HONG KONG: People in Hong Kong have a track record of making their views heard through rallies and marches.
More often than not, they’ve generally made their point in peaceful ways. For instance, the Occupy Central campaign in 2014 was mostly organised and non-violent.
Over the past few months, however, stark divisions over Hong Kong’s political future have been laid bare, with scenes of open conflict being beamed to global audiences.
What began in June as peaceful marches against an extradition Bill put forward by Chief Executive Carrie Lam has escalated into clashes on the streets, civil disobedience and a fractured society. More than 5,000 arrests have been made so far.
Despite the government’s efforts to quell the unrest, including withdrawing the controversial Bill and a robust police response, the protests have continued.
For now, no resolution seems to be on the horizon.
As protests hit the six-month mark, CNA spoke to a sample of Hong Kong society, including politicians, protesters and those affected, about what they remember about these tumultuous events.
THE BEGINNING: PEACEFUL MARCHES
On Jun 9, one million people were said to have marched in Hong Kong island against the extradition Bill, which would allow for criminal suspects to be extradited to places where Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with, including mainland China.
In a city where anti-China sentiment has been growing, the Bill stoked fears among some people that those against the mainland could be extradited.
Despite the large gathering, the government said a second legislative reading of the Bill would proceed as scheduled three days later.
“The major reason why I joined the protest at the very beginning is basically to protect my freedom and safety … Some of the articles (I have written) are censored in the mainland. So it is very possible in the long run that I or other people who have become targeted will be sent to mainland China,” said Jack, 22, who works in Cyberport business park.
Mr Cheung, 31, an engineer recounted: “At the very beginning, actually the police and protesters were quite friendly. They would just talk and laugh with each other.”
“I remember the protesters actually singing worship songs to the police. It was sort of funny, but at that time they could still make jokes with each other.”
The situation became tense after tear gas was used by the police against protesters for the first time near the Legislative Council on Jun 12, and lawmakers were forced to postpone the second reading.
There were also allegations that the police had used pepper spray. The government characterised street actions on that day as a riot. Under the law, rioting carries a jail term of up to 10 years.
“They (the police) shot tear gas for no reason on Jun 12 … I don’t agree that it was a riot. We didn’t even have any weapons on us … but the police had all sorts of weapons like guns, tear gas and rubber bullets,” said a 19-year-old university student who only wanted to be known as E.
Despite the government announcing on Jun 15 that the Bill would be suspended, two million people reportedly took to the streets the day after. By then, protesters were calling for an independent investigation into the use of force by the police.
“I think the numbers – one million, two million – they are exaggerated. But whatever the exact numbers, a great many. We don’t dispute that,” said Mrs Regina Ip, a pro-establishment legislator.
She noted that since day one of the protests, there has been a typical pattern of the proceedings starting peacefully, only to quickly morph into road blockages.
“On Jun 9, after the large numbers of mass protesters went home, immediately a splinter group, a violent radical splinter group, started blocking the roads, throwing bricks at the Legislative Council. Now, these are criminal acts.”
SHOCK, ANGER OVER STORMING OF LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL
The situation escalated on Jul 1 as protesters stormed the Legislative Council, sending shockwaves through the political system.
After thousands of protesters marched peacefully on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, a smaller group of several hundred people stormed the building. Some defaced portraits, spray-painted slogans and destroyed surveillance cameras.
Mr So Man Ying, 67, a retired teacher, recounted that he had attended a rally on that day. When the event ended, youngsters standing on railings near Admiralty were appealing for more to join them in surrounding the council building.
“We were very conflicted after hearing their request … Finally, I chose to leave, as we knew that they will use some radical ways to express their demands … We cannot accept the use of force to achieve the demands."
Mrs Ip, who is also a non-official member of the Executive Council, remembers being “shocked” as the events unfolded.
“It would not have been allowed in any territory. I was disappointed that the police left LegCo because they thought they were outnumbered ... For several hours, there was no one to protect us. I was really shocked and angered and disappointed by that,” she said.
