Hong Kong braces for another weekend of violence
Clashes between police and protesters are reaching new levels of violence as mutual resentment embeds, and the city is grinding to a halt
Universities have been repurposed into fortresses, hubs of resistance as street protests have become increasingly fraught, and late on Thursday night the semi-autonomous territory had to process the news that another person had died after being hit by a brick - a protester's weapon of choice - during the clashes.
The demonstrations - which began over a treaty that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kongers to ruling China, before quickly morphing into broad pro-democracy protests involving millions - have taken their toll on Hong Kong after almost six months of continuous and ever-more-violent unrest.
The financial hub's economy is now officially in a recession. Universities have cut the current semester short. Protesters now block major road and rail routes, deliberately trying to bring the city to a standstill in an effort to force the authorities to yield to the remaining four of their five key demands, after their first, the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, was won.
The remaining demands are: an inquiry commission into police brutality, declassifying the protesters as “rioters”, an amnesty for all arrested protesters, and universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.
Speaking yesterday at the ongoing Brics summit in Brazil, China’s President Xi Jinping spoke strongly, saying China supported the police “in sternly enforcing the law.” However, he continued to paint the confrontations as an issue for Hong Kong to tackle alone, saying “stopping the violence and restoring order is Hong Kong’s most urgent task at present.”
The protesters had descended to the level of “violent criminals”, Xi said, and had “seriously trampled on the rule of law and social order” of Hong Kong.
At this stage, it seems Beijing's policy of strategic inactivity is paying off in one way. Their absence plus the violence on the streets has led to more local resentments. “Activists speak of the police as a brutal tool of the Hong Kong government rather than blaming the Chinese Communist Party,” reports The New York Times. “The narrative of an out-of-control police force is reinforced by footage and photographs in chat groups of officers beating protesters, and using pepper spray and tear gas on bystanders.”
“The healing process… cannot begin until the protests end. And with each escalation, both sides seem further apart and a peaceful outcome less likely.”
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, trapped between an indignant populace and bosses in Beijing who will not let her stand down, has an record-low approval rating of 20%.
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Protesters' have adopted a uniform of black clothes and a gas mask, sometimes with the addition of helmet and knee pads. Their faces are almost always covered, a criminal disguise now the government has banned face masks. Increasingly, they tear bricks from streets to throw at police, with whom they're furious for what they consider to be overboard brutality, and string nails along garden hoses to puncture car tires.
They have also erected improvised barricades in strategic positions, usually around half a dozen University campuses - many of the protesters are students - and are arming themselves with bows and arrows.
Reuters claims these new armaments and fortifications threaten to transform the conflict from one that revolved around “fast-moving, hit-and-run tactics to ‘be like water’ and avoid arrest in clashes with police,” to another level of battle that threatens “to take the pro-democracy campaign to a new level of risk for all sides.”
“Nobody wants blood on his or her hands,” said Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s cabinet. “But because no decisive action is taken, Hong Kong is being destroyed.”
The students fortified in their university citadels “are bracing for [a] possible attack,” The Washington Post reports. “Some here talk of 'June 4' - a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when China's ruling Communist Party gunned down hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.”