A new pattern of Hong Kong’s protests emerged on October 1, the national day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), showing that they have become not only more violent but also deeply divisive in their social and political impacts.
First and foremost, it was the first time in the history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) that violence and serious police-protestors confrontations took place on October 1.
From the police perspective, the protests no longer aimed at achieving their demands, as Police Commissioner Stephen Lo asserted, but they were violent in both form and objective.
From the violent protestors’ perspective, they used violence to express their anger, vandalizing the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations, government buildings, the offices of pro-Beijing legislators and the China Travel Services, and even disrupting the services of stores and restaurants related to pro-Beijing business elites. The clashes between the police and violent protestors were serious and unprecedented, leading to massive arrests, extensive use of teargas, and even warning shots from police officers.
Second, the violent protestors utilized stronger self-made petrol bombs to attack the police, police vehicles and police stations. Some even shot fireworks to the sky in the Shumshuipo residential district.
The frequent use of petrol bombs could be seen in many districts, especially as violent protestors retreated and attempted to delay the police in chasing them. In the Tuen Mun city hall, a large group of protestors attacked a small group of police. Corrosive liquid was used by a few protestors on the police. At the juncture of Waterloo Road and Nathan Road, police officers were outnumbered and two shots were fired to frighten the protestors away.
Third, the desecration of the national flag could be seen in the Central District and in Causeway Bay – an unfortunate act of political symbolism showing the anti-PRC character of some violent protestors. A lot of police were sent to prevent protestors from approaching the Liaison Office headquarters, showing the lesson learnt by the police after the PRC national emblem was defaced on the Liaison Office building on July 21.
From a crisis management perspective, many buildings that raised the PRC national flags could have conducted risks assessment by removing the flags shortly before October 1. Although some pro-Beijing Hong Kong people vowed to form vigilante groups to protect the PRC national flags, still some protestors damaged – a sign of disrespect illustrating profound political hatred in the city.
Fourth, the police fired six shots in four places, leading to the injury of an 18-year old schoolboy in Tsuen Wan and sparking a debate over whether the police officer concerned should fire the shot.
Police Commissioner, Stephen Lo, and Assistant Commissioner Tang Ping-keung said the officer’s act was “legal” and there was no “shoot to kill” order respectively. Pro-government lawmakers and mass media supported the police action to protect themselves, because the police were attacked by protestors in the first place.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, however, questioned whether the police should fire the shots. The debate demonstrates the deep fissures in the society of Hong Kong, implying that the political coloration of “blue” (pro-government side) versus “yellow” (pro-democracy side) is heavily polarized.
Hyper-politicization has taken place in Hong Kong since the anti-national education movement in 2012, reaching a peak in the 2014 Occupy Central Movement, and escalating into political violence in the anti-extradition movement of 2019.
The over-simplification of politics as having either “blue” or “yellow” colours illustrates the tragedy of Hong Kong, where many people were depoliticized for so long before 1997 that the post-colonial era has witnessed continuous escalations of political bickering, biases, and struggles.
The deeper significance of the ongoing debate over the shooting incidents on October 1 has to be understood. In a colonial society that was depoliticized for a long duration, its post-colonial political landscape can be gradually polarized, ideologically radicalized and eventually conflicts-ridden with bitter violence.
Fifth, more young people, including students, have been arrested – a very disturbing sign that points to the likelihood of having “a lost generation.” If a generational change has already become a hallmark of confrontational politics in Hong Kong, then an entire generation is perhaps lost in the sense that many young people have been seeing the government as failing to meet public demands and govern the territory.
In other words, a very serious crisis of legitimacy has loomed and is persisting in the HKSAR. If this legitimacy crisis, which stemmed from the sudden introduction of the extradition bill without sufficient public consultation, is not addressed effectively, there is a realistic danger that political violence stemming from protests and protestors-police confrontations would become a chronic phenomenon in the territory, with serious implications for social stability and economic prosperity in the medium, if not necessarily long, term.
The real danger is that once political violence gains its momentum, Hong Kong’s society and politics would likely be punctuated by mutual political hatred, persistent struggles, ideological strife, and profound distrust from now to perhaps 2047.
