Hong Kong on the 'Brink' City Edges Toward Precipice as Violence Escalates

With police firing on protestors and students undergoing weapons training, the situation has escalated dramatically in Hong Kong in recent days. The city is rapidly moving toward the precipice as the opposition's original goals fade into the background
Government opponents during combat training at the Chinese University of Hong Kong: "How can we fight back?"

Government opponents during combat training at the Chinese University of Hong Kong: "How can we fight back?"

Foto: Jerome Favre/ EPA-EFE/ REX

The lights of the skyscrapers flicker through the nighttime sky as the Hong Kong Baptist University prepares for battle. In one staircase, young women are assembling petrol bombs, sitting on the ground between kitchen towels, empty beer bottles and plastic containers. They're clearly not new to the process and toil away quietly, the bottles gently rattling against each other. It reeks of gasoline. Every now and then, someone dressed in black shows up to carry off a cardboard box full of newly produced Molotov cocktails, disappearing up an idle escalator in the direction of a pedestrian bridge.

The bridge spans Junction Road, which divides the campus into two parts. This is where the battlefield is to be. From above, you look down on barricades made of metal fencing, bamboo poles and flowerpots with bricks set up in between to make footing difficult. The hammering makes it sound like a stone quarry.

Some students have raided the sports facility for equipment, arming themselves with baseball bats, tennis rackets and shotputs. Beneath one overhang, a small group in masks is practicing archery, clearly unfamiliar with the implement. They are aiming at a can of Monster energy drink placed just a couple of paces away.

In the hallway of the main building, thousands of fighters have gathered, young men and women wearing trainers, black clothing and a scarf that they can use to cover their faces. And then there are the gasmasks with the pink filters, equipment that they handle as naturally as if they had been wearing them their entire lives. The government opponents have transformed Hong Kong Baptist University into a fortress and there is tension in the air. Everyone is waiting for the opponent to show up: the police.

Occupying and Holding Ground

Such is Hong Kong six months after the protest movement began. The violence is no longer confined to the weekends and continues into the workweek. Whereas the protests had cleared in the past, opposition activists began occupying and holding ground last week. A few weeks ago, the skirmishes with the police had been reminiscent of the annual May 1 unrest in Berlin. Now, though, the closest comparison might be the Maidan protests in Ukraine five years ago.

In some instances, violence has erupted in a level of brutality not seen in these protests thus far. Early last week, a police officer shot an activist at close range, badly injuring him. A second intentionally drove his motorcycle into a crowd. One protester poured gasoline on an apparently pro-government construction worker and lit him on fire. The man survived with severe burns.

Dramatic Standoff

Then, on Sunday night, the violence escalated again, with a standoff at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University continuing and the police deploying tear gas to ensure that protesters would be unable to escape. On Monday, activists attacked police with bow and arrows and riot police responded with rubber bullets, water cannon and armored vehicles. Parts of the city were left looking like a battle zone. By Tuesday night, hundreds of students at Hong Kong Polytechnic University had been detained following the dramatic three-day standoff with police, although a number still remained holed up at the school.

The unrest has reached such a level that several universities in Hong Kong have ended their semesters prematurely. All schools in the city closed down last Thursday.

The city, says a leading police officer, "is on the brink of a complete collapse." Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has labelled the most radical of the demonstrators "enemies of the people" and says she is not considering withdrawing her demands. Meanwhile, the warnings coming out of Beijing have grown ominous. "We will never allow violence to be rampant in Hong Kong and will never allow the plotters against China to succeed," said a government spokesman early last week. On Thursday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on "violent criminals" to be "severely punished."

Both sides -- the state and the demonstrators -- appear to have become so entrenched in their positions that a peaceful solution to the conflict is beginning to look less likely than ever.

On Nov. 24, Hong Kong is scheduled to hold local elections, the first time voters will have gone to the polls since the protests began. There are many indications pointing to a good result for the protest camp, which could expand its influence in the Beijing-dominated body that chooses the chief executive. But those who had hoped the situation would have calmed by the time the vote came around are likely going to be disappointed. The police are using more force than ever against the protesters and even though the number of people taking to the streets has fallen, the core of the movement is more determined than ever before. The demonstrators continue to organize themselves via social media and they have thus far refused to accept any kind of hierarchy, meaning there are no leaders who might define a direction or impose a policy.

