Tear gas and triads

Published by The Mail on Sunday (4th August, 2019)

Hong Kong last night descended into ugly scenes of confrontation for the ninth weekend in a row as armed police firing tear gas marched behind full-body shields to disperse thousands of furious young protesters demanding democracy.

I watched as menacing officers in black body armour, gas masks and helmets lined up several rows deep in front of ‘raptor’ snatch squads, then marched while beating long shields to reclaim the centre of the crowded Kowloon district.

Earlier, the protesters – many of them teenagers and students – had blocked roads including the main Cross-Harbour Tunnel over to Hong Kong island, crippling a commercial centre filled with luxury stores, upmarket hotels and restaurants.

I stood by a group of demonstrators as they sprayed pro-democracy slogans on the Tsim Sha Tsui police station, having earlier pelted it with eggs. ‘Come out – we have you surrounded,’ taunted one activist. Police later responded tear gas, arresting at least a dozen protesters who face potentially lengthy prison sentences as the crackdown intensifies.

The protests began over a bill permitting extradition to China, seen as the latest incursion on the former British colony’s freedoms that were retained after Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing in 1997 under a ‘one country, two systems’ deal.

But they have since escalated into wider demands, firing up the movement for full democracy in this unique corner of China. Many see it as a potentially explosive showdown, even a defining tussle for our age between freedom and autocracy.

On one side stands a skyscraper-studded city that has become one of the world’s great financial centres. It throbs with capitalism, relies on the rule of law, and is filled with citizens desperate to cling on to freedoms that are unique in China.

They are confronting a global superpower, a police state run by Communist Party chiefs who tolerate no dissent.

Most of those on the streets yesterday were young, friendly and insisted they would battle on regardless of the consequences. ‘I’m not scared – I am fighting for justice and all our futures,’ said Ken, a 19-year-old standing in front of a burning barricade.

Another helmeted student, whose friend had several tools for dismantling street furniture to build barricades, told me her mother did not know she was on the front line. ‘She would not be very happy if she knew,’ she admitted with a smile.

Yet in a sign of the darkening mood, seconds later her fellow protesters turned on a middle-aged man who swore at them, battering him viciously with sticks and fists. ‘It was a simple misunderstanding,’ said one participant afterwards.

As tensions rose last week, China issued a sinister video showing its troops shooting protesters in anti-riot drills. One soldier shouts in Cantonese – the language used in Hong Kong – ‘all consequences are at your own risk’.

This message was rammed home by the head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison, who warned Beijing would not tolerate ‘violent, radical incidents’ that were ‘seriously challenging Hong Kong’s rule of law and social order’.

For now, the army remains in its barracks. Yet the protests continue and the city’s first general strike has been called tomorrow. ‘I hope it will be a wake-up call for the government,’ said Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker.

Already this usually placid city has seen its parliament stormed and even an officer pointing a shotgun at crowds. Last week, 44 people were charged with rioting, which can lead to a ten-year jail term, in one more sign of ratcheting pressure. In the most disturbing incident, more than 100 triad gang members – many carrying steel bars and rattan canes – attacked protesters and passengers at a railway station.

‘There was a badly injured lady on the ground and so much blood,’ said Lam Cheuk-Ting, a prominent politician who rushed to the scene after receiving a text message.

‘It was horrible. These people were begging not to be hit, but I saw them even beat children. Then they targeted me with their batons. It was very frightening.’

Lam ended up in hospital, needing 18 stitches in a mouth wound and nursing a damaged hand that he used to defend his head from baton blows in an attack that highlights how Hong Kong’s turbulence is spiralling out of control. For this brutal attack by club-wielding thugs, seemingly sanctioned at high levels since police stood back for its duration, was meant to intimidate protesters.

Lam is not alone in fearing the force used on both sides may worsen. ‘Sooner or later, a protester or even a police officer is going to die and then the situation becomes unmanageable. I can’t be optimistic for our future.’

But the protest has also become a very middle-class cause. On Thursday, I joined 4,300 financial workers at a ‘flash mob’ showing their support. ‘I’m ready to give my life because it is now or never,’ said Jane, 36, who works for a US-owned fund group. ‘We know this is a hill that we may die on.’

Then, on Friday, came a sombre protest held by doctors and nurses, followed by a bigger and more incendiary demonstration by civil servants, ignoring government warnings against attendance as a breach of their traditional neutrality.

An open letter claiming to be from staff in the government’s own information service responded that they could no longer sit on the fence. ‘To remain neutral is to be an accomplice to acts of oppression, bowing to the reign of terror,’ it said.

As I walked through the huge crowds, some covering their faces in masks and hooded jackets to hide their identities, the sounds of Les Miserables rang out surreally from speakers and several people around me started singing.

‘Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men,’ they hollered as we pushed past the domed Supreme Court building that once symbolised British rule. Nearby, a Bank of China tower soared high into the clouds.

An estimated 40,000 people – many in office suits and dresses, although clearly not all working for the government – carried banners demanding freedom and protesting at police abuse. ‘Civil servants, fight on,’ they shouted. ‘Revolution of our times.’

One woman, her face covered in a mask and flower-patterned raincoat hood pulled over her eyes, told me she had been a civil servant for 20 years. ‘I am very worried to be here,’ said Tang, declining to give me her first name or department.

‘But when so many people are fighting for freedom and we have a government that allows triads to attack innocent people, I had to do something to stand up.’

At the core of these long-simmering protests is the legacy of British rule. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher signed a deal for Hong Kong’s return to China that clearly stated the colony’s ‘lifestyle, rights and freedoms’ would be protected by law.

