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Aggressive policing, an unmoved government and plummeting trust levels have opened up an unbridgeable gap between Hong Kong's authorities and its people. (Source images by Nicola Longobardi)
Cover Story

Running out of options, Hong Kong protesters dig in

Police crackdowns have failed, and protesters have no trust in dialogue with an intransigent administration

MICHELLE CHAN and NIKKI SUN, Nikkei staff writers, and DEAN NAPOLITANO, Nikkei Asian Review deputy editor | Hong Kong, Macao

HONG KONG -- On June 9, Jason So joined the sea of people stretching from Hong Kong's Victoria Park to its seat of government at Admiralty. On that day, more than a million people took to the streets to protest against a proposed bill allowing criminal suspects to be deported from Hong Kong to the mainland, a law that many saw as emblematic of a wider, creeping erosion of the city's treasured civil liberties.

"I have enjoyed decades of freedom in Hong Kong," So, a 57-year-old taxi driver, said. "As a parent, I need to fight for the future of my kids and even my grandkids. If the Communist Party continues to invade our freedom, and people become too scared to express their honest views, the next generation will lose their ability to think independently."

Since that first huge march in June, Hong Kong's protest movement has shed its peaceful roots and moved to direct action, breaking into government buildings, disrupting transport routes and occupying the international airport. Protesters have been met by increasingly aggressive tactics from the police, who have deployed tear gas, water cannon, baton charges and beanbag rounds on the streets, and have themselves escalated, with a small hard core throwing petrol bombs. More than 1,500 arrests have been made, and hundreds have been injured. At times, the protest sites have come to resemble battlefields, with barricades smashed across the tarmac, fires blazing and rubber bullets flying.

Recently, So has found himself on the front lines. An advocate for peaceful protest, he decries the rising violence, but he has gone along to protect his 21-year-old son.

"Since I was not able to persuade him not to go, what I can do is stand with my son," he said. "I thought I should go to the front lines to learn more about youngsters and to protect them if I can. Then I saw how brutal the Hong Kong police were, the way they chased and beat the protesters. They were just kids. My heart ached."

At times, Hong Kong's protest sites have come to resemble battlefields, with barricades smashed across the tarmac, fires blazing and rubber bullets flying.   © Reuters

Nearly 100 days into the mass protests, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the bill. For many, it was too little, too late. The demonstrations continued, and protesters say they will not back down until their other demands are met -- demands that include an amnesty for arrested prisoners, and true universal suffrage. The Beijing-backed government is unlikely to acquiesce, leaving the members of the "water revolution" to dig in for a long battle for the soul and the streets of Hong Kong.

"I think there will be a perpetual standoff, given the fact that there are no substantial concessions and there's no reform," said Samson Yuen, assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University. "People may not protest every day, but they are fundamentally unhappy with the system."

Boiling over

Although mass protests only began in June, dissent has been brewing among Hong Kong's pro-democracy lobby for years. Human rights, including universal suffrage, are supposed to be guaranteed under the Basic Law, the territory's constitution. However, respect for these rights has been gradually undermined by Lam, and the previous Leung administration in which she served. Pro-democracy lawmakers have been stripped of their seats in the Legislative Council and candidates deemed "radical" have been barred from standing.

Since 2015, the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who handled material critical of the mainland governments has driven fears that Beijing's tolerance for the territory's tradition of free expression is eroding.

There has also been a series of schisms within the democratic movements. Younger, more hardcore elements have increasingly felt alienated from traditional pro-democracy parties, whose softer approach to Beijing has often been seen as appeasement. Frustration at the government's intransigence in the face of dissent, and at the failure of progressive politicians to stand up to the mainland, has created a radical movement that is now on Hong Kong's streets.

Protesters told the Nikkei Asian Review of a process of reluctant escalation -- as peaceful protests failed, they had no choice but to take more dramatic action. Several recalled their disappointment over the failure of the 2014 "Umbrella Movement" pro-democracy protests, which led to little meaningful change. Some said that it was witnessing the aggression of the police -- whose tactics have included firing tear gas and nonlethal ammunition into the crowds, and charging protest lines with batons and shields -- that drove them toward the hard core.

Riot police officers in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay district on Sept. 15.   © Reuters

Ma Ngok, associate professor in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the police's aggressive tactics may have increased the sympathy that society at large has for the protesters. While Hong Kong people may not want to see the violence, he said, recent polls show that "most people feel the government is responsible for the escalation."

"I think, originally, the government had been counting on a change in public opinion because of the increasing violence," he said. There is little evidence that has happened. Instead, the police's actions have undermined public trust in institutions.

Penny Lok, a social worker in a secondary school, said that this has been particularly marked among the young people he works with.

"In their education, police are supposed to help people. It's a big shock for the students to see how police officers beat protesters -- even ordinary people -- during the protests," he said. "There is a spreading distrust of law enforcement. Whether justice can still prevail in the courts, it's a question mark for me now."

Lok said that students have become more cautious about opening up to him after reading posts on social media that social workers were under pressure to pass information to the police. He has not received any such instructions, he said, but the distrust has taken root.

