'Now or never': Hong Kong protesters say they have nothing to lose

'Now or never': Hong Kong protesters say they have nothing to lose

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a tear gas cartridge during clashes with police in Sham S
A protester throws a tear gas cartridge during clashes with police in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong on Aug 14, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter)

HONG KONG: Exasperated with the government's unflinching attitude to escalating civil unrest, Jason Tse quit his job in Australia and jumped on a plane to join what he believes is a do-or-die fight for Hong Kong's future.

The Chinese territory is grappling with its biggest crisis since its handover to Beijing 22 years ago as many residents fret over what they see as China's tightening grip over the city and a relentless march towards mainland control.

READ: Hong Kong violence becoming more serious, but government in control: Carrie Lam

The battle for Hong Kong's soul has pitted protesters against the former British colony's political masters in Beijing, with broad swathes of the Asian financial centre determined to defend the territory's freedoms at any cost.

Faced with a stick and no carrot - Chief Executive Carrie Lam reiterated on Tuesday (Aug 27) protesters' demands were unacceptable - the pro-democracy movement has intensified despite Beijing deploying paramilitary troops near the border in recent weeks.

"This is a now or never moment and it is the reason why I came back," Tse, 32, said, adding that since joining the protests last month he had been a peaceful participant in rallies and an activist on the Telegram social media app.

"If we don't succeed now, our freedom of speech, our human rights, all will be gone. We need to persist."

READ: 'You don’t know what you are doing': Hong Kong’s older generation hits back as protests turn violent

Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say Beijing has reneged on a commitment to maintain Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms under a "one country, two systems" formula.

Opposition to Beijing that had dwindled after 2014, when authorities faced down a pro-democracy movement that occupied streets for 79 days, has come back to haunt authorities who are now grappling with an escalating cycle of violence.

"We have to keep fighting. Our worst fear is the Chinese government," said a 40-year-old teacher who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.

"For us, it's a life or death situation."

Hong Kong police point their guns at protesters
Police officers point their guns at protesters in Tseun Wan in Hong Kong on Aug 25, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

"IF WE BURN, YOU BURN"

What started as protests against a now-suspended extradition Bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, has evolved into demands for greater democracy.

"We lost the revolution in 2014 very badly. This time, if not for the protesters who insist on using violence, the Bill would have been passed already," said another protester, who asked to be identified as just Mike, 30, who works in media and lives with his parents.

He was referring to the 79 days of largely peaceful protests in 2014 that led to the jailing of activist leaders.

"It's proven that violence, to some degree, will be useful."

READ: 180 Hong Kong police officers injured, families 'bullied and intimidated'

Nearly 900 people have been arrested in the latest protests. The prospect of lengthy jail terms seems to be deterring few activists, many of whom live in tiny apartments with their families.

"7K for a house like a cell and you really think we out here scared of jail," reads graffiti scrawled near one protest site. HK$7,000 (US$893) is what the monthly rent for a tiny room in a shared apartment could cost.

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police d
A protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police during a rally at Tsuen Wan in Hong Kong on Aug 25, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

The protests pose a direct challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose government has sent a clear warning that forceful intervention to quell violent demonstrations is possible.

Some critics question the protesters' "now or never" rallying cry, saying a crackdown by Beijing could bring an end to the freedoms in Hong Kong that people on the mainland can only dream of.

The campaign reflects concerns over Hong Kong's future at a time when protesters, many of whom were toddlers when Britain handed Hong Kong back to Beijing, feel they have been denied any political outlet and have no choice but to push for universal suffrage.

WATCH: What really lies at the core of the widespread opposition against Hong Kong's extradition Bill?

"You either stand up and pull this government down or you stay at the mercy of their hands. You have no choice," said Cheng, 28, who works in the hospitality industry.

"Imagine if this fails. You can only imagine the dictatorship of the Communists will become even greater ... If we burn, you burn with us," he said, referring to authorities in Beijing.

"The clock is ticking," Cheng added, referring to 2047 when a 50-year agreement enshrining Hong Kong's separate governing system will lapse.

READ: Hong Kong's 'borrowed time' - worry about 2047 hangs over protests

"NOT CHINA"

As Beijing seeks to integrate Hong Kong closer to mainland China, many residents are recoiling.

A poll in June by the University of Hong Kong found that 53 per cent of 1,015 respondents identified as Hong Kongers, while 11 per cent identified as Chinese, a record low since 1997.

With the prospect of owning a home in one of the world's most expensive cities a dream, many disaffected youth say they have little to look forward to as Beijing's grip tightens.

"We really have got nothing to lose," said Scarlett, 23, a translator.

READ: 'Too scared to buy ice cream for my son': Hong Kong protests leave some residents looking for an exit

As the crisis simmers, China's People's Liberation Army has released footage of troops conducting anti-riot exercises.

But graffiti scrawled across the city signals the protesters' defiance.

"Hong Kong is not China" and "If you want peace, prepare for war" are some of the messages.

Policemen stand in front of graffiti on the walls of the Legislative Council, a day after protester
Policemen stand in front of graffiti on the walls of the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong on Jul 2, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Tse said he believes violence is necessary because the government rarely listens to peaceful protests.

"Tactically I think we should have a higher level of violence," he said. "I actually told my wife that if we'll ever need to form an army on the protester side I will join."

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests 

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Source: Reuters

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