Anger and anarchy: Hong Kong’s summer of discontent

‘We have nothing left to lose,’ shouted Hong Kong’s desperate, disenfranchised protestors

The writing was on the pillar. When protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature they left a spray-painted message for the lawmakers at the entrance: “It was you who taught me that peaceful protests are futile.”

For weeks activists had mobilised mass resistance to a proposed extradition bill that could see Hong Kongers face mainland Chinese courts. They held three marches that saw astonishing, record-breaking turnouts. They forced the postponement of the debate on the bill by surrounding the legislature and blocking lawmakers’ access.

They besieged the police headquarters twice, and the annual flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary of the handover to China was driven indoors. They orchestrated acts of civil disobedience that forced government offices to cease operating on several days.

Young Hong Kongers fear the 'mainlandisation' of their city, where the physical, cultural, social and psychological lines between them and mainland China might blur

They crowdfunded full-page ads in major newspapers around the world to draw attention to their plight, and their resilient efforts made such a mark globally that at the recent G20 summit both US president Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe raised their concerns with Chinese president Xi Jinping.


"We tried everything available to us," says 22-year-old student activist Joshua Wong, who was the face of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. On June 9th, one million Hong Kongers took to the streets but their demands fell on deaf ears.

"Before the march had even ended, chief executive Carrie Lam released a statement saying she would press ahead with the Bill in three days," says Wong.

To the activists the realisation was stark: peaceful protests were futile.

Cycle of mistrust

Hong Kong is no stranger to protests, and ideological tensions have persisted since the 1997 handover, locking China and a significant portion of the Hong Kong population into a cycle of mistrust, according to Cora Chan, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Beijing representatives in 1984, protects Hong Kong's civil liberties and social and economic systems. Yet despite the legal pledges, many in Hong Kong were deeply sceptical, and five years later they watched the horrifying scenes of the Tiananmen massacre unfold on their screens and wondered what might lie in store for them.

“The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre marked China out as an exception in the chapter of world history that saw the fall of international communism,” says Chan. “The massacre crystallised the mistrust between China and Hong Kong into an open ideological conflict – Leninist authoritarianism versus liberal democracy – that has coloured relations between the two since then.”

Young Hong Kongers fear and rail against the “mainlandisation” of their city, where the physical, cultural, social and psychological lines between them and mainland China might blur. They come out in force when they sense any tentacles approaching, most notably for the anti-sedition law protests in 2003 that saw 500,000 take to the streets, and the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 that brought the city centre to a standstill for 79 days.

The freedoms apparently enshrined in the joint declaration are guaranteed until 2047, at which time Beijing is legally free to impose any system it chooses

Ultimately the Umbrella Movement ran out of steam, and the protesters were helpless in the face of a political system that guarantees a pro-mainland majority in the legislature and where Beijing pre-selects the candidates for the key chief executive role.

It is a government that fails, by design, to represent its people, and young Hong Kongers looked around and felt they truly had nothing left to lose, says Wong. A handful of pro-establishment, pro-Beijing families control the vast majority of Hong Kong’s land and wealth, and property prices are the highest in the world.

“We can never buy a home. We cannot select our own leaders. There is something seriously wrong,” says Wong.

And the clock is ticking. The freedoms apparently enshrined in the joint declaration and the “one country, two systems” formula are guaranteed for only 50 years, until 2047, at which time Beijing is legally free to impose any system it chooses. Given that many of the recent protesters are in their teens and early twenties, this reality will visit them in middle age.

Blockades and rubber bullets

On June 12th, the day the bill was due to have a second reading, protesters blockaded the complex, and police responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and batons, leaving 80 people injured. Human rights groups say they have extensive video evidence to document excessive force, and are calling for an inquiry.

After that violent escalation Lam agreed to suspend the bill, but it was not withdrawn fully – meaning it could be reintroduced. Lam refused to order an independent investigation into police brutality and labelled the protesters “rioters”, an important legal distinction as rioting charges can carry prison terms of up to 10 years.

Given that more than 100 demonstrators were convicted for their roles in the Umbrella Movement, with some handed prison sentences of up to 16 months, this label was not well received.

'The Hong Kong government was pushing us to the point of despair and desperation. We had tried every possible way imaginable to make our voices heard'

Lam’s intervention served only to further incense the protesters, and more than two million – in a city with a total population of 7.4 million – took to the streets the following Sunday to express their anger.

Shortly before the march on July 1st to mark the handover back to China, news came through that a third protester had died by suicide over the period of the crisis. The two women and one man who had fallen to their deaths had all left notes relating to the protest movement.

“The protesters were devastated,” as they gathered to march once more, says Wong. Temporary shrines were set up along the route where people paid their respects and left white flowers and origami cranes.

“The Hong Kong government was pushing us to the point of despair and desperation. We had tried every possible way imaginable to make our voices heard,” he said.

