Archive for category: Hong Kong
Over the past two weeks, the US has seen some of the largest, most militant protests and riots in decades. The now nationwide movement began in Minneapolis following the police murder of George Floyd. The anger that followed led to mass demonstrations, confrontations with the police, arson and looting, mourning and rebellion that spread across the country within a matter of hours. The Minneapolis Third Precinct station house, where the murderers had worked, was burned to the ground, and police cars were set aflame from New York to LA in the most widespread damage to the punitive edifices of the US state seen in this century, fueled by decades of anger at racist policing and the ceaseless stream of police murders of Black people. Now, even the reform-oriented electoral left is seriously discussing a softened version of police abolition on a national level, re-imagined as “defunding,” and the Minneapolis City Council has pledged to “disband” the city’s police department. Not long ago, such a demand would have been considered utopian.
As the movement against police brutality and the institution of the police itself rapidly unfolds across the US, we have already seen in it the marks of other riots and mass struggles that emerged across the globe in the past year, from Chile to France, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador and Catalonia, to name but a few. Here, any broad analysis of the rebellion in the US would be premature, as the fires of the riots are literally still burning in cities across the country. Instead we would like to offer a few brief observations regarding the struggles in Hong Kong, which we’ve done our best to follow closely, focusing on one particular tactical innovation that we feel might be a helpful contribution to ongoing protests in the US and beyond. We have already seen people in the streets adopting scattered lessons from Hong Kong and other hotspots in past year’s global cycle of rebellions: an arguably Hong Kong-style barricade of Target carts outside the embattled third precinct building in Minneapolis, techniques for extinguishing tear gas in Portland, reports of lasers dazzling police cameras and visors in several cities, umbrellas held up against pepper spray at protests in Columbus and Seattle, and graffiti shout-outs to Hong Kongers on boarded-up or looted storefronts in multiple cities. The similarities were so striking, in fact, that it led the paranoid editor-in-chief of Chinese state media tabloid The Global Times, Hu Xijin, to conclude that “Hong Kong rioters have infiltrated the United States” and “masterminded” the attacks.
“You see people very effectively deploying Hong Kong tactics here, deploying Hong Kong tactics here, to stop these tear gas from gassing protesters and vehicles”
— woppa (@Woppa1Woppa) June 3, 2020
We can do little to guide the way this movement unfolds (nor would we want to), but we hope that some of the tools and tactics employed by our friends and comrades in Hong Kong might be of use to those in the streets of other cities.1 In particular, we offer for your consideration the evolution of the “frontline” role in the Hong Kong movement, in hopes that it might be helpful in bridging gaps between militants and peaceful participants in the streets elsewhere.
As in past movements, there have already been significant disagreements about how to engage with the forces of the state in the US. As with other movements since Ferguson and before, some (but not all) formal activist organizations have begun to engage with the “soft” wing of the local repressive apparatus, springing into action to tamp down the militancy of the initial uprising: “Community leaders” collaborate with the police, walking crowds into ambushes and kettles, and literally point out “violent” protestors in the crowd. Meanwhile, local governments nationwide claim that those initiating property destruction or fighting the police are “outside agitators,” with the mayor of Seattle tweeting that “much of the violence and destruction, both here and across the country, has been instigated and perpetuated by white men.” But it is abundantly clear that pent-up rage against the police is extremely widespread, and on the streets a broad consensus has emerged that they must be opposed.
Hong Kong may offer one path that escapes the seeming inevitability of conflicts over violence, nonviolence, and how to engage with the forces of the state. For those who are looking for a new way to bridge gaps between militant and peaceful forms of participation, we think one of the city’s most important contributions to the new era of struggles has been the development of particular roles and formations to be deployed on the streets, as well the structures behind them that helped to better link those willing to fight the cops with others in the movement. In particular, we want to highlight the concept of Hong Kong’s “frontliners,” who not only developed many successful techniques for confronting the police, but also established a new kind of relationship between the militant and nonviolent elements of street actions through many months of experimentation.
more umbrellas on the front line here in seattle. we are about five minutes past curfew and so far it’s still really peaceful. if you want to watch the live dm me for the link pic.twitter.com/ZyKMoGe0PL
— katie (@besoadored) June 3, 2020
What does it mean to be “on the front line?” The term has become incredibly popular the past few months across languages and social domains, especially in reference to medical workers and others who are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing pandemic. This has obscured the original surge in popularity of the term in mainstream media coverage last year, where it referred to protesters in various parts of the world. The official adulations for workers coming off shift in Wuhan and New York strike us strange, state-orchestrated echoes of the cheer “¡vivan lxs de la primera línea!” that had greeted protesters returning from battles with the police in Chile last fall. What allowed for the versatile, and seemingly opposed, mobilizations of this term was precisely its ability to integrate otherwise divided activities in an effective way, proposing a unity defined not by homogeneity but by support for the overall struggle, symbolized by those at the “frontline.” Now, with the return of riots to the US, it seems possible that the use of the term may again turn to those facing off against the police: In Connecticut, a line of black-clad protesters faces the police wearing masks that must have first been intended to prevent the spread of the virus, and in a blurry screenshot of the moment, a woman holds a sign that reads, “the only allies are the ones on the frontlines.”
Via Chen Ronghui
The basic idea allowing the concept of the frontline to integrate the movement beyond the old divides between violence and non-violence, or “diversity of tactics,” is that those on the frontlines take personal risks to protect those around them, ideally with (but often without) distinctive protective gear, and that these risks help to push forward the entire movement. This is also why the concept extended so easily to pandemic response, because the basic logic of personal risk in support of the struggle is more or less identical. But in those cases, the state had a clear interest in mobilizing the term to co-opt popular responses or disguise its own incompetence, all with the ultimate goal still being to suppress the pandemic. Now, however, the state has no such interest, since it does not share the same goal as the protestors invoking the concept of the frontline. Instead, it will pose “community leaders,” and maybe even portray them as having been “on the frontlines” of the movement in some fashion, but there is no necessity to even pretend to support those actually in conflict with the police. This means that the term has the ability to return to the meaning it gained in Hong Kong, defined through risks taken in defense of everyone or the act of putting one’s life on the line to keep everyone else safe and simultaneously push the struggle forward.
In the course of escalating street clashes throughout 2019, Hong Kong protesters produced rapid-fire innovations, including the invention of new gear and distinct formations with specific tactical positions to be filled within the body of the protest. The frontliner emerged in this context as a recognizable role for those who, with armor and tear-gas mitigation strategies, positioned themselves directly against the police, backed up by comrades in second and third lines.
Translation of slogans between Hong Kong and Chilean protests: “We cannot return to normal, because normality was the problem.”
