Opinion – Chain Reactions: Beijing’s Responses, Policing Tactics and Occupying Airport

Hong Kong entered another turbulent week characterized by a series of chain reactions: Beijing’s hard-line responses to the protest movement, the changing tactics of the Hong Kong police, and a retaliation by protestors to occupy the airport, which has brought about not only public anger but also disruption to air traffic and economic loss to the special administrative region.

On August 9, China’s aviation authorities required Cathay Pacific to submit information on its airline staff members on its flights to the mainland. One pilot of Cathay Pacific had been arrested by the Hong Kong police for being involved in the protest movement, while many of its staff members launched sit-in protests at the airport against the Hong Kong government’s handling of the extradition bill.

On Sunday, August 11, protestors again adopted guerrilla tactics to march to police stations in Shumshuipo and Cheung Sha Wan, where the police fired teargas to disperse the crowd. A small group of protestors attacked the Golden Bauhinia Flower in Wanchai and vandalized it by using black paint. Some protestors went to surround the Tsimshatsui police station where police fired teargas, some of which were not targeted accurately.

During the confrontation between protestors and police, a girl’s eye was seriously injured, sparking a debate between protestors and pro-government supporters over whether she was hurt by the police’s bean bag round or a protestor’s steel pellet gun. She reportedly lost her right eye, triggering some protestors to occupy the airport on August 12 and 13 in opposition to police power. 

The afternoon of August 11 witnessed some protestors going to Wanchai to set up their barricades near the police headquarters. The police sent undercover agents to infiltrate protestors and arrest some members of the “valiant” elements.

But such police tactics triggered public criticisms, because the police, according to a lawyer, should not participate in an illegal assembly. The police defended their action by saying that the move of sending undercover police to infiltrate protestors did not violate their operational practice.

On the same day, the protestors abandoned going to the North Point where a very strong pro-Beijing and Fujianese community resides, and where some Fujianese from the mainland were reportedly visiting Hong Kong for three days to “defend” their community against any intrusion from protestors.

A few reporters and citizens were reportedly intimidated and beaten by some angry people in North Point, while police were sent to intervene in mediating their disputes.

On the night of August 11, the police chased the protestors into the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations at both Taikoo Shing and Kwai Fong. At Taikoo Shing, the police arrested several protestors who retreated and escaped into the underground railway station.

At Kwai Fong MTR station, the police fired teargas and rubber bullets, generating public criticisms. Commuters fear that the teargas residue in Kwai Fong MTR station would pose health hazards.

The relatively swift and hard-line police action on Sunday illustrated a shift in policing tactics after the strong reactions of the Hong Kong Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) to the Hong Kong protests.

On August 7, the HKMAO Director Zhang Xiaoming said that the Hong Kong protests showed signs of a “colour revolution,” and that the disturbances and violence had to be terminated. Clearly, the tougher and swift police actions on August 11 represented their immediate response to Zhang’s hard-line remarks.

On August 12, the HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang read out a statement saying that the protest movement approached an early stage of “terrorism,” and that the violent crime in Hong Kong should be cracked down with “iron fist.”

Yet, the hard-line policing tactics on August 11 and the injury of the girl’s eye outside the Tsimshatsui police station stimulated some protestors to launch a new Occupy Airport movement on August 12 and 13.

The mass sit-in on August 12 and the blockade on August 13 paralyzed the airport, causing great inconvenience to tourists and travellers. Critics said that the protestors’ action represented mob rule, while others pointed to the lack of a crisis management plan on the part of the Airport Authority.

The Airport Authority got a court injunction swiftly on August 14 to stop a large number of protestors from occupying the airport. It also tightened security in order to restore order in the airport on August 14. 

On August 13, Chief Executive Carrie Lam met the press and appealed to the citizens to maintain calmness, stop violence and to consider the best interests of Hong Kong. Otherwise, Hong Kong would be plunged into a “deep abyss” and it would be “smashed into pieces.”

