The Price of Resistence One Hundred Days of Protest in Hong Kong

Arrests, tear gas and Molotov cocktails: Hong Kong has been protesting against Beijing's heavy-handedness for more than three months. A closer look at the history of the conflict reveals a gradual radicalization and raises questions for its future.
Protesters on a hill above Hong Kong

Protesters on a hill above Hong Kong


In early 2018, two young people from Hong Kong traveled to Taiwan for a few days. Poon Hiu-wing, 19, and her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai, 20, worked for the same company and had been dating for about six months. A heavily edited selfie posted on Facebook depicts a boy and a girl made out to look like manga characters, with big eyes, narrow chins and kissing-lips emojis on their cheeks. They were in Taipei to celebrate Valentine's Day.

But on the night of February 17, a fatal argument erupted between the two. Chan later told the police that his girlfriend had provoked him. He banged her head against the wall of the hotel room, they landed on the floor and he strangled her. Then he stuffed her body in a suitcase and dumped it on the outskirts of town the next morning. That evening, he flew back to Hong Kong, where he used the victim's ATM card to withdraw several thousand dollars. Just over three weeks later, Poon Hiu-wing's body was found.

This crime marks the beginning of a series of events that has plunged the former British crown colony of Hong Kong into a deep crisis, divided its population and threatened its economy. Hong Kong's importance as the world's third largest stock exchange and its high-profile status as a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China have forced governments from London to Berlin to Washington  to take a stand on the conflict.

The events sparked by Poon's death revived a protest movement that seemed consigned to the annals of history after the failure of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Now, though, it has returned with such force that it presents a significant challenge to China's leadership.

It is a conflict that DER SPIEGEL has been closely monitoring for months, reporting on both peaceful and violent demonstrations in addition to speaking with numerous representatives of both camps and with people who belong to neither.

It is still too early, of course, to write an ending to the story of Hong Kong's turbulent summer. But after over 100 days of protest, it is possible to draw a comprehensive picture of how it began, what events and decisions pushed it forward, and what opportunities to defuse it have been missed.

No Extradition Treaty

Saturday, September 28, marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Hong Kong umbrella protests of 2014. On Tuesday, October 1, Beijing marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China with a huge military parade in the heart of the capital. But instead of gazing at the fanfare on Tiananmen Square, most observers had their eyes on developments in Hong Kong.

After Poon's death, months passed before the case reappeared in the headlines. The reason for that is legal in nature: No extradition agreement exists between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Although Chan had confessed to killing his girlfriend, Hong Kong justice officials couldn't extradite him to Taipei. Instead, he was charged in June 2018 and, later, sentenced to 29 months in prison -- but only for money laundering, the only crime that authorities in Hong Kong could prove he had committed.

When the judge handed down her verdict, she said she understood the frustration that "an accused's admission about killing someone outside this jurisdiction could not be a basis to bring a murder or manslaughter charge in Hong Kong. However, justice equally demands that an accused is to be sentenced on the basis of the offenses with which he has been charged and of which he has been convicted." Taking into account the time spent in pre-trial detention, Chan could be released as early as this month.

During Chan's trial, the victim's parents wrote five letters asking for help. And they were addressed to the woman who was to become the key figure in the 2019 crisis: Carrie Lam, 62, who has served as the leader of the Hong Kong government since 2017.

Lam is a career official. Her diligence, ambition and determination have propelled her to the highest office in the city. She is known for attentively reading private petitions and handling them personally.

Lam used the Poon case as an opportunity to introduce a massive change in legislation: She attempted to extend Hong Kong's extradition agreement not only to Taiwan, but also to mainland China, where virtually every indictment leads to a conviction and defendants cannot expect a fair trial.

'No Time to Lose'

There is widespread disagreement over what motivated Lam to take this fateful step, one that played a decisive role in the outbreak of the current crisis. Political opponents accuse her of acting on Beijing's orders, a charge that Lam denies. Indeed, there are many indications that she took this initiative of her own accord. Either way, right from the beginning she resolutely and impatiently pushed for the amendment, without bothering to consult with the opposition. "There is no time to lose. We must strive to pass the law by the 2018-2019 session of the Legislative Council meetings -- that is, by this summer," she said. "The Taiwan murder case has set the clock ticking. We don't want the suspect to escape."