Pro-democracy legislator Alvin Yeung also said it was “totally unexpected”.
“I was wondering where the police were. Usually, you would expect some police force heavily guarding the LegCo building, a very symbolic building,” he said.
“As a member of the system, of course I felt responsible too … We have to ask why we failed the people, why we failed the youths, why we disappointed these young men and women who would rather be storming the building … instead of voicing out, staying on the streets and being peaceful protesters. Because they had tried in June and they got disappointed.”
YUEN LONG MOB ATTACK A “TURNING POINT” IN PERCEPTION OF POLICE
Anger towards the police grew after protesters returning to their homes in Yuen Long on Jul 21 were attacked in the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station. Dressed in white, the attackers were believed to have links with the triads. At least 45 people were injured.
The police took around 40 minutes to respond, citing lack of manpower. Two officers were deployed but after witnessing the attack, were said to have turned around and left the station.
In July, instances of policemen’s families being harassed also became more common.
“I think the police should have done more that day (in Yuen Long). Two officers chose to turn away … They had guns. They should either shoot (at the attackers) or shoot to the sky to let everyone know that the police had arrived. They should have told the white shirts not to beat the people anymore,” said E, the university student.
Mr Yeung, who is also leader of the Civic Party, said: “July 21 was the turning point for everyone. In the eyes of Hong Kong people, we witnessed the downfall of the Hong Kong Police Force. Before this whole incident, this movement, they loved to claim themselves as Asia’s finest. What a joke, not anymore.”
Mrs Ip, the pro-establishment legislator noted that there were two sources of grievance with respect to the Yuen Long incident.
“One is the mob attack, very likely to be by triad members. The police should arrest the triad members and they have done so,” she said.
“As for the inability to protect the innocent Yuen Long residents … maybe there might have been a misjudgment on the part of the (local police) command, that they might be outnumbered because prior to that, there had been petrol bomb attacks on police stations ... Yuen Long police station might have been overawed by the attacks and under-resourced. Anyway, I think the police should review that.”
ALLEGATIONS OF POLICE BRUTALITY GATHER MOMENTUM
More allegations of police brutality emerged in August.
Mr Yeung, the legislator, said: “I believe there was a change of tactics in August, with the police force adopting a more brutal strategy”.
“We witnessed a complete change of attitude towards protesters. It was more unkind … they did not give them sufficient time to go, before that the police somewhat allowed protesters to leave … It became chase, arrest, beat up and the beating up was way more than necessary.”
Brian, 21, said his impression of the police changed.
“While you are watching the riot cops on TV, you are not really thinking about who the people are behind the mask, you just see them as riot cops. But when you think about it, they are people who have got families, whether they are just following ordinances or really politically aligned with the government,” said the chef, who has a family member who used to serve in the police.
“Seeing them do certain actions such as using live rounds or tear gas from high elevation, that was very alarming for me.”
PROTESTER SHOT IN THE EYE BECOMES ICON OF MOVEMENT
On Aug 11, a woman was struck in the eye by a projectile, said to have been fired by the police. Protesters made an icon of the woman, who was later discharged from hospital.
The police said that there was no evidence linking their actions to her injury and have asked to access her medical reports. However, her lawyers have blocked the police bid.
“It was really bad in the sense that we finally felt how brutal (the police were) … The police force treated Hong Kong people like their enemies … What is the job of the police? To keep peace. Shooting people in the eye? That is far far far from acceptable,” said Mr Yeung.
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On the contrary, Mrs Ip said: “We cannot just take highly generalised accusations of police brutality at face value. If you have a complaint, the complaint must be substantiated by facts … She has not been able to produce any concrete evidence that the projectile was from the police.”
“In fact, the police obtained a warrant against the medical report and I heard the victim applied for a judicial review of the warrant. What is she worried about? Can’t she go public?”
