For more than 10 weeks, Hong Kongers have staged an overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement. Huge crowds part like the Red Sea for ambulances. Demonstrators take care to clean up protest sites, even if they’ve just been teargassed. They help civilians caught in the fray. They leave coins, changes of clothing, and food for others. In short, they were seen by many as a model for peaceful and creative civic protest.
Yet that carefully cultivated image threatened to come crashing down yesterday (Aug. 13) when chaos broke out at the Hong Kong International Airport, where demonstrators had staged five consecutive days of protests, causing hundreds of flights to be canceled the last two days. What was originally a planned three-day anti-government sit-in spilled over into widespread condemnation against alleged police brutality, following a particularly horrific evening of violence on Sunday (Aug. 11).
Tensions, anger, and paranoia came together in an explosive climax late last night when riot police deployed pepper spray in the airport, and a number of protesters surrounded, detained, and assaulted two men whom they suspected to be undercover agents from mainland China, effectively attempting to mete out extrajudicial justice even as other protesters pleaded them to release the men. At one point, a police officer pulled out his gun (paywall) after his baton was taken by protesters, who used it to beat him.
Condemnation of the protesters’ actions were strong and swift, with Beijing slamming the attacks as bordering on terrorism. One of the men assaulted by the protesters, confirmed by Global Times editor Hu Xijin to be a reporter for the nationalistic tabloid, has since been held up as a national hero on Chinese social network Weibo.
The protest movement is now on its back foot, and faces the difficult task of charting a way forward. They must do so despite lacking a clear leadership structure—which so far has been a strength of the movement, but now appears to be a liability, and lay down ground rules to prevent violent incidents like those of yesterday night to happen again.
The incidents of last night did not unfold in a vacuum, however. Since late July, China has slowly ramped up its rhetoric against Hong Kong’s protesters, condemning the entire movement as “radical” and “violent” and akin to a “color revolution,” with separatist and extremist undercurrents looking to challenge Chinese sovereignty. Since Monday (Aug. 12), the protests have been described by Beijing as showing “signs of terrorism.” The army has been rattling its sabres, too, releasing two separate videos showing troops quelling riots in a not-so-subtle message to Hong Kong, while China has been waging an all-out disinformation war against the protesters.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has largely parroted the Communist Party line, continually condemning all protesters in one broad brushstroke and suggesting that they have “no stake in society.” So far, chief executive Carrie Lam has refused to offer a political solution to the ongoing crisis, instead framing it as an economic issue. For several weeks starting late July, Lam largely disappeared from public view altogether, ignoring simmering tensions while appearing for photo-op events at local People’s Liberation Army barracks. Yet when Lam has addressed the press, she and her officials have consistently evaded questions, leaving social tensions to fester, almost as if they were waiting for the movement to self-implode.
But the defining sentiment among protesters in recent days has been profound anger at the Hong Kong police. Frustrations against the force have simmered for weeks, kicked off by what many saw as an excessive use of force against protesters in mid-June. Yet calls for an independent investigation into police conduct have faced fierce opposition, and in the meantime police behavior only appeared to get more aggressive, with each successive incident adding to the public outrage. In late July, an armed mob brutally attacked civilians at a train station, yet police did not arrive until 40 minutes later, fueling suspicions of collusion with the criminal triads.
Yet it was this past Sunday that people’s fury against the police seemed to truly tip over. That evening, officers unleashed an at-times horrifying amount of force against protesters, including disguising themselves as protesters and violently arresting multiple people. In a statement yesterday, the United Nations urged Hong Kong authorities to “act with restraint” and said there was “credible evidence” that some anti-riot measures used by the police are “prohibited by international norms and standards”.
That such a peaceful rally at the airport ultimately descended into chaos and mob violence is certainly an uncomfortable moment of reckoning for the protest movement at large. By this morning, just hours after calm returned to the airport, Telegram channels and social media were full of remorseful posts from protesters apologizing for their’ “impulsive” actions, including blocking travelers from catching their flight. But they also pleaded for understanding given the context: their fight for core values has become a fight for survival. “Our police shot us, government betrayed us, social institutions failed us. Please help us,” read one post.
Yesterday’s incidents also bring to the fore an internal division within the protest that has so far been set aside in pursuit of solidarity. On the one side are those dubbed “brave fighters” who are up on the frontlines, building road barriers and clashing with police. On the other side is the so-called “peaceful, rational, non-violent” camp, who want to keep confrontations to a minimum. Since June, a rallying cry for unity over division has kept the two factions together. But the start of mass arrests by police, and the heavy injuries sustained by large numbers of protesters, have changed the calculus significantly, with many advising the “fighters” to take a pause.
Earlier this week, the Civil Human Rights Front—a coalition of civil society groups that has organized several major anti-extradition rallies attended by millions—announced that it plans to host another large-scale march this Sunday (Aug. 18), pending police approval. At a press conference yesterday, Jimmy Sham, the group’s convenor, said the peaceful march would be an important display of what Hong Kongers truly think, and a powerful rebuttal to Lam’s smear campaign against protesters.
“She’s trying to smear everyone as a rioter, which gives police carte blanche to commit their acts,” Sham said.