Hong Kong has never had a summer like this one. For more than 11 weeks, the whole territory has been shaken by protests, counterprotests, and daily shocks.
Just five years ago, during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, 78 rounds of tear gas against a peaceful protest was seen as so traumatic that students launched a mass occupation of some of the main roads of Hong Kong, which lasted for 79 days. Now, tear gas has become such a habitual occurrence that on Sunday, August 18, people counted to midnight as if it were New Year’s Eve, celebrating the first weekend in nearly three months with no tear gas fired at demonstrators.
Hong Kong seems forever changed. The most visible rift is with the Hong Kong Police Force, which until just a few years ago was routinely described as “Asia’s Finest.” They not only stand accused of using excessive force to quell the protests, but they have also been undermining their relationship with the citizenry more broadly. They have fired tear gas in densely populated neighborhoods, with the noxious fumes penetrating people’s flats through the windows. Angry residents have been shouting at them into the night, as young children cry from the gas, pets develop allergies, and the elderly, including those in retirement homes, learn how to deal with the dangerous consequences of this type of crowd-control measure. In spite of manufacturers’ recommendations, police have also fired tear gas inside enclosed areas of the subway and inside shopping malls.
As if tear gas were not enough, the police have also been shooting beanbag rounds and sponge bullets at demonstrators. A novelty on Hong Kong’s streets this June, it has now become a common topic of conversation. Many protesters, arrested and released on bail, have been denouncing their maltreatment while in custody, and while some investigations have been launched, these cases have been receiving relatively little attention.
Then, on August 20, a video released by Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting shocked even further a population already under heavy stress. The surveillance recording shows a man, tied to a hospital bed in an isolation care room, being horrendously abused by two police officers. The man, 62, had been arrested for drunken misconduct, and the policemen in the video are seen taunting him, hitting him with their hands and batons on his chest, legs, and genitals, and forcing his eyelids open as they point their flashlights at him. Users of social-media networks have been posting the video and related news articles, asking, If this is what happens to an elderly man, what about protesters in detention? (Keeping a tally of the arrested, and those released on bail, has not been easy. Some people have been keeping manual counts, but they are then contradicted by confusing police figures. In either case, estimates run from a minimum of 700 to more than 1,000.)
Just a few hours before news of the hospital beating, Hong Kongers had seen shocking video footage taken by a passer-by showing three young people suffer a knife attack near a Lennon Wall, the common name given to the countless boards covered with Post-its expressing support for the pro-democracy demonstrations. One of the victims, a 26-year-old reporter, is still in critical condition. The alleged perpetrator, a 50-year-old man who was arrested as he was trying to enter China, had shouted at his victims that he “couldn’t take it anymore.”
Every day sees something major happening—a chronology so long and intense that protests are now being scheduled to mark the one-month anniversary of particularly upsetting events. August 23, for example, will see a mass demonstration to demand explanations for the vicious attack a month earlier on subway passengers by thugs belonging to organized gangs. On that occasion, police didn’t show up for 40 minutes, then left as the thugs came back. There have been no arrests, despite the fact that the culprits were beating people indiscriminately with metal and bamboo rods in full view of surveillance cameras, as subway passengers begged for mercy.
Police brutality and selective arrests are the inevitable result of a government that has been unwilling to establish any credible dialogue with the population; instead, the government keeps asking the police force to solve a political issue as if it were a public-order one. As a result, neither politics nor public order have been restored to anything resembling the Hong Kong the world used to know.
What started this long wave of discontent has been the clumsy attempt by the fourth chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, to introduce an extradition bill that would have made it possible to send criminal suspects to face trial in China, at the request of the Chinese authorities. In so doing, she inadvertently reignited Hong Kongers’ determination to fight for their freedoms, which had been lying dormant since the end of the Umbrella Movement occupation in December 2014.
Then, as now, hundreds of thousands of people, then millions, marched in the rain and in the heat—but their shouts and slogans elicited only a stubborn silence.
Ever since 1997, the year Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty after one and a half centuries as a British colony, the government that was supposed to mark the end of the colonial era for Hong Kong has been remarkably unwilling to listen to any demand the population might have—and when in doubt, the authorities have diminished the avenues of communication between the people and the government.
