THIS WAS an important national day for China. October 1st is the 70th anniversary of the day Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For Xi Jinping, China’s president, it was a chance both to emphasise his claim to Mao’s mantle as China’s undisputed leader, making a speech from the very same spot, and to flaunt the strength of the country he rules. But as Beijing settled in for an evening of fireworks and song, Hong Kong was counting the cost of yet another day of street battles between protesters and the police, which were extending long into the night.
In Beijing the day’s festivities included the biggest military parade China has ever seen, as Mr Xi reviewed 15,000 troops and an imposing array of high-tech weaponry. Designed to make China’s enemies tremble, it also served to warn restive parts of China itself that rebellion will not be tolerated. But Hong Kong, an “autonomous region” that for months has been in increasingly violent revolt against the Communist Party’s interference there, refused to be cowed. Those in the territory who object to indirect rule by the party relished the chance to show their rebelliousness on such an important day for Mr Xi. Across the territory, protesters, many dressed in black, marched, lit fires (sometimes of Chinese flags), chanted anti-party slogans and goaded the police. The police responded fiercely. In Tsuen Wan, a district on the mainland, an 18-year-old boy was reportedly shot with a live bullet, and is in a critical condition.
This is the first time a protester has been injured in this way and marks a dangerous escalation for a force which prides itself on its restraint in the face of intense provocation. Sadly, it was not a surprise. At a briefing on September 20th the Hong Kong police told journalists that violence had become so serious that officers’ greatest fear was that “they might have to kill someone or that they might be killed themselves”.
Protests, provoked initially by the Hong Kong government’s attempt to introduce legislation allowing criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, have lasted for over four months. Hong Kong’s hapless “chief executive”, Carrie Lam, appointed by a committee dominated by the party’s placemen, has promised to withdraw the extradition bill, but protesters have four further demands. These include an independent investigation into police conduct and democratic reforms, allowing Hong Kong people to elect all the members of their legislature and their chief executive.
Mrs Lam had tried to avert trouble by toning down the celebrations. An annual firework display was cancelled on safety grounds, and the usual flag-raising ceremony was moved behind closed doors. She herself flew to Beijing to lead a delegation of over 240 pro-party dignitaries at the official ceremonies. Rarely seen in public at home, she was filmed shaking hands with passengers on a plane and beaming as she watched the parade.
The city she left was in trouble. At a press conference on September 30th, a police spokesperson warned that the city was “on the verge of extreme danger”. Intelligence sources, he said, had exposed “suicidal” plots to murder policemen and members of the public as well as to set fire to petrol stations and bring down helicopters. The police refused an application for a large march on Hong Kong Island but demonstrators there and elsewhere pushed on regardless. Dozens of shopping centres and hundreds of other shops kept their shutters closed. Many stations on the city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) were closed early.
The march on Hong Kong Island, led by moderate pro-democracy figures, was peaceful and well choreographed. Organisers wanted a day of “mourning”—both for the millions of victims of the Communist revolution since 1949 and for the “death of freedom” in Hong Kong. Many participants wore black and held out an outstretched hand, with fingers splayed, to signify their five demands. The streets were carpeted with fake paper banknotes, the “hell money” used at traditional Chinese funerals.
Policemen watched from overhead walkways but saw no reason to intervene. Even mainland-Chinese institutions, such as the Bank of China headquarters, remained untouched. But once the main march ended, many protesters donned equipment—such as helmets and gas masks—for a more confrontational “front line”. Plans to protest outside the central government’s representative office in Hong Kong were thwarted by the presence of hundreds of policemen, dozens of police vans and at least two of the force’s three water cannon. That was a stark contrast to a night in July when protesters were able to march right up to the building and spatter black paint on a national emblem, infuriating officials in Beijing.
However, between the jewellers and designer-fashion shops of the ritzy Central shopping district, protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs into a shuttered MTR station. Police waiting inside threw some projectiles back and then burst out, firing tear-gas and rubber bullets. In the early evening huge columns of policemen in riot gear swept slowly through the city, retracing the steps the marchers had taken earlier. By the time they cleared a street the protesters had long gone.
Violence continued late into the evening, and the city is braced for further anger. Trust in the police has plummeted and their behaviour has become a factor often blamed by protesters for their own escalating violence. But any suggestion that the police cannot handle the protests increases the chances that the mainland authorities will intervene. Song Ru’an, the foreign ministry’s “deputy commissioner” in Hong Kong, told journalists in September: “We believe the [Hong Kong] government has the capability to calm down the current situation.”
Nevertheless, an investigation by Reuters, a news agency, found that the number of Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong from its People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police, had increased from about 3,000-5,000 to around 10,000-12,000. Many protesters believe, without producing evidence, that some of the Hong Kong police are now mainland soldiers in disguise. National day in Hong Kong was ugly enough; but few think things will get any prettier.