The utter futility of Carrie Lam’s belated withdrawal of the extradition bill to end Hong Kong’s political turmoil was confirmed just hours after it was announced on Wednesday night. Residents and protesters in two districts in Kowloon, once again, confronted riot police in full-gear wielding shields, batons and a menacing orange flag saying, “Disperse or we fire.” As videos on messaging platforms showed, some people shouted, “Murderers! Murderers!” at the police, while others chanted,“Young people, add oil!” — a Cantonese expression for “Keep going!” But it was an elderly man’s angry question directed at the police that spoke for millions of people in Hong Kong these days: “Do you have any conscience?”
Several nights before, when another passerby challenged the police with the same question after another confrontation with protesters, the man was immediately assaulted and subdued by several riot police officers. Scenes like these are the reasons why the Hong Kong crisis can no longer be defused by withdrawing a bill that was the catalyst for the 3-month-old movement that sent millions of Hong Kong residents to the streets.
Netizens, opposition politicians and opinion leaders on social media expressed deep disappointment about the latest move by Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. In style and substance, the callousness of her administration was on full display in the televised announcement. Her stern, emotionless appearance was strikingly incongruous with what was supposed to be a message of concession.
The general public opinion, shared even by some pro-establishment, pro-business elite, is that withdrawing the bill now, and with no meaningful responses to the other four demands of the movement — an independent inquiry of police brutality, release of protesters under arrest, withdrawal of the “riot” characterization of the June 12 protest, and universal suffrage — is too little, too late.
The human toll incurred by three months of confrontations and police violence is staggering: eight protest suicides, two indiscriminate subway attacks by thugs and police, nearly 1,200 arrests, more than 100 criminal charges, each carrying minimum sentences of seven to 10 years in prison, and countless broken skulls and limbs. This “debt of blood” still awaits settlement.
Some prominent commentators here are warning the public of Lam’s insidious agenda: using the bill’s withdrawal to divide the movement, and to provoke an escalation of confrontations that will then justify her invocation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, a draconian colonial law enacted in 1922 that will allow her to legally stifle all opposition. If their assessment is correct, the official death of the bill marks the beginning, rather than the end, of more turbulence in Hong Kong.
In the meantime, protesters have hardened their resolve to stay their course. Surveys conducted at 12 rallies by a group of local academics found strong popular support for either continuing (80%) or escalating (50%) the scale of protests if the five core demands are not met. In recent weeks, police brutality has particularly galvanized public outrage, as 95% of respondents polled demanded an independent inquiry into police behavior, compared with 85% who demanded the withdrawal of the extradition bill.
How did we get to this seemingly irreparable rupture?
For one thing, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have used the police as a shield to deflect popular pressure. With that mandate, the police have become monstrously ruthless, supported by a special tactical squad originally formed to deal with the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and assisted occasionally by thugs with pro-establishment, pro-China ties.
In the name of rooting out foreign-sponsored rioters, police tactics have escalated from crowd dispersal to kettling, from targeting aggressive protesters to indiscriminately attacking peaceful protesters, citizens, local residents, journalists, first aid medics and social workers. Day after day in the last three months, live feeds on social media platforms show violence by the police force that was once the city’s pride: rough manhandling of protesters, mass arrests in public spaces, sexual harassment of female protesters, the firing of expired tear gas and beanbag rounds against protesters at close range.
Police atrocities and government intransigence confirm for many that Hong Kong’s political system is rotten to the core. That’s why many protesters insist on demanding universal suffrage. Like survivors of a shared trauma, Hong Kong people are forging an ever stronger collective identity through the movement, which, for many, has now morphed into a struggle between good and evil. Nothing converts pro-establishment citizens into allies of protesters more effectively than tear gas canisters landing on their doorsteps.
In an episode now called “Hong Kong’s Dunkirk,” some 5,000 people, on hearing the news of a police hunt for protesters who had disrupted airport services, rushed to the airport with their vehicles to offer rescue rides to protesters. The constant supply of food, resources and protective gear that sustains every protest is made possible by a groundswell of anonymous donations and societal support.
This movement is the endgame for many in Hong Kong. People would rather sacrifice their own future than submit to authoritarian rule, with many expressing a scorched-earth mentality in the protest slogan, “If we burn, you burn with us.” Beijing and the government must come to terms with the inconvenient truth that autocracy and repression have radicalized a single-issue movement into a people’s uprising for freedom and democracy.
Standing together on values that are universal, Hong Kongers are seeking international support in many forms, including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act now making its way through the U.S. Congress. With the battle for greater freedom now joined, their hope is that while the arc of the moral universe is long, they are not alone in believing it bends toward justice.
Ching Kwan Lee, a professor of sociology at UCLA and a chair professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is the co-editor of the forthcoming book “Take Back Our Future: an Eventful Sociology of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.”