This tactical innovation spread rapidly, first to Chile and then to other Latin American contexts. The first jump from Hong Kong to Chile was likely translated through riot porn uploaded to YouTube or simply transmitted through the heady air of the 2019 cycle of revolt. One participant in a Chilean frontline “clan” makes it clear that the tactics his group uses were adopted from Hong Kong. Soon enough, other local rioters were gearing up remarkably similar tactics, including shields, slogans, inventive construction of barricades, and the widespread adaptation of high-powered laser pointers as tools for disrupting police cameras and vision (as well as, in one memorable case, the destruction of a police drone). Beyond these specific adaptations, the structure of the Chilean movement was also organized along recognizable lines: Following a period of demonstrations against an increase in public transportation prices, including widespread organized fare evasions and large marches, a police crackdown then sparked massive demonstrations and riots that are widely referred to in Chile as a “social explosion.” In video of a protest in Plaza Italia, Santiago, Chile, one man on a building overlooking the square remarks excitedly that the demonstration “is only possible because of a group of kids”, who have organized “to stop the repressive forces.”
Through the following period, as a state of emergency was declared in cities across the country, space for peaceful demonstration was defended by a frontline of protesters willing to fight the police. As in Hong Kong, these frontliners were organized primarily by role: shield-bearers, rock throwers, medics, “miners” (producing projectiles), protesters in the back line with lasers to disrupt police vision or cameras, and barricaders to block advances. Unlike later developments in the Hong Kong “be water” strategy that emphasized wearing police out through constant movement, the Chilean movement started with frontliners setting up and defending specific lines around the “zero zone” or “red zone” to keep the cops from entering areas where other protesters were gathered. As repression increased, however, the daily clashes became essentially street by street battles between organized frontliners and the police. Still, however, the importance of the frontline as a tool to make protest possible was widely recognized by those inside the movement and out, with “representatives of the frontlines” being cheered wildly when invited to participate on talk shows. As in Hong Kong, frontliners who formed autonomous groups to defend the movement were supported by outside participants, both anonymously and as groups, as some right-wing media complained.
Similar tactics were also adopted in Colombia via Chile and Hong Kong, as groups organizing on Facebook recognized that there was a need to protect demonstrators in the student-driven movement there from police violence. However, the early members of the most prominent frontline groups declared that they would act in purely “defensive” ways rather than attacking the police directly. However, as the broader popular movement died down, opinions on these groups (characterized by their media-friendly blue shields) started to shift. Frontliners consciously adopted Hong Kong’s “be water” strategy, but this was perceived by many in the student movements as a physical abandonment of the student movement, which had not made the same tactical choices. More broadly, frontliners in the Colombian student protests were perceived as opportunistic, attempting to make media-friendly spectacle, and trying to lead marches away from agreed-upon routes. Ultimately, this type of highly inorganic “frontline” became alienated from the support they first received from the rest of the movement.
Love for the frontline in Chilean protest graffiti
Across these different contexts, the development of the role of the frontliner has marked a significant advancement in tactics for street confrontation with the police. Such tactics must, of course, change to suit particular situations, but we can learn from the continually growing global knowledge of struggle. In the decade or so following the decline of the alter-globalization movement, discussion over tactics for fighting the police largely congealed into debates over the “black bloc.” Originating in 1980s Germany, black bloc refers to the tactic of wearing matching, all-black protest gear, which prevents police from picking any individual out from a crowd. Partly because of its practical success, black-bloc actions in the US and much of Europe have been subject to endless debates that ultimately come down to the role militant action should play in street protests. In the US, the ultimate result was a détente in which protestors who supported militancy and those who could only support non-confrontational action went so far as to divide up areas of cities to prevent interaction between groups. Assertions that the black bloc protects nonviolent demonstrators (either directly or by drawing police repression and resources elsewhere) have been common points of contention, but never reached a consensus. At best, there is advocacy for a “diversity of tactics,” maybe the single best phrase to describe this fragile détente.
Early on in such movements, diversity of tactics allows for a tenuous coexistence of both militant and peaceful protest, since there are many participants and multiple marches, allowing people to distribute themselves into those locales where their preferred brand prevails. The term effectively imagines entirely different spheres in which “diverse tactics” can take place. But this is often not the case. As state repression increases and the early momentum slows, the two spheres are forced to merge. It is precisely at this point that more aggressive tactics are needed to defend the movement as a whole against the police, and to continue pushing things forward as participants’ energy wanes. On the one hand, this is when the state’s repressive function is activated, as local police are resupplied and receive backup from higher levels of government. Yet on the other, this is also the moment when the state mobilizes its apparatus of soft control in the form of community leaders, non-profits and “progressive” politicians, all of whom play an essential role in severing the tenuous tactical alliance that existed in the early days. These are, after all, the people most successful in pushing the myth of the “outside agitator,” deriding the “white anarchist” destruction of property and often literally stepping in to prevent attacks on police or even de-arrests of other protestors, after the fact encouraging people to turn over snitch videos showing who threw bottles at the police line, and flooding social media with posts claiming that cops or even white nationalists were the ones who broke the first windows.
In the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and Chile, however, in different ways and at different speeds, the assertion that the bloc protects others was turned into a clear and undeniable piece of common knowledge. This was possible partly through an erasure of any previous meanings attached to black bloc protesting and its replacement with the role of the frontliner: that protester who, by subjecting herself to grave danger and ever-present tear gas, was acting in no other capacity than the defense of everyone else in the protest from the police. This represents a shift: there is no longer a large geographic separation into two bodies of protesters (one zone for peaceful protest and another for confrontation), but instead a single body coalesced, protected at the frontline by those who have made it their role to be there. In an even broader sense, and perhaps even more importantly, the Hong Kong and Chilean protests totally reconfigured the role of black-clad, masked, and militant protesters willing to fight the police. Unlike the situation in the US, where it is often possible for media and police to collaborate in isolating militants, portraying them as separate from the main body of “good protesters” and even further distanced from the body politic at large, frontliners also came to be widely (if not completely) understood as acting in defense of everyone else, protesters and non-protesters alike, by making it possible to resist an untenable status quo.
The construction of effective solidarity between “brave militants” (勇武) and adherents to “peaceful, rational nonviolence” (和理非) was not the automatic result of the rising movement in 2019 Hong Kong, nor did it happen overnight. As is the case in the US, previous movements in Hong Kong were divided along ideological lines of militancy and nonviolence, as well as between those on the street and the “controlled opposition” of Pan-Democratic parties in the Legislative Council (LegCo).2 We must recall that the 2019 protests came after years of experimentation, including the emergence and failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement: an equally massive and largely “peaceful” protest that checked all the boxes advocated by liberal proponents of non-violence.
