HONG KONG—Things are ugly here.
After a million-strong rally on Sunday, a series of strikes and an anti-government protest kicked off in Hong Kong.
People in the city are outraged by a bill backed by Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam that, if passed as law, would provide cover for politically motivated extradition to mainland China. It would impact everyone in the city, including expats, tourists and visitors on business. It could land them in mainland China to face an opaque judicial system, one where the defendant never wins if the plaintiff is the Chinese Communist Party.
On Tuesday evening, police rounded up anyone who looked young—of school age—and lined them up against walls in the subway, checking their IDs and personal belongings. It was a “papers, please” moment that is normally found in autocratic states.
Nearby, clusters of Christians and Catholics gathered around the government headquarters to pray and sing hymns. It was, perhaps, a direct appeal to Carrie Lam, who is a devout Catholic.
Unsurprisingly, the religious appeal didn’t work.
The next morning, more than 1,000 businesses went on strike. Young activists blocked off a passage in Hong Kong’s largest subway station to encourage more people to join in. Car owners and bus drivers parked their vehicles across lanes on major avenues to block traffic in the central business district. Protestors clad in black sealed off roads near the government headquarters, then blocked off all entrances to the building to prevent legislators from entering their chambers. If these officials could not meet, the reasoning went, then they couldn’t follow the procedures to pass the extradition bill.
Many who streamed in to join the protest used cash to pay their subway tolls or bus fares. They didn’t want their transport cards to record an electronic footprint that could later be used as evidence that they were part of the day’s actions. Their phones had secure messaging services like Telegram, Signal, and FireChat installed. These were lessons gleaned during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which involved a weeks-long occupation of nearby areas.
On site, medical volunteers wore ponchos marked with blue crosses spray-painted on their chests or white helmets adorned with red electric tape crosses. People around them linked arms to ensure that the first aid stations wouldn’t be overwhelmed should violence kick off.
The protestors were equipped with several tools. Surgical masks hid their faces from police cameras. Bottles of water were ready for consumption—and to drown and suppress tear gas canisters that would later be popped into the crowd. Umbrellas shielded them from pepper spray and deflected the blows of water cannons. Zip ties fastened barricades to keep the cops separated from them for as long as possible.
The next few hours were a standoff between the black-shirts and Hong Kong’s police force. It ebbed and flowed, at one point edging near the doorstep of the 28-storey building that China’s People’s Liberation Army uses as their administrative facility in Hong Kong. And in the government headquarters, copy paper printouts that read faan sung jung—“we’re against extradition to China,” the rallying cry of the week—were posted on the windows, signaling to the crowd that even within the bureaucracy, they had allies.
Pro-democracy leaders said Carrie Lam was “selling out Hong Kong,” that she has declared Hongkongers as her “enemy.” They invoked her public promise to resign if mainstream opinion deemed her unfit to serve as the city’s leader.
The police used water cannons, tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and pepper spray on the crowd. Dozens were injured mere steps away from the towers of major international banks and Hong Kong’s stock exchange. The police also arrested the administrator of a Telegram messaging group, saying that he was conspiring to “commit a public nuisance.”
Right on cue, Chinese state-run media said those who opposed the extradition bill were “colluding with the West” and “international forces.” According to the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces, Hongkongers have been “hoodwinked” into voicing their dissatisfaction with the fundamental eradication of their semi-autonomy.
In a way, the protestors achieved what they set out to do. The Legislative Council’s meeting was called off. But its new date and time hasn’t been set, and Hongkongers wonder how long they will be able to sustain their public displays of dissidence.
The people of Hong Kong are demanding the impossible—the reversal of a commitment to the new law made at the highest level in the city, one that may come to define Carrie Lam’s legitimacy with the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders in Beijing. The protestors realize that what they want will require a miracle—one that might be birthed by continual, unignorable objection that unifies all corners of the city except for those that are ardently pro-Beijing.
Moral appeals almost never move those in power. But once in a while, when the stakes are high, all that is left is a choice. You get one chance to choose who you side with, and who you’re willing to give up things and take risks for. And maybe, after the bruises fade and the wounds heal, even if you lost, even if you eventually gave up, you get to say that you did the right thing.
Confrontation isn’t unhealthy. We need disagreements to hone ourselves, to make us better, smarter, but authoritarians—like Carrie Lam and Chinese president Xi Jinping—don’t think like that.
We may associate authoritarianism with a penchant for violently, indiscriminately stamping out dissidence. That isn’t an inaccurate representation, but true power—the fuck-you power that may later rewrite history—lies with those who can rule despite dissent, ignoring it, in fact. That’s exactly what’s going on in Hong Kong. Beijing sees no need to crack down because it doesn’t recognize the popular efforts in Hong Kong as meaningful or sustainable.
And yet we saw groups of kids, some still teenagers, walking together on the street. Everyone knew where they were heading—into the tear gas. They passed by strangers, who told them to be careful out there.
Those who showed up at work on Wednesday exited office buildings to quiet public spaces that were uncharacteristic of Hong Kong. Their eyes were glued to smartphone screens, and they were all looking at the same images of Hongkongers asking to be heard, then facing, in some cases, the barrel of a gun pointed at them. Screams and shouts from miles away played from their palms.
There is a clarity that hasn’t been present in the city for a long time, even five years ago when protestors, many of whom were university students, camped on the streets for many weeks, seeking a say in how the city was governed, in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. This week, there were few mentions of abstract concepts like democracy, no calls for universal suffrage. Rather, Hongkongers simply demanded to dismiss an unfair law.
Right now, Hong Kong isn’t burning, but its people are on fire. Five years ago, when the streets were cleared in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, the protestors pledged they would be back. Defying all odds, they managed to keep that promise.