In 1997 the first chief executive of Hong Kong, a former shipping magnate, announced that the Legislative Council would henceforth only be allowed to propose laws concerning mundane administrative matters. For any policy-related law, they were granted the power only to amend, approve, or reject. (This was a considerable emasculation for a council that was not chosen entirely by universal suffrage; to this day, only half the legislators are directly elected, while the other half are chosen by small-circle election, among professional sectors.) This limitation of democracy came in tandem with the abolition of the Hong Kong and district councils, two minor chambers that were elected by universal suffrage and guaranteed a channel of communication. For the past 22 years, Hong Kongers have had to take to the streets to express their demands—but if these are disliked by the administration, they are simply ignored.
Those demands have often been about protecting the city’s heritage, as happened in 2006, when protesters chained themselves to the iconic Star Ferry pier to save it from demolition. Refusing to listen to all pleas, the government destroyed the mid-century pier at night to make space for a vast land-reclamation project. It was an important sign of how much young people’s sense of self and identity was starting to shift, becoming more attached to a new definition of Hong Konger (as opposed to people from the Chinese mainland), but the chief executive at the time, Donald Tsang, refused to see the writing on the wall. Students attached pictures of their parents’ weddings on the railing of the threatened pier, claiming it as part of their own collective memory. But a decision had been made over their heads, and the governments decided that to give in would make it look weak.
A few years later it was the turn of old rural villages, which were to be demolished to make room for a high-speed train to connect Hong Kong to mainland China. This, the Tsoi Yuen Resistance Movement, was one of Hong Kong’s most defining protests, which showed to anyone who cared to look that artists, students, writers, NGOs, and villagers could unite behind a desire to define what Hong Kong ought to be like. The government didn’t listen, though, and the villages were obliterated. Then, in 2012, it was the turn of the proposed new Moral and National Education curriculum, which many feared would amount to brainwashing, as it was presenting a glorified, uncritical view of China and its government. Teenagers threw themselves into the protest and won a victory when the “patriotic” education syllabus was changed to elective from compulsive.
The Umbrella Movement was sparked by the central government’s decision to finally proceed toward political reforms and allow universal suffrage. Only, while Beijing was ready to allow the whole electorate to vote for the chief executive, it demanded the right to prescreen every candidate and insisted on a race between only two or at most three people it had already vetted. The long weeks of occupation ended without a dialogue: The reform package was killed, and in the past five years the government has closed even more avenues of communication. The political candidates who emerged from the Umbrella Movement have been largely disqualified, on spurious grounds. Just last year, one political party was disbanded—a first in Hong Kong history. Other candidates have been prevented from taking part in elections, on the ground that they had previously supported self-determination for Hong Kong or made statements to that regard; all retraction was labeled as “insincere.” Dozens of students who took part in the Umbrella Movement have been persecuted and jailed—with extremely harsh sentences.
None of this, however, seems to have produced the desired effect: As Carrie Lam tried to dismantle the legal firewall between Hong Kong and Beijing by allowing suspected criminals to be extradited to China, all the rage that had been simmering for five years erupted. Yet another protest movement began, only this one has been much more stubborn. Its main demands are for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill (which is only shelved at the moment) and a full inquiry into police violence, together with an amnesty for all the protesters who have been arrested. But as we enter the third month of the crisis, the impasse shows no signs of abating. The government obfuscates and tries to scare the protesters—and it is aided by Beijing, which also refuses to open a dialogue and keeps distributing videos and photos of military exercises just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen.
The protesters, who are acting as if they have everything to lose, keep organizing ever more political actions, week after week. As we approach the end of August, there is still no visible way out of the crisis, even as tempers fray and the bonds that keep society together start to loosen: Young demonstrators have been kicked out of their houses over political disagreements with parents. The police are no longer trusted, especially since a young first-aid worker was blinded in one eye after being shot by police at close range with a beanbag round.
Many commentators have tried to explain Hong Kong’s discontent by pointing out how expensive the city is, and how low the salaries for young graduates can be. But while economic grievances are not without weight, the adamant refusal of an unelected government to listen to anyone who has a different view is even more responsible for the current political strife. The government continues unfazed, refusing to answer questions, refusing to listen to its citizenry. Hong Kong’s longest summer still seems very far from over.