In early February, lawyer Margaret Ng, 71, got wind of the proposed new law, and she found its content strangely familiar. Ng served as a member of Hong Kong's parliament, called the Legislative Council, after Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, and she recalls that even back then there were heated debates over whether to extradite suspects to China. The plan was rejected out of concern that such a move could undermine the confidence of international investors in the rule of law in Hong Kong. Now, Lam had broached this thorny issue again.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong. It remains unclear who might have the power to negotiate on behalf of the protesters.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong. It remains unclear who might have the power to negotiate on behalf of the protesters.


"So I gathered my bundles (of documents) from back then, went to a newspaper and told them what I knew," says Ng. Her warning that an extradition agreement with China was not only a threat to investors and businesspeople, but to every Hong Kong citizen, alarmed a wider public. Resistance to Lam's law -- until then limited to a handful of experts -- began to spread, and a protest movement gradually emerged.

On March 27, democracy activist Joshua Wong, 22, met with DER SPIEGEL for an interview. The conversation focused on Beijing's ongoing efforts to more closely link Hong Kong to the mainland politically, legally and economically, most recently witha plan to combine the large cities of the Pearl River Delta into a single megacity , including the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

At the time, Wong said that the new extradition law would be a particularly gross violation of the "high degree of autonomy" once promised to Hong Kong. But he doubted that the opposition would manage to get as many people to take to the streets as during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. "Five years ago, it was easy to mobilize 100,000 people," he said. "Today, we are not prepared for this because people now know the price that they have to pay for civil disobedience."

An Historical Footnote

Most of the prominent leaders of the Umbrella Movement had been put on trial since 2014, and some had received significant prison terms. Wong himself constantly glanced at his smartphone during the interview since he had a trial date the next day and was in danger of ending up behind bars again. He did not seem optimistic about his own future and the future of the opposition. For many young residents of Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement is already just an historical footnote, he said, adding: "I'm afraid that in 10 years' time, people will just recognize me as a part of history."

Something else was worrying him as well, Wong admitted, before he left for his next lawyer appointment: that his imprisonment could cause him to miss the release of the sci-fi film "Avengers: Endgame." Like most Hongkongers of his generation, Wong is a diehard Avengers fan and he was eager to see how they would settle their score with Thanos, the super-villain from the Marvel universe.

Four weeks later, the mood in Hong Kong had turned. There were now daily reports in the media on the dispute over the proposed extradition law. Some 12,000 demonstrators took to the streets in late March, but there were 130,000 on April 28. Many of them were students, but blue-collar and white-collar workers also joined them. It was the largest demonstration since the end of the Umbrella Movement.

Additional protests and online petitions followed in May, but nobody was expecting what happened on June 9: Hundreds of thousands of protesters -- more than a million people, according to the organizers -- thronged the streets of Hong Kong and demanded that the government retract the bill.

Lam had made amendments to her proposed legislation, but she refused to consider withdrawing it. Indeed, on the very evening of the mass demonstration, she announced that the bill would be introduced as planned three days later. Because the government enjoys a majority in the city parliament, where only half of the seats are democratically elected, it was practically a certainty that the law would be passed. Even a million protesters marching in this city of 7 million is not enough to persuade the government to give in. It was with this bitter realization that the demonstrators returned home.

Turning Point

But they were back on June 12, a day that would become the turning point in the crisis. Thousands blocked the Legislative Council to stop members from entering and voting on the bill. The demonstrators' anger was so great that they stormed the building and police responded with arrests, pepper spray and tear gas. For the first time in summer 2019, clouds of smoke from burning barricades billowed over downtown Hong Kong.

Three days later, Lam suspended the bill, which she had been pushing for months with no regard for the opposition. But she refused to formally withdraw it. Still, the tables had been turned and the demonstrators appeared to have the upper hand.

"If this city ever gets its own official holiday, then it will have to be on June 12," says Margaret Ng, the lawyer. It was the day on which the protesters brought their government to its knees. "It remains to be seen whether it was a good idea to storm the parliament," Ng says. "But I doubt that the law could have been prevented otherwise."

Since June 12, the momentum has been with the protest movement. Over the ensuing months, it generated a popular force and international visibility that is remarkable, even compared to historically similar movements. There are three factors to explain this: the anger and creativity of the protesters, the clumsiness of the government and the often-excessive violence of the police.