A majority within the anti-government movement in Hong Kong is opposed to excluding those who are prone to violence. Moderates, who still dominated the protests as recently as summer, have faded into the background, leading to a situation in which pacifists, families and the less decisive marchers have begun staying home. The so-called "frontliners" are increasingly setting the agenda.

Protesters build barricades with white boxes: Demonstrators have begun occupying and holding ground in Hong Kong.

Protesters build barricades with white boxes: Demonstrators have begun occupying and holding ground in Hong Kong.

Foto: Jiraporn Kuhakan/ REUTERS

One of these frontliners refers to himself as Irving Fisher. "A famous American economist," he says. "I love his interest rate theory." A week ago Sunday, he used the messenger app Telegram to direct the desolation of a shopping mall Starbucks. Last Tuesday, he and friends joined the battle at the contested Chinese University in northern Hong Kong. Thursday found him at the Polytechnic university in the Kowloon district. He is 26 years old and still wears a retainer. His high cheekbones give him a severe look, but with his sweater tucked into his jeans, he hardly looks like a fighter.

Fisher is working toward a career in academia and he is studying economics on top of his job as a project manager. He only managed to get his secondary school diploma on the second try, having been kicked out of school as a teenager. He has a problem with authority. He says that no matter what the protest may have been in recent years, whether it was the 2012 demonstrations against the pro-Chinese national education curriculum or the 2014 Umbrella Movement: "I was involved with all of them." He says: "In an ideal world, we in Hong Kong would have a real democracy like the one in Sweden. But that is just a dream."

'The Other Side Must Recognize the Cost'

Fisher doesn't believe that Hong Kong's independence from China is a realistic goal, in part because the city's economy is too closely bound with that of mainland China. He doesn't even believe that the protest movement will be able to push through all of its demands, particularly the call for free elections for both parliament and the chief executive. He says he would be satisfied for the time being with an independent investigation into the police violence that has taken place in recent months and with the judiciary dropping charges against demonstrators. "The other side must recognize the cost. That is the reason we have to fight," says Fisher.

He says he can't remember for sure when he threw a petrol bomb for the first time, just that he felt at the time like he was in a movie. Now, he says, violence has become "just as normal as using a mobile telephone." He says that the police aren't the only legitimate targets. So, too, are companies with ties to mainland China.

Only very few demonstrators are naïve enough to believe that they can win the battle against the police. They are hoping, though, that they can force the government into making concessions with their radicality. "The Hong Kong police know they can do whatever they want without punishment," says Fisher. "So, it turns out we also need to raise the violence. It's game theory."

Lowered Inhibitions

In the last few weeks, inhibitions against engaging in violence have lowered significantly. In June, activists were still debating whether it was okay to throw bricks instead of just tomatoes or eggs. In July, the frontliners justified their actions by arguing that they were only destroying public property and not private property and in August, they insisted they were merely doing damage to things, not people. Some from the movement even apologized for attacking a police sympathizer who turned out to be a journalist.

The government's refusal to relent has contributed to the radicalization of the demonstrators. It took Chief Executive Lam three months to withdraw the controversial extradition bill that sparked the current wave of marches, legislation that would have made it possible for people arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. Lam still hasn't agreed to an independent investigation of police violence, which has been among the core demands of the protesters since late June.

The degree to which the protesters feel betrayed by the Hong Kong government is demonstrated by a young woman who only identifies herself as "K" and is a member of Fisher's team. A 22-year-old with brunette hair extensions, K says the last book she read was about yoga and that she had never before been involved in politics. But when she heard about the planned extradition law, she says her first thought was: "I cannot let it happen." She refused to stand by as the city was on the verge of edging yet closer toward the rest of China. She joined the vast march that took place on June 9.

Activists K and Fisher in Hong Kong: "How can we fight back?"

Activists K and Fisher in Hong Kong: "How can we fight back?"

Foto: Georg Fahrion/ DER SPIEGEL

She was also there three days later when tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the Hong Kong Legislative Council to prevent a debate on the bill. That was the first day that police used tear gas on the demonstrators, and everyone dispersed in panic. She says she began wondering: "Why are we so weak? Once the police come out, we just run. How can we fight back?"

Today, K says she is both impressed and moved by the amount of danger her fellow campaigners are exposing themselves to. She says she wants to protect them and she wants the police to pay for their brutality. She says she used to believe that problems can best be solved through communication, but nobody is listening. Today, she says, she looks at pictures of injured frontliners before heading out to do battle. Despite frequently telling herself to be cautious, she almost always ends up at the very front, she says.