When that movement was so decisively defeated, the youth of Hong Kong began to agitate in new ways—at first in much smaller scale street actions, such as the odd and still controversial “Fishball Riots” of 2016. In these actions, we saw something like the frontline severed from its basis in a mass demonstration. Young people still reeling from the abject failure of 2014’s “peace, love and nonviolence” instead jumped into direct confrontation, declaring war on the cops, stacking and throwing bricks, and then piloting the “be water” strategy of refusing to hold space. At the same time, they didn’t wait to be joined by other protestors, and they made no effort to recruit. The result was that the frontlines in the Fishball Riots, such as they were, had none of the connotations of defending others that they hold now. This instance of rioting is still controversial among Hong Kongers within the protest movement because its isolated character made it into a kind of risky adventurism (not to mention the role played by far-right localists in the riots). Now, however, we see very similar tactics re-deployed and polished, but in a strikingly different context. It is as if the tactics piloted in both the (relatively) peaceful actions of 2014 and the (relatively) violent confrontations with police of 2016 were finally forced to combine in an effective synthesis.
The roots of this synthesis might be best seen near the end of the Umbrella Movement, which took shape through sometimes conflictual interactions between formal organizations and tens of thousands of autonomous participants. During the occupations of Central and, later, Mong Kok, some elements of the movement were organized centrally, with occupations focused around a “big stage” (大台) that was essentially controlled by large political organizations, particularly the two student groups: the HK Federation of Student Unions and Scholarism (a group founded by high school students), as well as the main electoral parties of the Pan-Democratic camp and a slew of established NGO activists. While these occupations could never have begun––much less sustained themselves—without huge amounts of autonomous work and action, formal organizations attempted to maintain some control over the shape the movement, and in some cases attempted to call off specific actions, some of which went on anyway without their support. Still, those in leadership positions were the groups that eventually entered into negotiations with the government. As in many western contexts, these organizations were largely oriented towards so-called “rational nonviolence.” However, tensions between radicals and those who controlled the stage rose throughout the course of the movement, reaching a peak following an attack by protesters on the LegCo building, after which nonviolent protesters and organizers labelled all militants as secret agents of Beijing or “wreckers.” On the other side, some protesters began circulating slogans calling for the main stage (and the power center it represented) to be dismantled (拆大台), and for pickets that had attempted to halt attacks on LegCo to be disbanded (散纠察).
In the wake of the failure of the Umbrella Movement and the clearance of occupations, the first period of the 2019 Anti-Extradition Movement—roughly from the proposal of the law in March 2019 to the two million person march on June 16—still saw rational nonviolence as the dominant tactic. However, following the government’s unwillingness to retract the law in the face of the mass nonviolent movement, and following increasingly violent police repression, a rough consensus emerged around a few basic principles: Learning from the failures of the Umbrella Movement, the new protests should not be organized around a central body and would not attempt to take and hold space. This organizational form was specifically understood in reference to the main stages of the Umbrella Movement, with “decentralization” as a slogan and organizational principle rendered in Cantonese as “without a big stage” (无大台).3
At the same time, experiences of the violence of police repression created an atmosphere of solidarity among protesters. Based on unified demands—first for the retraction of the extradition bill, and then for an inquiry into police brutality, an end to classifications of protesters as rioters, amnesty for arrestees, and universal suffrage—participants achieved a broad consensus that success would require a level of unity between militants and peaceful protesters: “no divisions, no renunciations, no betrayals” (不分化、不割席、不督灰) or, more positively, “each fighting in our own way, we climb the mountain together” (兄弟爬山，各自努力) and “the peaceful and the brave are indivisible, we rise and fall together” (和勇不分、齐上齐落). Polls of movement participants taken on the ground in early June showed that 38% of respondents believed that “radical tactics” were useful in making the state listen to protesters’ demands, but by September, 62% agreed. When asked if radical tactics were understandable in the face of state intransigence, nearly 70% already agreed in June, and by July, this percentage had risen to 90%. By September, only 2.5% of poll respondents stated that the use of radical tactics by protesters was not understandable. From the same polling, by September, over 90% of participants agreed with the statement that “Bringing peaceful and militant actions together is the most effective way to get results.”4 A similar tipping point may be emerging in the US, as nearly 80% of respondents to a nationwide poll asking whether the anger leading to the current wave of protests is “justified” respond affirmatively, and 54% state that the response to the death of George Floyd, including burning a police precinct building, is justified.
In Hong Kong, the decentralized nature of the movement, combined with the growing sense of a unified purpose shared between peaceful and militant protesters allowed for the formation and reproduction of recognizable roles in which participants could support each other in autonomously organized groups, coordinated anonymously through online tools like Telegram and forums like LIHK.org. These tools and organizational structures are worthy of a separate investigation or open-sourced protest guide in themselves: Telegram allows for the creation of extremely flexible structures while preserving anonymity, which allowed protesters and supporters to develop an entire digital ecosystem that was crucial to outmaneuvering and outwitting the police in real time. Telegram’s “Channels” feature allowed for the creation of both massive large-scale chatrooms similar to the comment feature on livestream software that protesters in the US are using. However, while these “public seas” (公海) were capable of providing some useful information, they were understood to be under police surveillance due to their public nature, and sensitive organizing was done in breakout channels with trusted friends.
Protesters also created other channels specifically for sharing police locations and escape routes, which eventually reached tens of thousands of protest participants. In these channels, posting is restricted to admins or specially designated bots, who relay verified information about the location and disposition of police forces, helping to undercut the phenomenon of runaway rumor common in any protest. This information is itself crowdsourced from individuals working as spotters on the fringes of protest marches, who send updates in designated channels according to a specific format, so that it can be easily standardized and passed on to data aggregators who monitor both scout channels and livestreams, publishing updates to announcement channels and real-time maps of police locations.
Beyond reporting functions, Telegram channels created for specific actions also allowed participants to relay information about needs (medics needed at this intersection, tear gas mitigation tools needed soon) and make collective decisions about responses in real time through voting functions. The latter allowed for quick choices such as which escape route to take to avoid a police attack. Importantly, these organizational methods drew in both militants and those who were unwilling, uninterested or (because of immigration status, disability, or other potential vulnerability to police violence) unable to participate on the frontlines: While frontliners faced off with police and their escalating violence, nonviolent supporters involved themselves in marches, as medics or by providing logistical support (moving barricade supplies, tools for dealing with tear gas, or clothes for black-clad frontliners to change into), as copwatch with video cameras, or as scouts feeding information to other supporters working as data aggregators.