According to the Hong Kong public opinion research institute, on a scale of 0 to 100, Carrie Lam received a support rating of only 27.9, showing an all-time low for all Chief Executives in Hong Kong. In fact, Lam lacked any effective solution to tackle the ongoing crisis. 

On the same day, some staff members in thirteen public hospitals launched sit-in protest against police power. 

On the night of August 13, the police went to the airport to arrest a few citizens, but they did not clear the protestors for the sake of avoiding injuries. Strategically, the lack of police action to clear the protestors from the airport was a big contrast to the rapid police action to tackle them on the night of August 11.

The chaos at the airport on August 13 was unacceptable to some ordinary citizens because some protestors beat up two mainland reporters and attacked a small group of police officers, one of whom pulled out a pistol and pointed at protestors.

Some protestors went so far as to stop some travellers from entering the boarding gate. Although some protestors on the morning of August 14 issued an apology to reporters for causing inconvenience and troubles to travellers, their behaviour undermined public support. On August 14, pro-establishment and some pro-democracy elites also criticized the action of protestors, who failed to understand that public opinion can turn against them easily.   

Objectively speaking, the hard-line responses from Beijing, which were marked by Zhang Xiaoming’s remarks on August 7, led to the correspondingly hard-line approaches adopted by the police on August 11. In response to the hard-line policing tactics, the young protestors occupied the airport on August 12 and 13, paralyzing its operation and plunging Hong Kong air traffic into chaos. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and delayed.

On August 12, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) moved to Shenzhen to conduct an exercise involving 12,000 officers and 50 armoured vehicles. The move was significant, demonstrating the possibility of the mainland PAP to be sent to Hong Kong in the worst-case scenario. The PAP trucks and armoured vehicles were found to stop in a stadium at Shenzhen and can come into Hong Kong within ten minutes. 

On the morning of August 14, US President Donald Trump remarked in his twitter: “Our intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be safe!” later, he added: “Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?”

For the government of the People’s Republic of China, however, the remarks of other American officials on Hong Kong and their action of meeting various Hong Kong democrats have been seen as acts of interference with Hong Kong matters.

Unless some carrots are at least offered by the Carrie Lam administration to the protestors, and unless protestors reduce their violent actions, the confrontations between her government and protests are bound to continue.

The chain reactions to Beijing’s hard-line responses to Hong Kong protests, including the changing policing tactics on August 11 and the sudden Occupy Airport actions on August 12 and 13, showed a vicious circle in the anti-extradition movement, which can be seen as an anti-mainlandization campaign. The hatred of some protestors toward the police led to their persistently violent actions, leading to a political impasse.  

The difficulty of having any possible dialogue between the Carrie Lam administration and protestors is a lack of political will to make concessions on both sides, a deadlock compounded by a hard-line attitude from Beijing. The deadlock can be broken if both sides sit down to make conditional concessions, but currently there are no intermediaries who can mediate in their political impasse. 

On the side of the protestors, they remain deeply divided into peaceful and radical factions. The peaceful faction continues to apply for the police’s letters of no objection to their weekend marches, while some others lobby foreign governments at the risks of being labelled by pro-Beijing media and mainland hard-liners as fostering the “colour revolution.”

The radical protestors who confront the police are composed of a multiplicity of ingredients: (1) the “valiant” elements who are the vanguard of the anti-extradition movement and who resort to violent tactics; (2) students from local universities and secondary schools; (3) some middle-class people including some professionals and social workers; (4) some working-class members such as construction workers; (5) street kids; (6) the unemployed people or the lumpen-proletariat.

This kind of composition is apparently like rabbles without any prominent protest leaders, but the protestors could mobilize and organize themselves very effectively by using the tools of social media. 

Student unions at local universities have already vowed to launch class boycotts in September. In the meantime, all the stakeholders in the extradition saga are unwilling to make any conditional concessions to narrow the existing gap between their mutually hard-line stances.