'Burn Together'

K's job is usually that of extinguishing tear gas cannisters. She has a pair of firefighting gloves, allowing her to pick up the hot cannisters and stick them into a bag full of water. Other frontliners, she says, have begun experimenting with explosives. There are rumors that some young people from Hong Kong are undergoing weapons training at gun ranges in Thailand.

"There's a Cantonese expression," K says, "laam caau -- burn together." For a brief moment, a poisonous, hateful expression crosses her face. If Chinese troops were to invade, she says, it would mean the end of Hong Kong as a financial center. All the international companies that do business in China from here would leave, she says. "I don't think China will ever do that, although I hope it will. Laam caau. So far, it's always only us who get hurt. They are never hurt back."

When asked if she's afraid of losing everything -- her health and her future -- K answers in the affirmative. "We're not fighting because we have hope. But because we are fighting, maybe hope will find us."

In the five months of the rebellion, the frontliners have created their own culture and their own codes. When they dawn black masks, they form a "black rock." Bricks, their projectiles of choice, are referred to as "Legos." Green uniformed cops are "dogs," cops in black uniforms are "dinosaurs" and undercover cops in civilian clothing are "ghosts."

It's a November evening in downtown Hong Kong and three young people are sitting together: a frontliner and two activists from the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest protest marches to date. They've just come from a meeting with a handful of Swedish parliamentarians that has left them feeling a bit depressed. "The Swedes told us to stop using violence," says Mo, one of the two organizers.

'We Need To Change Our Message'

Encouragement from abroad is of particular importance to the movement, especially from the United States and Europe. To that end, activists have been traveling around the world for weeks now. But the increasing willingness of radical protesters to turn to violence is making it harder to promote the movement.

"I think we need to change our message," says Mo. "We can't always just be the victims." His colleague, who calls herself Kan, adds: "We've become too focused on our anger and grief -- and too little on what must come next." She says she often speaks with activists in Chile, Indonesia and even Iraq. "When I see how far things have now gone with the violence, I start to wonder," she says.

One event has stirred up the protest movement like no other: the death of student Alex Chow, who died after a fall in a multistory car park on the margins of a protest in early November.

K and Fisher both attend a memorial ceremony for Chow in Tamar Park, right next to the Legislative Council. No one is expecting any unrest, but they nonetheless put on their garb -- K.'s green top and Fisher's polo shirt disappear under black hoodies and they pull masks over their faces.

Mourners at the event sing gospel songs as the two of them glide through the crowd. At one point, Fisher stops a woman passing by wearing a burgundy-colored backpack. He asks if she wants a black backpack cover so that she won't stand out to the police with the conspicuous color. He's brought 10 of them along with him. The woman turns him down and laughs.

Fisher and K sit down on the lawn between other people dressed in black. An activist passes them a plastic bowl with a cold pork cutlet. "You better eat something now," someone says. "There won't be any time later." In front, where the speakers are, student leader Joshua Wong begins speaking. "Like the people of Israel when they left Egypt, we also may have to wander for 40 years," he says, his voice echoing through the park. "But one day we want to take off our masks and look each other in the face." Fisher and K barely listen -- they're busy with their mobile phones. Fisher says he likes Wong -- you can still take different paths even if you are aspiring to the same goals, he adds.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2019 (November 16th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

The two listen as a first aid volunteer takes over the microphone. Amid sobbing, the first responder reports how he has just treated a frontliner with a compound fracture. The first aid provider says he himself has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder ever since. The man begins wailing. "Ga yao!" the crowd shouts -- literally, "add oil!" or keep it up! K scrolls through her mobile phone and quickly finds what she's looking for: A photo of the injury is circulating on the messenger service Telegram. She holds up her smartphone and the image of a gaping wound is visible. "Bo Sau!" the crowd demands, revenge! The evening turns into a mix of mourning and ritualistic exhortations.

"This event is meaningless to us," Fisher says. "There's nothing we can do here." They now plan to head over to the Tseung Kwan O district to the car park where Alex Chow fell and suffered his fatal injuries. "We got word that the police are going there -- lots of police, to be exact," says K. "Let's see what they're up to." She pulls the mask over her face. And the two disappear into the night.