Many of the ways that those “outside” the frontlines provided direct material support to frontliners on the streets: In some actions, protesters without gear would form human walls, sometimes using umbrellas, to protect frontliners while they took off the gear that would mark them for arrest on their way home. Others, while not directly participating as frontliners themselves, would facilitate property damage by using their umbrellas to shield those breaking windows from the view of cameras. Later in the movement, protesters outside the front lines would bring the individual components for molotov cocktails to actions, and formed human chains supplying frontliners with materials to rapidly resupply with bottles, gasoline, sugar and rags.
Beyond these specific support actions, simply remaining on the streets during bans on public gatherings was eventually understood as a means of supporting the movement: One friend tells the story of an anonymous older office worker on a smoke break who, having read on Telegram that a group of frontliners near his building needed to buy time before engaging with the police, walked directly up to the police line and tried to pick a fight with the cops, thinking that his identity as an older, well-dressed person might decrease his chance of getting arrested and provide more of an alibi if he did. However, this generalization of the struggle is also seen by some as one reason why the police eventually turned to the more recent strategy of kettling and mass arrest of everyone in a given area: Anyone on the streets can now be assumed to be a participant, or at least to hate the cops.
Image of protest roles from Hong Kong, translated anonymously and circulated during recent struggles
Early in the movement, however, prior to the scaling-up of police repression and arrests in the late summer and fall of 2019, the role of the frontliner was relatively clear-cut, with options for supporters to remain separate from direct police confrontation by constructing barricades, providing supplies to frontliners as they extinguished tear gas, or hiding frontliners from police while they changed out of gear. This divide was still somewhat problematic, however, as the acceptance of the frontline as a core segment of the movement gave those actually fighting the police a position of “higher merit” in some ways, with some peaceful protesters being accused of not being militant enough. But as acceptance of militant action grew alongside ever-more extreme police violence, these divisions began to break down. On the one hand, actions that were formerly understood as peaceful became associated with ever greater risk of detection and arrest.
For example, the creation and protection of “Lennon walls” of protest art and self-expression was originally understood as a completely “peaceful” mode of participation, but as the number of violent attacks on Lennon walls and arrests of the people working on them increased, it became difficult to continue participating without physical and mental preparation for violence. In the face of both police violence and the “white terror” of attacks on protesters by pro-Beijing thugs, any divide between those who were willing to put their bodies on the line and those who were committed to either lower-risk or ethically nonviolent participation became harder and harder to draw. This was particularly true as increasing numbers of protesters were arrested. For some friends, the decision to join the frontline was gradual and resulted from the gradual erosion of differences between frontline activities and other ways of supporting the movement. Other friends relayed difficult conversations they had with their elderly parents who, seeing the arrests of so many youth, resolved to join the frontline themselves to fill the gap.
— Snufkin #MaskUp #RentStrike (@Anon_Snufkin) May 29, 2020
While we have purposely focused on material tactics rather than political identity, it should be recognized that the five demands helping to provide a basis for admirable unity for protesters in Hong Kong also papered over significant political divisions. In particular, the fact that the movement was so broad-based meant that it included (and in some cases was driven by) right-wing localist sentiment. Unlike the Yellow Vests in France, which had a similarly broad base of participation, escalation of militant tactics to include property damage did not serve to drive right-wing elements out of the movement. Rather, in Hong Kong the situation was reversed, and some (but by no means all) leftists limited their participation in the movement, unwilling to chant slogans alongside nationalists calling for a revolution to “restore” Hong Kong, or to participate in marches with those waving flags of the US or colonial British regimes.
While the racial structure of US politics makes right-wing participation in the ongoing cycle of rebellion a near impossibility (despite politicians promoting lies to the contrary), the structure of the Hong Kong movement around a unifying set of five demands is also somewhat alien to the US context. While their very impossibility gave the movement room to grow, the use of even untenable demands has fallen out of fashion in the US. Following the failure of first the anti-war protests in the mid-2000s, the rise and fall of Occupy a few years later defined what would become the norm, in which an excess of demands led to the general inability to “agree upon” any at all. In the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the uprising in Ferguson in 2014, a similar phenomenon occurred: the “official” BLM non-profits made concrete demands for body cameras on cops and money for military equipment to be funneled into anti-racism and de-escalation trainings, but these were never the popularly endorsed demands of the streets. Instead, the movement cohered around not a demand, but an assertion: that Black Lives Matter.
It is this assertion that has returned as the cohering force of today’s uprising. At the same time, this may be changing somewhat. But there is still not yet a coherent set of demands that could unite peaceful and militant protesters rising up after the murder of George Floyd. If such demands were to arise, they would probably be basic and unlikely to be achieved without “dismantling the big stage” of business as usual in the US, much like the Five Demands from Hong Kong: general amnesty, abolition of the police, or reparations for centuries of state-sanctioned murder and forced labor. Calls to “defund the police” seem to have taken prominence now after being picked up by activist groups and local progressive politicians. But such a demand falls far short of the more popular call to abolish the police, and allows local leaders to claim that they are “defunding” police departments when in fact they are only conducting fractional budget cuts. In this sense, “defund the police” seems to be taking on a character similar to the demand for body cameras in 2014.
With or without such demands, we see the core innovation of the role of the frontliner as being embedded in the new relations that become possible: between the “frontline” and the second line, the third, and other supportive protesters. One similarity between the experiences of Hong Kong protesters and those in the streets of the US is that, while many have long experienced the ways that police repression functions, this is for many the first time (or at least one of the most severe moments) when police repression of peaceful protest is visible. In some sense, the evolving role of the frontliner was actually forced into existence by police action. Once repression of the movement in Hong Kong passed a certain point, two facts became apparent: First, police are fundamentally violent, and they will dispense that violence regardless of whether their targets are protesting peacefully or not. Second, it became apparent that if the movement was to continue, protesters would have to be able to defend themselves.
As police and National Guard reinforcements try to disperse protests in incredibly violent ways on the streets of almost every major city in the US, it seems possible that the country might see a similar tipping point in terms of the scale and intensity of repression. For those looking for ways forward—ways to support our friends and comrades, to work in solidarity, to mourn those killed by police, and to ensure that such systemic violence will end someday—one method of continuing the struggle might be found by recognizing that the role of the frontliner is to protect everyone else. So we say: welcome to the frontlines, and also to the second and third line, and to the medics and supply lines, everyone holding spaces, the illustrators and printers and distributors, the live-streamers and everyone tweeting information from police scanners. Maybe this time we can all be in it together.
“I’m happy to struggle with you” — “Me too, thanks, comrade”
HONG KONG—For most of last year, life here was intertwined with protests. Those not attending demonstrations might have found themselves caught in the middle of a police clearance operation, with officers chasing black-clad protesters into subway stations or around shopping malls. Large video boards hanging off skyscrapers occasionally carried live footage of marches just a few blocks away. People distantly removed from the nucleus of unrest could count on live-streams on their phone. Even when I was not reporting, the protests were never far off: Dinners with friends sometimes came with a whiff of tear gas.