AIRPORT BLOCKADE BRINGS INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION
In a bid for international attention, protesters swarmed the Hong Kong International Airport on Aug 12, affecting operations for more than 24 hours. More than 50,000 passengers were affected.
Some tied up and beat two men from mainland China. They suspected one of being a security officer, and the other turned out to be a Global Times reporter. A group of protesters later apologised for their actions.
“We needed to give economic pressure to the government and blocking the airport was one of the ways,” said Jack, who participated in the airport event.
“I think the whole airport incident, the blocking of the flights was definitely a big blow to certain public support of the protest … I was actually flying in that month. The day before I flew, there was an injunction order so thankfully it was fine. But I remember worrying about whether I would make my flight and that was quite a shocking incident,” said Brian, the chef.
Mrs Ip described the protesters’ actions as “shocking and highly deplorable”.
“The method they had chosen to adopt, to put pressure on the government was totally disproportionate to their demands,” she said.
“Think of the damage to large numbers of people and the damage to Hong Kong’s reputation by shutting down the airport for two days. The harassment of travellers has really gravely damaged our reputation. Highly reprehensible, highly irresponsible.”
PRINCE EDWARD INCIDENT
Tensions spiked yet again on Aug 31, which marked the fifth anniversary of China’s 2014 proposal to limit direct elections in Hong Kong.
Protesters set fires to barricades and clashed with the police. Police blasted them with water cannons loaded with blue dye, to mark them for later arrest.
The police stormed trains at Prince Edward station in Kowloon, arresting more than 50 people after protesters rushed into the station. The authorities later denied that there was a fatality, despite widespread speculation.
“I did not go out that day but I watched a lot of videos and live news reports. There was live streaming from a few media but suddenly they were cut off because they were not allowed to enter the station,” recounted Cathy, 28, who works in marketing.
“That made me even more scared. Media is very important in monitoring and witnessing the whole incident but when there was no media, I was just too scared to imagine what would happen.”
WITHDRAWAL OF BILL
On Sep 4, Mrs Lam announced that the government would officially withdraw the contentious Bill - the central demand of the protesters.
"Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law," she said in a video statement released via her office. "The government will formally withdraw the Bill in order to fully allay public concerns."
The announcement did little to allay protesters’ anger, with many of them criticising the move for coming too late.
“I think Carrie Lam withdrew the Bill too late. She should have withdrawn the Bill after Jun 16, when 2 million people protested … Although Carrie Lam announced that she will withdraw the Bill, I still don’t believe what she said because she is a habitual liar,” said E, the university student.
Mr Yeung added: “For every political decision that can be regarded as a good decision, the substance matters, the timing also matters. If you do something that is in principle correct but too late, it is still a wrong decision”.
“She missed all these golden opportunities, and so the withdrawal in September, it was way too late and it was far from sufficient to satisfy people’s demands.”
On the other hand, Mrs Ip said: “The chief executive has said many times (before September) that the Bill is dead you know, she has stopped all legislative work … The withdrawal of the Bill has some effect. The number of peaceful, non-violent rational protesters has definitely dropped.”
With the Bill being withdrawn, the protesters are still insisting on amnesty for those arrested and retracting the classification of the protesters as rioters. They also want an independent inquiry into complaints of excessive force by the police and universal suffrage.
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ANGER TOWARDS MTR GROWS
At the beginning, protesters’ impressions of the MTR were generally positive, with special arrangements being made like opening the gates and allowing those protesting to ride for free so as to prevent stampedes.
MTR was subsequently criticised by the Chinese state media for aiding protesters’ escape. This, observers said, led to MTR shifting its position and increasing coordination with the police.
Protesters’ ire against the MTR began to grow. On Sep 8, protesters set barricades, smashed windows, started street fires and vandalised the MTR station in Central. There has since been multiple incidences of attacks on MTR stations, as well as calls to boycott the network.
