong Kong’s not-yet-named protest movement began with mass demonstrations in June against a proposed change to the city’s extradition law, which would have given China more power to crack down on dissent in the autonomous region. Residents of the city, having just commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, took to the streets in the millions to stop the extradition bill from becoming law.

Five years after the failure of the peaceful pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, a huge swath of Hong Kong’s citizens were determined to stop the central government in Beijing from further eroding the “one country, two systems” promise it made in 1997. That’s when the former British colony was returned to China on the understanding that it would be permitted to run its own affairs in a democratic fashion.

One of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests, Chaohua Wang, pointed out last week in the London Review of Books that attempts to quell the latest protests by force have backfired dramatically, swelling support for the movement and encouraging protesters, many of them very young, to pick up rocks in self-defense. When protesters blocked the city’s legislature on June 12, to prevent local lawmakers from voting to approve the extradition bill, the riot police enraged the public by firing tear gas, bean bags, and rubber bullets. On July 1 — the date Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China in 1997 — emboldened protesters broke through the glass wall surrounding the legislature building and even scrawled the defiant message on its walls: “Hong Kong is not China.”

Three weeks later, when the police failed to intervene as suspected members of local triad gangs beat protesters, images of the attack spread on social networks and fed the outrage. As the protesters have begun to fight back, they have adopted the Hong Kong actor Bruce Lee’s motto: “Water can flow or it can crush. Be water my friend.”

This week, the video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan captured remarkable scenes of what the protest movement looks like now. On Sunday, he was filming after a march in the city’s Tseung Kwan O district when a group of protesters hurled eggs and fragments of bricks torn from the pavement at the local police station.

Gallego Abellan says that the willingness of some protesters to fight back in the face of police violence is a marked contrast to the “extremely well-behaved, peaceful” Umbrella Movement of 2014, when students occupied public spaces and streets outside regional government offices for 79 days.

“This time there are no leaders. Just anonymous people, groups of friends, civil society and an army of volunteers organizing everything: medics, food and drinks, all kind of anti-riot protective gear, volunteers to drive protesters late at night,” Gallego Abellan writes from Hong Kong. “People leave money in the machines that sell subway tickets for those that can’t pay, volunteers bring clothes so people can change after the demonstration and not be identified as protestors. There’s even a group of mothers that help those youth involved in the protest that need any kind of assistance.”

“Usually the forefront of the movement and those in the front line are university students, even some high school students that can’t hide their youth, even under all the protective gear,” he adds. “But as with the Umbrella movement, the majority of Hong Kongers support the protesters and join in.”

While he found older people among the protesters, Gallego Abellan says that he has seen evidence that many of the teenage protesters are just learning to fight. “The majority of those confronting the police, trying to resist their charges or even attacking police stations, are young people more used to studying or playing with their phones or computers,” he reports. “Despite all the protective gear — the masks, the balaclavas, the dark outfits — they can’t hide their inexperience in violence or the art of fighting with the police.”

“Lots of them, it’s obvious, don’t know how to throw stones, and they even have a very nerdy look despite the protective gear. But it looks like they are learning fast.”

More evidence of the youth of the protesters can be glimpsed in the partially covered faces and voices of three members of the movement who gave a news conference on Tuesday, as seen in video posted online by the South China Morning Post.

The protesters, who have used social networks and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram to organize their decentralized, leaderless movement, are also being creative, Gallego Abellan says, in their efforts to “resist or protect themselves from the surveillance security apparatus” of the authorities. On the streets, he notes, many of them not only use masks but also cover their eyes with goggles or sunglasses “to avoid facial recognition programs.”

In addition to the existential concern for their unique way of life, and the threat of China revoking their “one country, two systems” status, Gallego Abellan observes, “the pressure of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and the prospect of that not becoming better in the future because of China’s intervention in Hong Kong has also increased the frustration and anger.” The city is now so expensive for young people, historian Hans van de Ven said on a “Talking Politics” podcast last month, that many young people can’t even afford one of the city’s notorious “coffin apartments,” which are subdivided into units of 15 square feet, just big enough to fit a single bed inside.

With more protests already planned for every weekend in August and on into September, and calls to “liberate Hong Kong” being scrawled on the walls of government buildings, the pro-democracy movement looks set to continue.

“My experience as a journalist covering civil unrest and revolutions in so many countries,” Gallego Abellan says, “is that when people lose their fear of tear gas and confront the riot police and are out in the streets in huge numbers, the riot police can’t do much.”

Although the protesters are “very aware of the consequences of getting detained, like spending long years in prison,” he adds, “Hong Kongers are losing their fear.”

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