This week, I found myself once again staring at and scrolling through protest footage, not from the Hong Kong neighborhoods of Sha Tin, Yuen Long, and Causeway Bay, but from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Watching from many time zones away, my mornings slipped by as I sat enraptured with news reports, checking my messages for updates from friends and family in the United States.
The protests that have rolled across the U.S. and the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong are undoubtedly different, both at their root and in how they have played out. Hong Kongers, for instance, point out that while buildings and businesses here were damaged, they were selective about targeting only pro-Beijing sites and tried to restrict looting. Some in Hong Kong have also posted photos to social media of American officers joining protesters in solidarity, remarking that such scenes would never take place here. (The reaction of those such as Senator Tom Cotton, a vocal backer of Hong Kong’s demonstrations who has supported cracking down on his own protesting citizenry, is one that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government here or in Beijing.)
Still, it is difficult not to see a few similarities between the U.S. protests and, in particular, the early days of Hong Kong’s latest prodemocracy movement. If those parallels bear out over time, the U.S. could be looking at a long arc of protests, one in which the actions of the authorities do not quell unrest but instead galvanize demonstrators and draw in new ones, broadening protests into a movement far larger and with much wider support than when it began.
I remarked to friends this week that numerous American police departments appeared to be having their June 12 moment, a reference to a mass protest in Hong Kong last year that was violently broken up by officers, the first of many such crackdowns to come. The actions of police that day—attacking peaceful protesters, firing rubber bullets at journalists, and harassing bystanders— captured on video and widely broadcast, coupled with the authorities’ subsequent unflinching support of the force led to a surge in support for demonstrators, helping propel Hong Kong’s protests from ones focused on a single issue to a much larger movement.
Just days prior to the June 12 protest, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers had taken to the streets against proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, worried and angry about the threat posed to the territory’s semiautonomous status. On June 12 itself, tens of thousands of protesters occupied a major road near the city’s Legislative Council, hoping to disrupt the reading of the bill. The effort started just after sunrise and within a few hours the street had turned into a well-organized protest camp. Supplies flowed from distribution points up and down the road, groups of friends sat on the pavement chatting, a few people placed enormous orders at a nearby McDonald’s and weaved through the crowd handing out hamburgers.
Then, in the late afternoon, police began firing canisters of tear gas as protesters pushed against metal barricades. It was early in Hong Kong’s period of unrest, and demonstrators were not yet wearing the body armor and helmets that would become commonplace in the weeks and months to come. With little protection, many of them fled in panic. Police then fired rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds, while some officers beat unarmed protesters with batons. Others fired on clearly identified journalists. Some officers removed their identification badge from their uniform, making it impossible to know who they were. After the dispersal, one protester teared up as he told me about the solidarity he had felt while demonstrating alongside strangers for a common goal, before officers intervened.
Police in Hong Kong would quickly find out what officers in the U.S. could soon be discovering themselves: that while tear gas momentarily sends people scattering, when the smoke clears, it has a way of bringing people together, turning bystanders into protesters and hardening the resolve of those already committed to a cause.
Nearly every person I spoke with in the following year—frontline protesters, activists, prodemocracy lawmakers, and casual participants in the demonstrations—cited June 12 as a turning point. “It changed everything,” Bonnie Leung, who at the time served as the vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that organized some of the largest protests against the extradition bill, told me.
The main grievance, the proposed legislation, remained, but the actions of the police shocked and appalled many, leading to more people joining the protests. Two days later, thousands of mothers took part in a rally urging police to not shoot their kids. On June 16, some 2 million people took to the streets, the largest protest of the movement and one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history. The following month, on July 21, police failed to quickly respond to organized-crime members beating protesters with sticks, further eroding trust. Images this week of white residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood carrying bats and assaulting people while police stood by were strikingly similar. (Just as in Hong Kong, a journalist in Philadelphia was also targeted.) Poor attempts by law enforcement in the U.S. to make people second guess what they have seen, are reminiscent of the Hong Kong police’s defense when they were caught on camera roughing up a man on the ground. It was just a “yellow object,” officers claimed. Even now, graffiti marking the dates of these incidents in Hong Kong can still be seen around the city.
Police did not simply fail to keep order and curtail the protests—the task they were sent to the streets to do. The reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force, which dubbed itself “Asia’s Finest” and was generally respected as recently as a year ago, collapsed in the eyes of those it purported to serve. At the same time, radical tactics used by protesters became more accepted by the public. Officers now walking the streets are routinely on the receiving end of vulgarities and slurs, and have moved from being seen as arbiters of law and order to being viewed as an occupying force working at the behest of Beijing. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong described police as being “perceived as a coercive apparatus of the People’s Republic of China” in a paper detailing how violent confrontations led to an uptick in support for prodemocracy candidates in last year’s local elections.
An interview with a young woman by the online news outlet Asian Boss captured not only the anger but the deep sadness that many people felt watching the police brutalize city residents with seemingly little remorse and no repercussions. “When I was young, my teacher told me that the police arrest criminals, and you can seek help from them and you can trust them,” the woman said as she began to cry. “I couldn’t imagine being afraid of being hit and arrested by the police. But now, even though I might not be breaking any laws, I might get arrested or hit by them for just wearing a black T-shirt.” Recently, my soft-spoken Cantonese teacher, when going through a section on useful phrases, told me that “Help, I’m in trouble!” used to be something I could have said to get a police officer’s attention. Now it would more likely be deployed when an officer was beating me indiscriminately, she said.
The lessons for the United States appear clear, even if the parallels are not perfectly aligned. It took decades for Hong Kong’s police to build up a store of trust, and mere days for that trust to be lost. The authorities’ unquestioning support of the police, absolving officers caught misusing their power and refusing demands for a substantive inquiry into the force, has only served to worsen the relationship between the city’s people and those charged with keeping them safe.
A significant difference, however, between American police departments and the force here, which prodemocracy advocates have been quick to point out and which Hong Kong’s government likes to overlook, is that out-of-control officers in the United States face at least some repercussions. A number have been fired, and investigations have been launched. It’s not the complete overhaul and rethinking of policing that some have advocated for, but it is start.
In Hong Kong, the government’s largely powerless police watchdog this year produced a 999-page report looking at the force’s conduct during the protests. Though it unsurprisingly absolved the police of wrongdoing, it nevertheless noted that “the image of the police has lost its lustre and the city of Hong Kong has lost its hard-earned reputation as a peaceful city.”