Be water, my friend

The extradition bill movement has been intentionally leaderless, in part to not allow police to identify ringleaders. They chose to be decentralised, fluid and spontaneous, and they adopted martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s clarion call: “Be formless, shapeless – like water. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

The decision-making process throughout was organic and democratic. Groups would communicate using the encrypted messaging system Telegram, and when different courses of action were suggested they voted via text messages.

A protesting sign language was devised, so when people at the front lines needed helmets, masks, water, cable ties to secure barricades, cling-film to protect their arms from pepper spray, or any other supplies, they would use the sign language and the required items would be passed up through the crowd.

On July 1st, there was initially no plan to try to storm the legislature, but tempers were flaring. Someone commandeered a metal trolley and rammed it into the complex’s plate glass, while a few others dissembled metal barriers and took down road signs to make improvised battering rams.

Anti-government graffiti was sprayed on walls and furniture. 'Hong Kong is not China,' read one. Another said: 'The government forced us to revolt.'

On the other side of the reinforced glass stood hundreds of riot police, several of them using video cameras to document the evidence. Some senior pro-democracy lawmakers tried to step in the way as activists charged at the reinforced glass time and again, pleading with them to stop, begging them to think of their futures and the 10 years they were sure to spend behind bars if they continued.

“We have nothing left to lose,” they shouted back.

This revolution was televised, real-time tweeted and livestreamed, and images of the spectacle were beamed around the world. Hour after hour they pummelled the stubborn plate glass, and as it started to give everyone wondered when the police would finally make their move.

Several hours after they began ramming the glass the gaps were wide enough for a person to get through – and the police had disappeared. Why they withdrew at that precise point leaving the city’s political centre undefended has been a widely debated topic since.

Many feel it was a tactical move, a trap that they hoped the protesters would fall into. These suspicions were confirmed, they say, when in the aftermath authorities showed footage of the ransacked chamber and branded the protesters “hooligans” who would now be brought to swift justice.

The police denied it was a tactic to encourage the protesters to enter the legislature, but claimed they felt for a variety of reasons it was prudent to withdraw at that point and regroup.

The first few demonstrators made tentative steps inside the building and, as it became clear they were alone, scores surged in behind them and ran up the escalator to the chamber, to the very room where the despised bill had recently been tabled.

Anti-government graffiti was sprayed on walls and furniture. “Hong Kong is not China,” read one. Another said: “The government forced us to revolt.”

Portraits of politicians who came in for scorn were smashed and the city’s emblem was defaced. A British colonial-era flag was draped for a short while over the podium, in a message to the UK not to forget their legal obligations under the handover agreement.

Police have made more than 50 arrests to date and say there are many more in the pipeline, while lawmakers have rejected calls for any amnesty

Yet for all the “hooliganism”, this was a crowd that had boundaries. The library was barely touched, and a handwritten sign was put up telling protesters not to damage books and valuable documents. Those who took soft drinks from the cafeteria left money behind. As they prepared to evacuate the building, empty plastic bottles were collected for the recycle bin.

All the protesters wore helmets and surgical masks in an effort to hide their identity and avoid prosecution – all but one. Brian Leung stood on a table and as a defiant gesture took off his mask and read their demands on camera before leaving.

“The lack of a democratic election is the root of all evils. Unless universal suffrage and a just election system are in place, we shall never stand down,” the 25-year-old master’s student read out. The other demands included calling for the withdrawal of the bill and Lam’s resignation.

After nearly three hours in the chamber, all but four protesters opted to retreat as word arrived that the riot police were approaching. An argument ensued, and the group grabbed the four holdouts and hauled them – literally kicking and screaming – out of the building.

Emerging through the broken windows they were greeted by loud cheers from the crowd outside, and together sprinted off into the distance as tear-gas canisters were lobbed towards them and phalanxes of baton and shield-wielding police emerged through the toxic clouds.

Arrests and amnesty rejections

While both sides dust themselves down, it is clear this summer of discontent is far from over. Police have made more than 50 arrests to date in connection with the protests and say there are many more in the pipeline, while lawmakers have rejected calls for any amnesty.

The students say their next move will be a march on Sunday in an area popular with mainland shoppers – a bid to spread the message across the border where media is tightly censored and mentions of any protests are blocked on social media.

One of Beijing's biggest fears is contagion and similar scenes playing out on the mainland, where people are feeling the weight of an economic slowdown and increased authoritarianism. Taiwan is also a worry for them, where the pro-independence camp is pointing to the Hong Kong debacle as another example why reunification is not an option.

Beijing’s tendency is to react to resistance with repression, but time and time again Hong Kong has shown that to be counterproductive, says Chan.

If Beijing wants the territory “to be governable and to prevent any seeds of secession from taking root in Hong Kong, a change of approach is needed,” she says. “It must grant genuine democracy to Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong stands now at a crossroads, and its disenfranchised youth are in the dock.

Inside the legislature they left another reminder for the city officials on a large red and white banner: “If we burn, you burn with us.”