“When the whole thing started, people did nothing to MTR … Some of the protesters even put down money at the ticket vending machines and Octopus top-up machines … We didn’t want MTR to be losing money because of the social movement. When we travelled to the protest destinations, the MTR staff, (including) some of the drivers will make announcements to encourage us,” recounted Cathy.
But she said things changed in Yuen Long when the mob entered the station and beat up the passengers. The schedule of the trains were changed, making it harder for protesters to travel, while in the Prince Edward incident, MTR allowed the police to enter and make arrests, she noted.
“After all these incidents, (we thought) you are not helping the protesters but you are a part of the government and trying to suppress the protesters,” Cathy said.
However, Mr So, the retired teacher said: “(As a peaceful and non-violent protestor), I think it is a bit too radical".
"At the end of the day, if you keep destroying the MTR facilities, it will create lots of inconvenience for the citizens. These actions are also disconnected from the original intention of the movement."
He added: "They are doing it for hatred rather than achieving justice. Therefore I do not support keeping up attacks on the MTR”.
NATIONAL DAY CELEBRATIONS OVERSHADOWED BY PROTESTS
Hong Kong was a scene of chaos on Oct 1 as China marked the opening of celebrations for the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule.
Running battles raged for hours across multiple locations as protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs at officers and buildings. More than 200 people were arrested that day.
In Tsuen Wan, police shot a protester for the first time with a live round. Authorities said the officer who fired his weapon at close range did so because he feared for his life. The protestor survived.
“It came as a shock to most Hong Kong people when the police officer used live rounds and shot the young man right in the chest … At most he was a protester, at most he could be committing some crime, but did he deserve a shot in the chest, which almost took his life? We have to ask: Was that (use of force) proportional (to the threat)?” said Mr Yeung.
Mrs Ip, however, said the whole sequence of events should be put into perspective.
“They were attacking a policeman, a policeman was outnumbered and being attacked rather savagely, and another policeman had to help him … (The police had) to defend themselves, protect other people’s lives and to protect their weapons.”
She added: “People should not single out teenagers being shot as some sort of evidence of police brutality. The escalation of violence on National Day, as far as we were concerned, we were anticipating it”.
ANTI-MASK LAW SPARKS FURTHER BACKLASH
In another attempt to quell the violence, Mrs Lam said on Oct 4 that protesters were banned from wearing face masks, under a law that allows authorities to "make any regulations whatsoever" in the public interest. It was the first time the Emergency Regulations Ordinance had been invoked in 52 years.
Massive protests again erupted, paralysing the transportation system as the entire MTR was shut on Oct 5.
John, a year-one university student, said the law affected his plans as a publicity volunteer for the movement.
He had planned to set up a station on the street to share the protesters' perspectives with the elderly, especially those who may not use the Internet.
"We knew that some people will take photos of us and post our information on the Internet, so wearing a mask to protect ourselves was important. After this law, we have cancelled our plans,” he said.
“I think that this law is very important, as anyone can wear a mask and rob a bank. (But) it won’t end (the protests), absolutely not. It would only add oil to fire. They (protesters) are trying to cover themselves with the masks, and what this law is going to do is uncover them,” said Mr Cheung, the engineer.
The anti-mask law was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the High Court.
In October, protesters continued to up their ante. Police said a homemade bomb, similar to those used in terrorist attacks, was set off for the first time on Oct 13.
FIRST FATALITY: STUDENT DIES AFTER MULTI-STOREY CAR PARK INCIDENT
A university student who fell during protests died on Nov 8, marking the first student death.
Alex Chow Tsz-lok, 22, a computer science undergraduate of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was found lying unconscious in a pool of blood inside a car park on Nov 4. Police had fired tear gas into the building after protesters hurled objects from it.
His death sparked candlelight vigils that quickly escalated to street fires and clashes between the police and protesters.
Reflecting on Mr Chow’s passing, Mr So, the retired teacher said: “The death of Alex Chow Tsz-Lok will only result in a greater shock to the movement”.