“Most disheartening, too,” it continued, “is the psychological trauma the violence has wrought, particularly on the minds of young people.”
It was January when I first heard about the mysterious viral pneumonia circulating in Wuhan, China. I had some major worries—was this SARS redux, or something else?—but also a small, selfish lament. I was eager to go back to Hong Kong, where I had been conducting research on its protest movement. A new epidemic there would likely mean that visiting the city anytime soon would be unsafe. I worried about my many friends there. I told them that I hoped to see them as soon as the outbreak was over.
It’s been five months, and I doubt Hong Kong will let someone like me in anytime soon. The city of more than 7 million people had no local cases for weeks until today; meanwhile, I live in the country with the worst outbreak in the world, the United States, with more than 80,000 known deaths from COVID-19 and without encouraging developments on the necessary measures to contain it. Hong Kong, by contrast, has had only four known deaths total from the coronavirus over the past many months. It recently stopped calculating the dreaded R(t)—the real-time transmission rate of the coronavirus—because, of course, you cannot calculate transmission rates without new cases. Hong Kong never even had a full lockdown (although it closed schools, which it plans to reopen soon). Meanwhile, I’m entering my sixth week under a stay-at-home order, with no robust exit infrastructure in place.
If there was a country that could have been expected to have a hard time with this virus, it was Hong Kong. It’s one of the most dense cities in the world, with crowded high-rise housing squeezed into almost every available space, and more cross-border traffic with China than anywhere else in the world. The region relies on an efficient but packed mass-transportation system—trains run every few minutes but many are stuffed to the gills during many hours of the day. There is little open public space, and little room to naturally spread out. Many of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong seat diners elbow to elbow, knee to knee.
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has had a long history of epidemics. The 1968 flu pandemic that killed 1 million people around the world started in Hong Kong, and killed at least many thousands of the city’s residents, and became known as the Hong Kong flu. Hong Kong also lost the most people outside of mainland China to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
It wouldn’t have been shocking if, like many pathogens before it, this coronavirus had spread wildly through Hong Kong. The city is connected to Wuhan, where the pandemic started, via a high-speed-train line and many daily flights. More than 2.5 million people came to Hong Kong from mainland China just in January of 2020. The city also lacks a competent government with a strong basis of legitimacy. The people don’t have full voting rights and the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was hand-picked by Beijing, failed to muster an effective response when the protest movement engulfed the city in 2019. The region’s economy was already in recession before the pandemic, and things have worsened since. Lam is extremely unpopular, with a staggering 80 percent disapproval rating.
Lam fumbled the response to the pandemic as well, reacting with ineptitude, especially at first. Hong Kong’s first coronavirus case was reported when she was having dim sum with world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and there was an outcry over the fact that she did not quickly return. She dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders, and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores, as well as lines for many essentials. In early February, the financial outlet Bloomberg ran an opinion piece that compared Hong Kong to a “failed state”—a striking assessment for a global financial center and transportation hub usually known for its efficiency and well-functioning institutions.
And yet there is no unchecked, devastating COVID-19 epidemic in Hong Kong. The city beat back the original wave, and also beat back a second resurgence due to imported cases. But unlike in Taiwan or South Korea, this success can’t be attributed to an executive that acted early and with good governance backed by the people.
The secret sauce of Hong Kong’s response was its people and, crucially, the movement that engulfed the city in 2019. Seared with the memory of SARS, and already mobilized for the past year against their unpopular government, the city’s citizens acted swiftly, collectively, and efficiently, in effect saving themselves. The organizational capacity and the civic infrastructure built by the protest movement played a central role in Hong Kong’s grassroots response.
For example, during last fall’s district-council elections, Hong Kong protesters created many resources to guide and mobilize voters in what were otherwise local elections of little consequence, but that had become symbolically important in the middle of the protest wave. One key initiative was websites that provided information on candidates so voters could easily figure out who was pro-government and who was not—not always easy when the candidates were supposed to be discussing garbage collection, not Beijing’s attempts to limit Hong Kong’s constitutional protections. On the very day the first known coronavirus case in Hong Kong was announced, the same protest team behind the candidate information sites immediately created a new website—this time to track cases of COVID-19, monitor hot spots, warn people of places selling fake PPE, and report hospital wait times and other relevant information.
Anthony Kwan / Getty
Many of the key information sources for Hong Kong protesters had been anonymous channels in the popular app Telegram and their own online forums. These anonymous formats protected the protesters from government repression but created a constant threat of misinformation, as someone could always pretend to be a protester or just be wrong or trolling. Consequently, the protesters learned to become incessant fact-checkers, used to looking up multiple sources and critically analyzing information. Now they turned their powers to critical analysis to the coronavirus: criticizing their own officials, as well as the World Health Organization, which did not advise wearing masks or travel restrictions, and China, which they saw as covering up the initial epidemic (they were right on all counts).
In response to the crisis, Hong Kongers spontaneously adopted near-universal masking on their own, defying the government’s ban on masks. When Lam oscillated between not wearing a mask in public and wearing one but incorrectly, they blasted her online and mocked her incorrect mask wearing. In response to the mask shortage, the foot soldiers of the protest movement set up mask brigades—acquiring and distributing masks, especially to the poor and elderly, who may not be able to spend hours in lines. An “army of volunteers” also spread among the intensely crowded and often decrepit tenement buildings to install and keep filled hand-sanitizer dispensers. During the protest movement, I had become accustomed to seeing shared digital maps that kept track of police blockades and clashes; now digital maps kept track of outbreaks and hand-sanitizer distribution.
When the government refused at first to close the border with mainland China, more than 7,000 medical workers went on an unprecedented strike, demanding border closures and PPE for hospital workers. This strike was only possible because labor unions were formed during the protests. Now they came in handy for collective action. Protesters also tried to speak symbolically and increase awareness: They advocated wearing white ribbons to show support for medical workers and made art that demonstrated proper hand-washing and correct mask wearing, and that decried the mask shortage.
Some of the signals to the government were decidedly more confrontational. Through Telegram channels, “anti-epidemic actions” were threatened if the government did not respond to the virus by closing down borders. Explosives were discovered at border checkpoints between mainland China and Hong Kong, and flaming objects were thrown at the train tracks connecting the two countries. When the government hastily set up quarantine centers in dense neighborhoods without consulting the people who lived nearby, Molotov cocktails engulfed their (empty) lobbies, and the plans were scrapped. Later, the government set up quarantine facilities in much more sparsely populated holiday villages and many people used hotels to self-isolate.