A burning barricade at a recent protest

A burning barricade at a recent protest


Week after week, the demonstrators have surprised their opponents with a range of new actions. They have protested in government districts and residential areas, occupied shopping malls and called for school strikes, demonstrated in front of police stations and demolished subway stations. They alternate between large, peaceful demonstrations and small flash mob attacks that often end with tear gas and pictures of police swinging batons.

Urban Guerrillas

At the core of the movement is a digitally savvy, highly mobile urban guerrilla that communicates via chat groups in networks like LIHKG and Telegram. "Guardians of Hong Kong" is the name of one of the groups, which is also used by journalists to keep tabs on the events. The name is an allusion to a Marvel Comics series.

If the police move to intercept the protesters at one end of the city, the so-called frontliners are often already on their way to the other side of town. They have swapped their Avengers-like black uniforms, gas masks and kneepads for jeans and T-shirts so they can blend back into the city crowds. These are battles that the police generally lose.

The movement insists on remaining amorphous and leaderless. This is one of the lessons learned from the failed umbrella protests, whose most prominent representatives almost all ended up in court. They seem naive and clumsy to the new generation of protesters.

Joshua Wong started to serve his sentence in mid-May and followed the first wave of mass protests in amazement from his prison cell. When he was released on June 17, he called for a blockade of the police headquarters, but was sharply rebuked on the social networks: What made him think he was in a position to give commands? Such decisions are not made by individuals in the new protest movement, but by all those who are involved in the relevant chat groups and then vote on them.

The movement's ingenuity could serve as inspiration to professional PR agencies. As early as June, the first crowd-funded ads appeared in leading European and American media outlets -- and it took weeks for the government to follow suit with its own campaign. In mid-August, when protesters at the airport beat up a Chinese journalist  and prompted a chorus of international criticism, the movement apologized. In late August, it posted a protest anthem online called "Glory to Hong Kong." It is now frequently sung in public places. During the moon festival, thousands climbed Victoria Peak and Lion Rock, both mountains overlooking Hong Kong, and lit up the skyscrapers with laser pointers.

In comparison to this dazzling display of creative protests, the government's public relations efforts appear lumbering and out of touch with reality. For weeks, Lam robotically recited her repertoire of appeals for the spirit of solidarity in the city and resorted to comparisons that only served to further provoke the protesters: On June 12, she said that she's a mother. If she were to indulge her son's "wayward behavior," she said, one day he would ask: "Mum, why didn't you call me on it back then?"

Even More Dubious

Statements by other politicians were even more dubious: Fanny Law, one of Lam's advisers, alleged in early September that young girls were providing "free sex" to male frontline demonstrators. The government has half-heartedly condemned the brutal attacks that have presumably been perpetrated by criminal gangs on demonstrators and bystanders since late July. At the same time, it steadfastly defends almost every action by the police, including dangerous operations in the narrow confines of subway stations.

But, with the exception of the incident at the airport, this esprit de corps is also evident among the government's opponents. Even if individual protesters may go too far, hardly anyone is willing to break the consensus, and the increasing severity of the police only serves to strengthen this sense of unity.

On June 30, the New York Times published an essay by a demonstrator named Fred Chan Ho-fai outlining the tactics of the movement. The title of the piece was: "A Hong Kong Protester's Tactic: Get the Police to Hit You." The goal was, as Chan writes, "to use the most aggressive nonviolent actions possible to push the police and the government to their limits. (...) Such actions are a way to make noise and gain attention." If this succeeded, he continued, it would "prompt the police to respond with unnecessary force" and "then the public (would) feel disapproval and disgust for the authorities."

One day later, on July 1, radical demonstrators stormed parliament again, this time occupying and vandalizing the plenary chamber, spray-painting walls and smashing windows. Although several opposition politicians pleaded with the demonstrators to reconsider, some of them begging on their knees, none of them offered vociferous criticism of the action afterwards.

Even the initiator of the umbrella protests, Benny Tai, 55, a staunch advocate of non-violent resistance, cannot bring himself to condemn the second storming of the parliament. He was in prison on July 1, listening to the events over the radio. What the protesters did was "uncivilized," he admits. "But the truth is, I was crying," he said in early September, a few days after he was released.

A few dozen demonstrators forced their way into the plenary chamber that evening. Before they proclaimed the protest movement's key demands, they paused for a moment. An act like this could mean lengthy prison sentences for everyone present. "A good 20 of them walked out again at first," Tai says. "But then they came back. They refused to leave the others behind alone. They sacrificed themselves. This is perhaps the highest degree of nonviolent resistance that we have seen in Hong Kong."

