Towards the brink – Confrontation in Hong Kong is turning ever uglier | China
“SOCIETY HAS been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown.” So warned a senior policeman on November 12th, after a 23rd successive weekend of unrest on Hong Kong’s streets, with no sign of the usual weekday lull. A day later the central government also put it starkly. Hong Kong, it said, was “sliding into the abyss of terrorism”. The past few days had been grim indeed—a protester dying of an injury apparently suffered while running away from police, a man being shot at close range by an officer and someone being doused by protesters in flammable liquid and set on fire. This week police for the first time battled with students on campus.
Some observers had thought the protest movement might begin to fizzle out amid widespread anxiety about its impact on the economy and in the absence of any sign that it might achieve the goal of full-fledged democracy. But the death on November 8th of the fleeing student, Alex Chow, fanned the flames. On the following day, a Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered across the city to mourn. On Monday protesters tried to enforce a “general strike” in response to Mr Chow’s death by blocking streets and railway lines and throwing petrol-bombs at trains. The shooting that day of an unarmed protester who, police say, was trying to grab an officer’s gun increased the tension.
Both sides deny their own excesses. Many protesters initially dismissed the case of the man who was set on fire after remonstrating with demonstrators as the work of a stuntman. At a press conference following Monday’s mayhem, Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, responded to allegations of widespread police brutality by accusing the press of distorting “isolated incidents”.
Mrs Lam, who during the summer expressed eagerness for dialogue with her critics, now dismisses protesters as “enemies of the people”. The police label those who refuse to denounce the protesters as accomplices. But moderate politicians who eschew violence still mainly blame the authorities for the recent escalation.
Mrs Lam’s foes are everywhere. Every day this week bankers and professionals have taken to the streets during lunch-breaks, blocking traffic as masked protesters nearby smash traffic lights and set fire to bins. Even pro-establishment legislators have criticised her lack of ideas. Some would like her to be even tougher with the protesters (on November 9th a Chinese official said Hong Kong urgently needed tougher security legislation). But John Tsang, a former finance secretary who competed with Mrs Lam in 2017 for the post of chief executive—and might have won, if the public rather than a committee stacked with Communist Party sympathisers had been asked to vote on the matter—told local radio that it was up to the government to “start to de-escalate”.
To many, the police have become the real enemy. On November 12th riot officers tried to enter the rural campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (one of their volleys of tear-gas is pictured), but were repelled by students who threw petrol bombs and fired arrows. Staff who tried to mediate were tear-gassed. There were tense standoffs at other universities, too.
Many speculate that the government will use the violence to justify imposing a curfew or cancelling district elections set for November 24th, even though Mrs Lam still says she wants the polls to go ahead. Pro-establishment candidates normally perform well at the district level, but this time pro-democracy politicians are expected to make considerable gains. That could unnerve Mrs Lam and the leadership in Beijing, since control of the 18 district councils could give the pro-democracy camp a bigger voice in Hong Kong’s legislature (six out of its 70 seats are reserved for councillors) and in the committee that chooses the chief executive (councillors make up nearly one-tenth of its 1,200 members). On November 12th the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, said that holding “fair elections” would require “decisively” ending the riots. That seems a distant goal. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Towards the brink”