Thanks partly to their long history of fighting epidemics, Hong Kong also has some of the world’s most prominent experts in infectious diseases. They were cautious about picking open fights with their government or with China, but were clear in prioritizing public health. Defying China’s pronouncements about lack of evidence for human-to-human transmission and ignoring the WHO, which relayed those pronouncements to the world, the experts stated from very early on that they suspected the disease was transmitted among people, and acted accordingly in their recommended safeguards. Despite the Hong Kong government’s continuing ban on face masks, Hong Kong’s health authorities openly credited the near-universal mask wearing among the people for avoiding a surge in cases.
Vivek Prakash / Getty
Lam’s government eventually responded, but it was always a step behind the people. Hong Kong closed some border crossings throughout February but never fully shut down the border—by then, China was increasingly under a lockdown anyway, with limited travel anywhere. After increases in cases due to returning travelers, a screening center with testing was set up near the airport, along with a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period for all new arrivals (except those coming from China, Macau, or Taiwan)—but those measures didn’t happen until late into March, and testing for all incoming travelers did not even start until April 8.
Hong Kongers were so successful in their efforts that even the flu season ended six weeks earlier than usual. And now life returns to normal in Hong Kong: Museums and libraries are already open, and schools are reopening. People are able to go out and live their lives.
The people kept up their vigilance in responding to new threats as well. A warning shot came from Singapore, which got its outbreak under control only to be faced with a major resurgence in April among the country’s crowded and densely packed low-wage migrant-worker dormitories. Volunteers in Hong Kong quickly started efforts to sanitize the subdivided flats that Hong Kong’s own working poor inhabit using UVC lights—free of charge to the poor residents. Now they are collectively organizing ordering takeout from beleaguered restaurants that suffered in the past few months, hoping to help them survive this crisis. As the government scales up its repression—arresting elected legislators and prodemocracy figures, and with scuffles in the legislative body that portend more crackdowns—the protesters have even started planning for protests. You can be sure they will show up wearing masks.
The people of Hong Kong know who’s actually behind the city’s success. A recent poll of 23 nations found that Hong Kong came in third-lowest in citizens’ scoring of their government’s handling of the crisis. They know their reality is difficult, but they also refuse to surrender to despair.
There’s a lesson here, as the United States deals with staggering levels of incompetence at the federal level. Stories have been written by doctors in major hospitals in the U.S. about how they tried to source masks in the black market and disguised PPE shipments in food trucks to avoid their seizure by the federal government. As Taiwan and South Korea show, timely response by a competent government can make the difference between surrendering to a major outbreak and returning to a well-functioning, open society without lockdowns or deaths. But Hong Kong also teaches that people aren’t helpless, even when their government isn’t helpful.
Even amid the COVID-19 crisis, the pro-democracy movement and freedom of speech are under attack, as the legal system cows under pressure and police brutality worsens.
More than 10 well-known democratic leaders were arrested on April 18, including barrister and founding chairperson of the Democratic Party Martin Lee, also known as the “Father of Hong Kong democracy”, and the Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan.
The police accused them of organising, publicising and taking part in unauthorised assemblies from last August to November. The pro-democracy movement said it is yet another attempt to repress opposition to the Carrie Lam administration.
Hong Kong has become a police state with the police acting with impunity. They cover their faces with masks and sunglasses and refuse to display their identification numbers or show their warrant cards.
An Indonesian journalist, who was hit in the eye by police in Wan Chai, filed a complaint but the police refused to investigate. A Christian priest, Chan Yan-ming, has written an open letter calling on Christian police to think about their oppressive behaviour in suppressing protests.
A female protester testified that she was gang-raped by police after being arrested. She has since had an abortion and fled to Taiwan. The police denied her accusation and dropped the investigation; they now claim she is a “wanted person”.
Police have also been found abusing the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings of more than four people. On March 31, protesters organised a memorial action at the Prince Edward MTR station to remember the “831 太子站事件 incident” in which police attacked pro-democracy protesters on August 31, killing at least five people.
At the memorial, the police ordered five people to line up, then fined them for being in a gathering of more than four people.
On May 8, protesters were attacked by pro-government supporters. Police arrested the victims but allowed the armed pro-government supporters to leave.
The president of Hong Kong Education University student union ‒ one of those arrested ‒ applied for a court order to obtain the CCTV footage to sue the police for damages. The metro company spent more than HK$1 million to hire a senior barrister to resist the court order. A High Court judge found in favour of the student and ordered the company to produce the footage. It produced an incomplete version.
Pro-democracy MPs attacked
Lawmakers are also being stymied. On May 8, a Legislative Council meeting, due to be chaired by a pro-democracy councillor, was brutally taken over by pro-Beijing councillors with the assistance of so-called “politically-neutral” staff and security guards. Most pro-democracy legislators were then forcibly evicted from the chamber. One pro-democracy lawmaker was assaulted by a pro-Beijing legislator on the stairs and ended up in hospital.
A key reason for pro-Beijing parties to speed up the election of the chairperson of the House Committee, which is responsible for deciding the order of business on the Council’s agenda, is to expedite the enactment of the national anthem law and the national security law by the end of the legislative year in July. The national security law, to combat so-called “domestic terrorism”, “foreign interference” and pro-independence forces, has been shelved since 2003.
If passed, these laws will help Beijing disqualify pro-democracy candidates before September’s Legislative Council election. Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong is warning of a landslide victory to the pro-democracy camp, describing it as a potential “seizure of power” and saying that resistance against the pro-democracy camp is a “battle for sovereignty”.
Local judges are increasingly signalling allegiance to Beijing with their verdicts on anti-government protest cases.
In April, District Court Judge Kwok Wai-kin expressed sympathy for a man jailed for stabbing three people, one of whom almost died at Lennon Wall, during the anti-extradition bill protests in August.
Despite the fact that the defendant had first talked to the victims at Lennon Wall, then went home to collect two knives and returned to the Wall to attack them — making his intent to kill clear — Kwok described the defendant as “an involuntary sacrifice”. Kwok also said pro-democracy protesters had “ruthlessly trampled on his right to work, live and survive”.
Audrey Eu, former chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association, criticised Kwok for presenting his personal views.
The Justice Department sent the case to the District Court, where the maximum sentence is only seven years, instead of the High Court, whose criminal jurisdiction is unlimited.
There are many other cases in which judges have expressed their political preferences, including one in which a pro-democracy lawmaker was convicted of assault for using a megaphone.
Last week, another 230 pro-democracy protesters were arrested, bringing the total to more than 8300. Almost 600 are being charged with “rioting” and more are being charged each day. Many face trials.
On May 15, one of the very first protesters to be charged with “rioting” was sentenced to four years in jail, even though he pleaded guilty in a bid to seek a shorter jail term. He went to the protest but did not hurt anyone or possess a weapon, but the judge said his action was “a direct attack on the rule of law”.