Yet since getting the city back, Beijing has shown growing contempt for its seven million new citizens. Two years ago, it even claimed the landmark treaty was simply an ‘historical document’ that lacked any ‘practical significance’.

China, through stooges in the Hong Kong government, has whittled away freedoms to the extent that Joshua Wong, an activist who led the last round of pro-democracy protests in 2014, told me it was now ‘one country, one-and-a-half systems’.

The anti-extradition law sparked fury since it threatened to strip away protection for Hong Kong citizens and firms from China’s legal system – which only last year the autocratic President Xi Jinping reiterated was expected to serve state interests.

Its impact was such that one person in fund management told me their firm had lost 40 per cent of the money invested in its funds since May as Chinese money sought a safer home. This underlines the sensitivities of such a major financial sector. ‘Now is the crucial moment for our future,’ said Wong, 22, who was only released from prison in June for his role in the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ five years ago.

When I asked Wong about prison, he replied that it was grim since he could not use his phone or the internet, underlining the youth of these ringleaders. His successors often stay anonymous, organising skilfully on the Telegram social media site. One demanded I send a photograph of my press card before consenting to speak to me, such is the mistrust of spies who might masquerade as foreign journalists.

Veteran pro-democracy campaigners, even those worried things may be moving too fast, told me they were proud of the young activists challenging a government backed by mighty China.

Claudia Mo, 62, convener of the 24-strong pro-democracy camp on the legislative council, said it was impossible to tell people fighting for their future to stop. ‘They tell us they’re prepared to die for their country, saying they have nothing to lose.’

She argued, like many others, that the ‘one party, two state’ system had become a sham.

‘The government has been chipping away at our freedoms, making me lose any trust or confidence in them. They are just puppets of Beijing.’

This vivacious woman has more reason than most to be frightened about possible Chinese repercussions since she was a reporter for a news agency and covered the Tiananmen Square massacres 30 years ago. ‘It left me completely traumatised,’ she told me.

Yet for all her fears, she believes the desperation in Hong Kong runs even deeper than among those brave people she met on the streets of Beijing before the tanks rolled in to crush their protests after hardliners won a politburo power struggle.

‘I know most people would say this is a futile fight to get democracy in Hong Kong but you never know. When the Berlin Wall fell, who would have predicted that even one day beforehand? There can be miracles in politics.’

Many analysts thought the storming and vandalising of Hong Kong’s parliament last month – during which protesters raised the British colonial flag, sprayed graffiti and smashed up furniture – might turn support against the activists.

Carrie Lam, the embattled and elusive chief executive, quickly broke cover to condemn the ‘extreme use of violence’.

But latest polling last week showed more than nine in ten people under 26 oppose the extradition bill – seen as the litmus test of support for protests – along with more than two-thirds of all respondents. Only 19 per cent still backed Lam’s bill.

One local journalist told me the government strategy was to keep turning up the pressure to deter moderates and the middle-classes from joining protests. So last week came prosecutions including an airline pilot, a teacher and a teenage girl on riot charges. A leading activist was among 11 people arrested for explosives, then a pro-democracy politician said he had received death threats from triads.

The city is swirling with wild rumours and yet strangely normal at the same time, as hordes of people traipse through shops selling famous designer brands and throng side streets packed with bars, tea shops and restaurants. One financier I met later sent me an email saying that her well-connected family in Shanghai had told her to leave town urgently for two weeks, warning ‘martial law is real and will be enacted in Hong Kong in the next couple days’.

Others on the streets admitted their actions have provoked personal problems. ‘I’ve just had to quit my family WhatsApp group because my family is so strongly against what I am doing here,’ said Nick Wong, 27, a digital security worker.

The fight for democracy is fuelled also by concerns over the high cost of living and inequality among the tightly packed buildings clinging to the hills of Hong Kong, where the price of a small flat can easily exceed one million pounds.

A handful of British-born police officers have also become hate figures after playing leading roles in the tear-gas assaults and baton charges on protesters.

Yet as I walked through the protests, I was repeatedly thanked for reporting on their stand – although many expressed disappointment that Britain, signatory to a deal guaranteeing their limited autonomy, had not stood up more to China.

Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke out strongly last month on the 22nd anniversary of the handover, insisting ‘the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people are fully respected’.

This led to rebuke from Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in London, for alleged interference in their internal affairs. ‘Some regard Hong Kong as still under British rule,’ he said, adding they should remember it ‘has now returned to the motherland’.

One well-placed British source said Mr Hunt decided to speak in clear terms ‘to stop another Tiananmen Square and show Beijing the world was watching, since they need to know there will be a heavy price to pay for any crackdown’.

British officials believe China’s response is restrained by concerns over Taiwan, which Xi wants to bring back into Beijing’s embrace so is fearful of sparking fresh support for its independence movement.

None of the pro-Beijing lawmakers returned my calls. Yet one recently admitted they had been ‘outmanoeuvred’ and had not expected protests to continue so long.

A government spokesman said: ‘Illegal behaviours and road blockage involved in recent protests are getting worse and way beyond the boundary of freedom of expression in a civilised society.’

Perhaps the gloomiest analysis came from Martin Lee, the barrister and veteran politician now in his 80s and known as ‘the father of democracy’ in Hong Kong.

He praised the courage of the young protesters but said: ‘I’m afraid I think Hong Kong will become one country, one system – and it won’t be any different to the rest of China.’

The next few days and weeks will determine if he is right – or if democracy and the optimistic hopes of these protesters can prevail, even within the walls of China.

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