“Although the police have explained repeatedly that his death is not due to their actions, most citizens, especially the youngsters, will not accept this explanation. They will only recognise that Chow was a victim of police brutality.”
“I am pessimistic about where the whole movement is going. We are up against an unreasonable and shameless regime that will not respect people’s wishes. The reason there has been no crackdown is because Hong Kong still has value. This is why the People’s Liberation Army has yet to be deployed to the streets.”
Mrs Ip described what happened as a “tragedy”.
“It will be subject to a coroner's inquest. It is inappropriate to jump to a conclusion or lay any blame pending the conclusion of an inquest,” she noted.
MAN SET ON FIRE AFTER ARGUMENT WITH PROTESTERS
Over the past six months, there have been instances of public disagreements between protesters and their critics, with some incidents spiraling into bloodshed.
A 57-year old man was set on fire following an argument with protesters on a footbridge in the northern district of Ma On Shan. He had multiple burn injuries and was admitted to a hospital in a critical condition.
Police are investigating the incident as attempted murder.
“The ruthless arson attack on the 57-year man was a heinous act of crime. The offender should be apprehended and brought to justice,” said Mrs Ip.
Brian, the chef, added: “(It is) definitely a scary prospect that mere disagreement can lead to such devastation”.
“It does lead to a lot of precaution when attempting to discuss these things in public. I can't say I'm too worried for my personal safety as I've been lucky to not have been caught in the middle of any protests. But I know a lot of people who live in or near the hot zones and find themselves caught in the crossfire often. I worry for them.”
PROTESTERS STOCKPILE WEAPONS IN UNIVERSITY SIEGE
Universities became the latest battleground, as protesters turned several campuses into fortresses stockpiled with petrol bombs, bows and arrows as well as other homemade weapons. Police said on Nov 13 that the Chinese University of Hong Kong may have been used as a makeshift “weapons factory”.
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On Nov 17, the police surrounded the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and barred protesters from leaving. More than 1,100 people were detained near the campus over the next two days, the largest roundup of protesters over a 24-hour period.
“I think what the police did was unforgivable, they were making the citizens who were still inside frustrated. The Polytechnic University was worse than a prison … Hong Kong people will always remember what the police have done in the past few months,” E said.
Eventually, police entered the campus, looking for petrol bombs and other dangerous materials left behind.
CAN HONG KONG SOCIETY COME TOGETHER AGAIN?
For now, a cloud is hanging over Hong Kong. Based on the landslide win by the democrats in the district council elections, support for the protesters appears to be more than just a fringe movement. However, there are little signs that Beijing is considering concessions.
When asked if he was optimistic about the city’s future: Mr Cheung, the engineer, replied with a “no”.
“The political environment is not going to become better anytime soon. This separation between for and against the government is just going to get bigger and bigger … People are just going to one direction, either way,” he said.
One major issue is whether the police action should be subject to further scrutiny.
“We can see that the hatred is so high today, people in both camps are actually being irrational … The biggest conflict is between the protesters and police and the hatred is too overwhelming that the police cannot enforce the laws," said Mr So, the retired teacher.
"If the government does not reform the police, I don’t think it is possible for Hong Kong to get back to what it used to be."
Meanwhile, legislators on both sides of the political divide are not giving up.
“Politics could divide families, friends, marriages, lovers … But it is also politics that could unite people. It is entirely up to the leaders," said Mr Yeung.
"I am sure Hong Kong people are more than willing to leave all their differences aside and focus on what is most striking - it could be the economy, it could be the rebuilding of the system itself.”
He added: “At the end of the day, you can’t restore everything overnight, it takes a bit of time. But it is always up to the leaders to lead Hong Kong people to a better future”.
Mrs Ip also said that it will take a long time to arrive at a consensus.
“I think we will have to launch an honest and in-depth community-wide debate about all the issues that are bothering Hong Kong people, especially the young people, to set their minds at ease.”