Beijing’s Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council have condemned pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok for attempting to delay the passing of the national anthem and national security laws.
The Liason Office also stated publicly that it is not governed by Hong Kong’s laws, and that it has supervisory power over Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region government.
The Liaison Office has been criticised by the general public and legal community for interfering in the domestic affairs of Hong Kong, a breach of the Basic Law. Johannes Chan, Hong Kong University-based law professor, said the Liaison Office has never enjoyed supervisory power over Hong Kong in the Basic Law.
On April 18, the Hong Kong government and the Liaison Office responded, by clarifying that Article 22 of the Basic Law does not apply to Beijing’s Liaison Office. The Liaison Office declared that two agencies — the Liaison Office and Hong Kong Macau Office — are authorised by the central government and have the right to supervise and handle Hong Kong affairs.
In a further development, the Hong Kong government revised its media statement twice, after finding that it contradicted Beijing’s stand. Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen apologised for the confusion and was later replaced by the Director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai in a cabinet reshuffle announced by Carrie Lam. The reshuffle represents a tightening of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s administration and its ambition to suppress anti-government sentiment.
[Wlam* is a Hong Kong student studying in Sydney. His name has been changed for security reasons.]
HONG KONG — A small band of anti-government protesters, their numbers diminished by surrenders and failed escape attempts, remained holed up at a Hong Kong university early Wednesday as they braced for the endgame in a police siege of the campus.
Police were waiting them out after 10 days of some of the most intense protests the city has seen in more than five months of often-violent unrest gripping the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Since the siege began Sunday, more than 1,000 people were arrested and hundreds of injured treated at hospitals, authorities said.
The government has stood firm, rejecting most of the protesters’ demands. The demonstrators shut down major roads and trains during rush hour every day last week as they turned several university campuses into fortresses and blocked a major road tunnel, which remained closed Tuesday.
Even as the latest violence wound down, a fundamental divide suggests the protests in the former British colony are far from over.
In Beijing, the National People’s Congress criticized Hong Kong’s high court for striking down a ban on wearing face masks at the protests, in a decree that has potentially ominous implications for the city’s vaunted rule of law and independent judiciary. China’s Communist leaders have taken a tough line on the protests and said that restoring order is the highest priority.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred from going on a European speaking tour, after a court refused to change his bail conditions to let him travel outside Hong Kong.
Protesters have left all the universities except Hong Kong Polytechnic, where hundreds had barricaded themselves and fought back police barrages of tear gas and water cannons with gasoline bombs, some launched from rooftops by catapult, and bows and arrows.
Those who remained at Polytechnic were the last holdouts. Surrounded by police, they faced arrest. Several groups have tried to escape, including one that slid down hoses from a footbridge to waiting motorcycles, but police said they intercepted 37, including the drivers, who were arrested for “assisting offenders.”
They milled about in small groups and had boxes of homemade gasoline bombs, but the mood was grim in the trash-strewn plazas, in contrast to the excitement as they prepared to take on police just a few days earlier.
One protester said he had no plan and was waiting for help. Another said he wanted to leave safely but without being charged. They would not give their full names, saying they feared arrest.
“We will use whatever means to continue to persuade and arrange for these remaining protesters to leave the campus as soon as possible so that this whole operation could end in a peaceful manner,” Lam said after a weekly meeting with advisers.
By late Tuesday night, about 800 people had left the campus to surrender, including 300 minors, according to a government tally. Authorities had agreed not to immediately arrest anyone under 18 but warned they could face charges later. City leader Carrie Lam had said Tuesday morning that 100 people were left but it was wasn’t clear how many now remained.
Hong Kong’s Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha entered the campus to try to dial back tensions after hearing that some protesters were ready to die.
At the same time, at least a dozen protesters walked out of the campus escorted by volunteers to an ambulance station to surrender. But it appeared to be a ruse, with many of them making a run for it in a last-ditch escape attempt. They were swiftly tackled by police.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged authorities to de-escalate the standoff. Spokesman Rupert Colville expressed concern about increasing violence by young people “who are clearly very angry, with deep-seated grievances.”
City leaders say the violence must stop before meaningful dialogue can begin. The protesters say they need to keep escalating the violence to get the government to accept their demands.
The protests started in June over a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Activists saw the legislation as part of a continuing erosion of rights and freedoms that Hong Kong was promised it could keep when Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997.
Lam withdrew the bill months later, but protesters now want an independent investigation into police suppression of the demonstrations and fully democratic elections, among other demands.
Throughout the day, relatives and teachers arrived sporadically to pick up the remaining protesters under 18, hugging them before walking back to a police checkpoint where officers recorded names and other information before letting them go.
An ambulance team was allowed in to treat the injured, wrapping them in emergency blankets. Some left with the team, but others stayed, saying they didn’t want to be arrested.
Other parents held a news conference and said their children dared not surrender because the government has labeled them as rioters even though some had just gotten trapped by the police siege. They wore masks and refused to give their names, a sign of the fear that has developed in what has become a highly polarized city.
China hinted it might overrule the Hong Kong high court ruling that struck down the face mask ban that was aimed at preventing protesters from hiding their identities and evading arrest.
A statement from the National People’s Congress’ Legislative Affairs Commission said the decision doesn’t conform with Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, or decisions by the Congress.
“We are currently studying opinions and suggestions raised by some NPC deputies,” the statement said. The announcement threatens to undercut Hong Kong’s rule of law and independent courts — major selling points for its role as an Asian financial center.
Monday’s ruling said the ban infringed on fundamental rights more than is reasonably necessary. The ban has been widely disregarded.
The Japanese government said one of its citizens was arrested near the Polytechnic campus. Japanese media identified him as Hikaru Ida, a student at Tokyo University of Agriculture. Officials did not say why he was arrested.
About 1,100 people were arrested in the past day for offenses including rioting and possession of offensive weapons, police said at a briefing. They found more than 3,900 gasoline bombs at another university campus that was the site of a violent standoff last week. At least 354 people were treated Tuesday for protest-related injuries, according to hospital authority figures.
Hong Kong also got a new police chief, Chris Tang, who said his priorities would include rebutting accusations against police that he called “fake news” and reassuring the public about the force’s mission.
“We have to maintain the law and order in Hong Kong and there is a massive scale of breaking of law in Hong Kong and there is a certain sector of the community that also condones those illegal activities,” he told journalists.
Tang, who visited officers at the Polytechnic siege after dark, replaces a retiring chief and was approved by Beijing after being nominated by Lam’s government.
Lam, asked whether she would seek help from Chinese troops based in Hong Kong, said her government was confident it can cope with the situation.
Associated Press journalists Alice Fung and Dake Kang contributed.