HONG KONG—After a series of high-profile arrests here in recent days, demonstrations erupted in multiple districts as we saw the 13th week of unrest play out in exchanges of fire and water.
Protesters gathered at several locations before marching for hours even though the organizers did not secure police permissions for public assemblies. The marchers had no apparent destinations in mind.
It was hot, raining, sticky. Tens of thousands of protesters, perhaps more, defied police orders and blocked off streets. The city’s subway operator shut down the station closest to the Chinese central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Police sealed tram tracks, blocked traffic, and put up barricades in anticipation of protesters swarming the site. They stationed water cannon trucks by the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army, spewing blue dye at anyone who went near the building.
Helicopters hovered above the crowd, while those below used their umbrellas to minimize its surveillance. Blackshirts hurled Molotov cocktails from an overpass toward riot police that were approaching them, as well as over barricades and onto the grounds of the government headquarters. Nearby, police fired tear gas from a fifth-floor rooftop. Miles away, protesters left handwritten notes on road signs and other surfaces informing anyone passing by of police movements.
A block from the police headquarters, protesters built a barricade using bus stop signs and various types of barriers found on Hong Kong’s streets. It spanned six traffic lanes, then they packed it with debris and set it alight.
Passers-by and residents—not protesters—heckled the police, or raised their middle fingers, or simply cheered on the blackshirts. It’s a common sight now. Often, by the time groups of riot police charged down a street, the blackshirts already were gone, disappearing into car parks or alleyways, or dashing around street corners.
The day’s events followed a wave of arrests and attacks on pro-democracy figures. Joshua Wong, who was the face of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, was stuffed into a car. Agnes Chow, one of Joshua Wong’s colleagues in the pro-democracy group Demosistō, was taken from her home. Wong was charged with inciting, organizing, and participating in an unauthorized assembly, specifically one in June where blackshirt protesters surrounded the police headquarters. Chow faced charges of inciting and participating in the same event.
Police rounded up lawmakers, too. They accused Au Nok-hin of assaulting a police officer by speaking—speaking—through a loudspeaker. They took in Jeremy Tan for obstructing a police officer. They nabbed Cheng Chung-tai for “conspiracy to commit criminal damage.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers have been consistently present at demonstrations, often making demands for high-ranked police officers to reign in their subordinates, and encouraging blackshirts to stay safe when they’re on the street.
Police picked up a former University of Hong Kong student union president, Althea Suen, saying she was involved in the storming of the legislature on July 1. And they took the leader of a banned pro-independence party, Andy Chan, at the airport before he was able to board a flight to Japan.
In separate incidents, armed men attacked two activists and protest organizers, Max Chung and Jimmy Sham. Four men beat up Chung with metal rods and umbrellas, while masked individuals assaulted Sham and a companion using a knife and baseball bat.
The arrests and attacks came just days after chief executive Carrie Lam called for communication with the protesters and general public, saying, “We should prepare for reconciliation in society by communicating with different people . . . We want to put an end to the chaotic situation in Hong Kong through law enforcement and so on. At the same time, we will not give up on building a platform for dialogue.”
The blackshirt protesters of Hong Kong have for weeks put forward five demands—a complete withdrawal of an extradition bill that would have provided cover to move anyone who disagrees with the Chinese Communist Party’s policies to detention facilities in the mainland, a retraction of the government’s label of protests as “riots,” the release of those who have been arrested, an inquiry into recent police conduct, and universal suffrage. (Hongkongers get to vote for district councils and legislators, but not the chief executive, who is chosen by a 1200-person committee mostly packed with pro-China businesspeople.)
Carrie Lam had assessed the protesters’ appeals and submitted her conclusion to Beijing in a report. The Chinese government then ordered her not to give in to any demands made by Hongkongers, according to three individuals close to the matter who spoke to Reuters. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Party-run media organization Global Times, claimed this was fake news that was part of a “public opinion war” meant to whip up unrest in Hong Kong and drive a wedge between Beijing and the city’s government, perpetuating the claim that the protests in Hong Kong are devised by foreign “black hands.”
The Chinese Communist Party expects Hongkongers to submit and surrender, contradicting what Lam stated could be a conversation between the city’s officials and the public.
As demonstrations drag on in Hong Kong—and they are expected to continue into October, at least—there is a desperation that occasionally seeps through. Weeks ago, graffiti and banners that read “If we burn, you burn with us”—lifted from a line said by Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay—started to show up on the streets. Today, “You can’t kill us all” was sprayed in red along a road. Younger blackshirts repeatedly have framed their movement as one that is a matter of life or death, an attitude that allows for unpredictable escalation in violent tactics as they become increasingly comfortable with confronting and clashing with riot police week after week.
Beijing consistently misreads—or misrepresents—the protesters in Hong Kong. Global Times calls Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow “secessionists,” though neither has advocated for the city’s independence. Though they aren’t leaders of the blackshirts, the consequence of a mass-scale anonymity is that those who don’t wear masks bear the brunt of the clampdown.
Saturday, as marches across the city were kicking off in the rain, a new “Goddess of Democracy” was erected on a university campus—the result of a crowdfunding campaign that raised HK$200,000 ($25,500) in a matter of hours. She is a young woman in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, face obscured by a gas mask, head covered by a hardhat. She clutches an umbrella in her right hand, and in her left hoists a black flag with white text that reads, “Free Hong Kong. Revolution now.” She’s meant to be a successor to the 10-meter-tall statue created during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Beijing’s playbook might work within mainland China, where the central government has total control over the security apparatus and how information is presented in media and online. But in Hong Kong, the conditions are different, and its tactics are backfiring. Every move by the government to suppress the uprising has flopped, instead energizing the blackshirts and their supporters to keep doing what they have been doing.