Sixth, the police have been caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, President Xi Jinping reportedly hopes that Hong Kong can handle its own affairs smoothly without any bloodshed. On the other hand, the police have to protect their own lives if they are under attack by violent protestors.
As such, the police exercise of force has to be ideally cautious but practically self-protective. In the event that police are seen by Beijing as relatively too “weak,” then the deployment of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) into the HKSAR would be necessary.
Despite the fact that some foreign diplomats estimated that the number of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and officers in the HKSAR are now approaching 10,000 or 12,000, Beijing refrains from deploying the PLA to deal with the Hong Kong disturbances.
Utilizing the PLA would incur not only local public outcry immediately, except for those Hong Kong people who yearn for a swift return to social stability but also the international complaints and opposition that Hong Kong’s autonomy would be undermined. Hence, the police are caught in a difficult situation.
Traditionally, the police have remained a highly hierarchical bureaucracy ill-equipped to cope with crisis management. The Hong Kong disturbances of 2019 have plunged not only the HKSAR administration into a very serious legitimacy crisis, but also the police into an unprecedented challenge of how to strike a balance between having “no bloodshed” and the necessity to maintain law and order.
Seventh, the system of handling the applications for peaceful protests has broken down. The application for a peaceful protest by the Civil Human Rights Front on October 1 was rejected by the police and the appeal board, because it was believed that violence would follow the peaceful protests.
As it turned out, violence did break out after the end of the peaceful protest. From the perspective of peaceful protestors, however, they insisted on their right to mobilize supporters to join the march to express their political demands. Political struggle has made the HKSAR drift toward a point of no return and to profound mistrust.
Eighth, a kind of semi-curfew could be seen in Hong Kong on October 1, when a few MTR stations were closed in the morning, but the maximum number of closed stations reached 47 at night. While the MTR stations have become the targets of vandalism, they remain very resilient and were open the next morning.
For the violent protestors, the MTR stations were their political targets because they cooperated with the government and the police. As a matter of fact, the casualties suffered by many MTR stations are unprecedented and the heaviest in the history of the HKSAR. For the commuters who travel to work by using MTR every day, many of them feel sorrow for the vandalized stations, which are a symbol of the very deep societal and political wounds and scars inflicted on the HKSAR.
Ninth, many people were determined to participate in both peaceful and violent protests. While it was perhaps easy for some relatively hard-line PRC officials to label the Hong Kong disturbances as having “signs of a colour revolution,” it is perhaps far-fetched to regard all protestors as being instigated by foreigners and foreign countries.
Many young protestors formed logistical groups to support the protests. Some climbed up hills in Wanchai to find their escape routes amidst the police action of clearing the streets. Originally, the government estimated that 2,000 protestors were “violent” ones.
The disturbances on October 1 showed that, even after the arrests of some 1,500 protestors, the number of the so-called “valiant” elements (a term used by protestors) appears to exceed 2,000. If this analysis is accurate, the picture for the HKSAR is far more gloomy than the original governmental assessment.
Tenth and finally, the solutions for minimizing violence remain distant. Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her officials went out to listen to the views of citizens, the more effective solutions could be (1) the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry to look into police actions and performance, and (2) the necessity of establishing a political reform committee to address the demand for universal suffrage. Indeed, the police oppose the formation of an independent commission.
But if a genuinely independent commission is not set up, the societal wounds would not be healed, and protestors-police confrontations would certainly persist. One hopes that Beijing may really send a delegation to investigate the real situation of Hong Kong and come up with more effective solutions.
Perhaps the central government will leave the solutions to the HKSAR government, which however is hamstrung by its over-bureaucratic mentality and obvious failure to cope with the current crisis.
The October 1 disturbances and riots in Hong Kong are politically significant and they mark a watershed in the historical development of the HKSAR, the deep legitimacy crisis of its government, the difficult dilemmas of the police, and the profound societal wounds and scars that will not fade away in the years to come.
[Professor Sonny Lo is a researcher, political commentator, and observer of Hong Kong and Macau politics who regularly writes for MNA]