Vague Offers of Dialogue

It was not until early September that Lam formally withdrew the extradition bill and announced that she intended to speak "with everyone concerned." The Hong Kong Stock Exchange rallied briefly, but Lam's concession quickly fizzled out. In mid-September, the demonstrations escalated with over 1,400 protesters arrested, indicted and released on bail, hundreds of Molotov cocktails thrown and more than 2,300 tear gas cartridges fired. The movement had become radicalized and long since moved beyond the extradition law and vague offers of dialogue.

Now, it wasn't just police and protesters clashing on the streets, but also demonstrators supporting different factions, a reality that led to a brutal incident on Gloucester Road. Government opponents beat a man until he went down on his knees, then kicked him until he lay completely motionless on the ground. The man, apparently a government sympathizer, was in critical condition when he was admitted to the hospital.

"I would have beaten him, too," says a young demonstrator who gave himself the name of Fong. He participated in another protest that afternoon, but rapidly heard about the events on Gloucester Road. "The man had attacked one of us." At least that's what was reported on the social network LIHKG, he said, adding that "all of the news" there is verified. "The goal was to teach him a lesson. People like that don't listen to reason. They only understand the language of violence." Fong has participated in nearly every demonstration since June 9, and in July he and a few friends from his high school became frontliners.

Fong is 17 years old and lives with his parents and two sisters in a two-room apartment in the Tseung Kwan O district. His father is a construction worker and opposes the protest movement. "In his opinion, we should obey," says Fong, "but my sisters and I want democracy." He says that's very typical of families with parents over the age of 50.

"It would be ideal if Hong Kong could become completely independent of China," says Fong, "but that's probably not realistic." He wants the government to comply by January with the remaining four of the protesters' demands: an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, a stop on referring to the protests as "rioting," which can carry heavy prison sentences, the withdrawal of all charges already brought and direct, free elections, for both the parliament and the next head of government.

Huge expectations have been raised by the protest movement's successes, its remarkable degree of unity and the international recognition that it has received. But its leaderless structure shaped by social media, the weakness of Hong Kong and the strength of the central government in Beijing have created an impasse. If this conflict is to be resolved peacefully, who will have the authority to seek a compromise?

The Role of Social Media

"I agree that we have to talk to the government eventually," says Fred Chan Ho-fai, three months after he first wrote about the movement's tactics in The New York Times. "But we are still a long way from taking this step. Only when the government has agreed to meet our demands."

Chan sees no problem in finding representatives who could negotiate in the name of the movement. He says their authority would stem from the social networks that already provide a forum for approving every action taken by the demonstrators. "The role of social media in this movement goes far beyond that of previous conflicts, like the Arab Spring," Chan says. He points out that today's social media platforms are faster and more efficient. It's much easier today, he says, to establish common, negotiable positions than it was during the "Facebook revolutions" of past years.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2019 (September 29th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

But China's leadership has as little in common with the regimes of the Arab Spring as the protest movement in Hong Kong has with the erstwhile insurgents in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli.

Hong Kong is not an existential problem for Beijing, but it will become an increasingly serious problem after summer 2019. There remains a danger that China's leadership will resort to violence to resolve the situation. It is partly up to the protest movement to see that this does not happen.

The government's opponents, Chan says, still have a few options. "Since the 1960s, we've grown accustomed to thinking of Martin Luther King when it comes to the issue of civil rights movements. Rarely do people remember the important role played by Malcolm X and his radical actions," he says, adding that there's room for a greater degree of radicalism.

After more than 100 days of protest, the movement appears to be as sure of itself as Lam was on the eve of June 12.

Hong Kong's chief executive has lost even the little credibility that she may have had at the beginning of the summer. She has made too many mistakes and missed too many opportunities to play a central role in resolving the conflict.

It is difficult, Lam complained in late August in a confidential conversation with entrepreneurs, to be the servant of "two masters" -- the people of Hong Kong and the central government in Beijing. It has become increasingly clear that she in fact now only serves one master: Beijing. And that she is nothing but a placeholder for whoever will come after her. And it will be Beijing that decides who that will be.

China's leadership has remained oddly silent after stationing units of the People's Armed Police Force on the Hong Kong border in August. Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Hong Kong in early September, no leading Chinese politician has mentioned the former British crown colony. That may be a good sign. Or a bad one.