Penny Lok, a social worker in a secondary school, fears that growing distrust will only polarize his students more. "They can't talk about their confusion with their families [who tend to be more pro-Beijing], and they feel lonely." (Photo by Nikki Sun)

Lok, who has himself attended protests, said that he fears that students will become even more polarized if there is no satisfactory resolution to the political crisis. "What they are facing now is an abnormal society," he said. "They can't talk about their confusion with their families [who tend to be more pro-Beijing], and they feel lonely."

Protesters have also felt pressure at the workplace. Companies with close links to China have felt compelled to crack down on dissent by their employees, with Cathay Pacific Airways the highest-profile example. The company's CEO Rupert Hogg and chairman John Slosar resigned after Beijing said that any of the company's staff who had participated in protests would be barred from flying into China.

Other staff have been terminated for their involvement. Mixe Lee, a former flight attendant at Cathay Dragon, a Cathay Pacific subsidiary, was fired on Sept. 5. He said he has yet to be given a precise reason for his termination, but management showed him images of Facebook posts condemning the police's tactics. Lee said that he had only participated in protests sanctioned by the police, and had not broken the law.

"Many colleagues feel jittery now," he said. "They don't know if they will be next." During his last days with Cathay Dragon, Lee said that flight attendants had largely stopped talking to one another, because of fears that someone would report them to the company.

"Many colleagues feel jittery now. They don't know if they will be next"

Mixe Lee, a former flight attendant at Cathay Dragon, who was fired after attending protests

In an emailed statement, Cathay Pacific said that the company "fully supports the upholding of the Basic Law and all the rights and freedoms afforded by it. At the same time, we are also required to adhere to all of our regulatory duties, including those prescribed by the authorities in mainland China. The airline must do this; there is no ground for compromise."

The company said that while it could not comment on individual "employee departures," it "takes into account all relevant factors when determining whether or not to dismiss an employee, including necessary regulatory requirements as well as the employee's ability to perform their role."

Lee said that looking back, he does not regret speaking out, and that he does not want other workers to be silenced by "white terror" -- a commonly used term for creeping fear. "Even if I did not make my Facebook post public, it could be another colleague who faces the same consequences," he said.

The government's recent approach has been to step up its arrests of hardcore protesters, a move that analysts have said is only likely to drive further escalation, and perhaps more violence from the demonstrators.

The government has been stepping up its arrests of hardcore protesters -- a move that analysts say is only likely to drive further escalation, and perhaps more violence from the demonstrators. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Attempts to stop peaceful protests have also been unsuccessful. The Civil Human Rights Front, a nongovernmental organization which organized the massive rallies earlier in the summer, was denied permission to hold rallies after the bill was withdrawn. People went anyway.

"We all violated the law, but we didn't see the police on the street for a few hours," said CUHK's Ma, who attended the Sept. 15 rally. "The line is blurred between what is legal and illegal, and what is a lawful assembly and not a lawful assembly. That drives more peaceful protesters to test the limits."

Crumbling system

A large cohort of Hong Kong society that feels alienated from previous generations and is willing to test the boundaries of the law -- one which is simultaneously highly organized, but largely leaderless -- is a significant challenge for Lam's administration.

Aggressive policing has failed, there are no leaders to crack down on -- although the police did try, by rounding up several figures involved in the 2014 Umbrella Movement in August -- and the government cannot do as it has before and simply wait out the unrest.

Victor Chu, founding chairman of Hong Kong-based First Eastern Investment Group said that the government needs to return to promoting the virtues of "one country, two systems," the agreement under which Hong Kong's unique freedoms are supposed to be preserved.

"Some people are focusing on the two systems, while some people are focusing more on the one country," said Chu, a longtime investor in mainland China. "Actually, we need to focus on both."

Chu also said that there needs to be "a fundamental review on how to deal with the social and structural issues" in the city, including the sky-high property prices, economic inequality and stagnant social mobility.

Others called for dialogue. Lam has said that she intends to speak with opposition groups; however, only 150 people have been invited to her first dialogue session, scheduled for Sept. 26, and attendees will be carefully screened.

Hong Kong's former chief secretary, Anson Chan, told Nikkei that, while dialogue was the way forward, she has reservations about Lam's leadership. Lam, who served under Chan, is "very hard working, intelligent and capable," Chan said, but she lacks humility, and has a reputation of "not being a team player, [who] does not encourage people around her speaking the truth to her."

A rally in June moves through Hong Kong's streets. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

An insincere dialogue may do little to defuse the tension. Lam's decision to declare the extradition bill "dead" without withdrawing it in the early stages of the unrest was widely derided for this reason. Even the bill's complete withdrawal was seen as a weak offer by protesters, whose conditions have hardened around five demands, which include true universal suffrage, a commission of inquiry into police brutality, and the release of those arrested.

"I support dialogue," said Emily Lau, a former lawmaker and longtime pro-democracy leader. "[But] you have to make me feel that the dialogue is meaningful."

Lau, a former journalist who once openly questioned the former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on whether it was "morally defensible" to hand over Hong Kong to Communist China, said that one country, two systems is still operating but "crumbling," and that the future of the city now rests in the hands of Lam's government, and with its supporters in Beijing.

"It's really up to the administration," she said. "If they take a softer approach and talk to people with sincerity, many things could happen. But if they want to play tough, all hell could break loose."

Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent Kenji Kawase in Tokyo and Nikkei staff writer Takeshi Kihara in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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