October 1: A Turning Point for Hong Kong Protests?
Hong Kong is bracing for what the local press bills as “potential chaos” on Tuesday, October 1, when celebrations are scheduled to mark the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic Of China.
Some protesters see the day as promising a showdown with Beijing, and authorities have canceled a fireworks display to celebrate the anniversary amid fears that it would be the target of disruption. VIPs invited to the official flag-raising ceremony have been advised they will watch the ritual from an indoor venue.
Mainland China’s relationship with Hong Kong of “One Country Two Systems,” established after the British withdrawal in 1997, is under severe pressure, with Chinese-ruled Hong Kong gripped by mass demonstrations for over three months.
Young and old protestors told me earlier this month in Hong Kong they are embarked on a “war of attrition,” that the protests are an endurance exercise aimed at wearing down the will of the authorities. Tactically the protests have been a success so far, with the fluid, fast-moving demonstrators, whose mantra is “Be Water,” frustrating the police and winning international sympathy.
Protestors are incensed at growing Beijing interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, and have issued five demands of the local government. The authorities have promised to concede one—legislation allowing suspects to be extradited for the city to mainland China. However, the other four remain: an independent inquiry into the use of force by police; amnesty for arrested protesters; an end to describing the protests as riots; and universal suffrage.
How much longer the protests can keep going is hard to predict, although their violent edge seems to be hardening. Local metro stations and shopping malls have been vandalized, and a small minority of protestors have thrown bricks and petrol bombs.
Accounts of wrongful arrests and police violence are also rife. One lawyer who represents those charged with unlawful assembly told me “It’s often the bystanders who are slow at running away who get arrested, not those at the front. A mother and daughter out shopping were arrested, so was a guy delivering a pizza.” He also said some of his clients had been severely beaten in custody.
“What’s happening in Hong Kong bears more and more similarities to Chinese techniques of repression—the arbitrary arrests, the fabrication of charges, the abuse in detention centers,” said Francine Chan, Executive Director of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
Trust in the police is largely broken. “Dehumanizing language is common,” one young lawyer told me. “Protestors call the police dogs, and the police call protestors cockroaches because they can’t seem to squash them.”
It is likely that October 1 will see more violence, and more police brutality. The bigger question is whether the protests will reach such a pitch of disruption that the Beijing government will decide to step in directly.
The chances of Beijing ordering a 1989 Tianamen-style crackdown involving massacres seems remote, though never impossible. Many protesters are anticipating a “final reckoning” at some point, and there is common talk of these latest protests being “the end game.” Some young demonstrators building barricades told me they and their friends carry “last letters” or wills with them, in preparation for the worst.
Beijing has been signalling a possibly harder military line for some weeks, with its official news agency Xinhua reporting that the People Liberation Army’s troop rotation of its Hong Kong garrison means they “are determined to resolutely protect national sovereignty, security and development interests. They will effectively carry out the duty of defending Hong Kong, and [make] new contributions to maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”
The garrison’s armored vehicles have now reportedly been replaced by those specifically designed for riot control, and last month China massed troops on the Hong Kong border in an unsubtle message of intimidation.
Congress has responded to pleas for support from the protest movement by introducing legislation that includes sanctioning officials violating human rights in Hong Kong, and banning the export of munitions to the city’s police.
Next week might prove a turning point in the struggle for human rights and democracy in the city, or it could just be another day of mass demonstrations, fringe violence, police brutality and recriminations. Whatever happens, it is unlikely to be uneventful.