Tea Leaf Nation
‘If We Lose This, We Lose Everything’
After thousands of pro-democracy protesters clash with police, compromise in Hong Kong looks increasingly unlikely.
HONG KONG — Protests rumbled across the Chinese territory of Hong Kong as police and what authorities estimated were 9,000 pro-democracy demonstrators battled to control blocks and intersections in the financial capital. As the clashes spread, pitting riot shields and pepper spray against umbrellas, the gulf between protesters and government — particularly the police — seemed only to deepen.
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The past week here has been a tit-for-tat struggle over intersections, roadways, and sidewalks, with police trying to dislodge a massive sit-in that will soon enter its fourth week. Protesters have responded by trying to take new roads and erecting new traffic barricades. The cat-and-mouse game entered a grim phase over the past 60 hours, with police, sometimes clad in riot gear, using pepper spray and shields to subdue protesters — the worst violence since Sept. 28, when volleys of police tear gas galvanized tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents.
At stake is the city’s political future. Protesters, many of whom are students, have said they will stay on city streets until Beijing agrees to retract an elections plan that would restrict candidates for the city’s next chief executive to those vetted by the mainland’s Communist government. But officials in Beijing say the government will not relent. Hong Kong’s administration, closely managed by Beijing, has sent an increasingly exhausted and irritable police force to try to dislodge protesters. The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said on Oct. 16 that he would entertain talks with protesters. It’s unclear whether talks will proceed after violence surged on city streets over the past 24 hours. Hong Kong residents, generally deferential and law-abiding, have shown their tenacious side in these protests, stunning many with their resolve to pursue government changes and their refusal to leave city streets, even when confronted by tough police tactics.
In the latest phase, hundreds of reinforcements for protesters arrived in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok by subway on the night of Oct. 17. They found hundreds of police officers stationed at intersections — on the major boulevard, as well as on tiny side streets. Students, office workers, and parents poured out of the underground station and jammed sidewalks, ready to lend their umbrellas and bodies to yet another battle.
Crowds of demonstrators stood nose to nose with the police at various intersections, said Bastien Wai-Chung, an IT worker and a fixture at the Mong Kok protests. He had his usual equipment slung around his belt: safety goggles, a gas mask, and a first-aid kit. Everyone was furious, especially local residents, he said. Not only had officers retaken much of Nathan Road — a busy tourist and shopping boulevard — but now police weren’t letting people cross the street.
A lanky, gray-haired man darted over. "Our government is really crazy," said the man, Chao San, a 57-year-old driver. "Everyone has a right to go home!" But Chao said he was on the streets not just because of an aborted commute. He was furious that 15 hours after Leung had urged student leaders to start talks with government officials, police had descended on this road and razed the protesters’ tents and roadblocks. "You promise and then you take away," Chao said. "You better sit down and talk with the students!"
Over the past few days, police have tended to pounce on protest centers before dawn, taking back Queensway, a central road in the Admiralty district, and dismantling much of the camp in Causeway Bay, a neon-swathed shopping district. Protesters have tried to fight back. Early on Oct. 15, hundreds of people worked through the night to build a network of barricades near government offices. Hundreds of police officers, using pepper spray and riot shields, then descended, arresting 45. Several protesters told reporters that they were beaten, leaving some with bloodied and blackened eyes and welts from instruments. A television crew showed several officers kicking one man whose hands were tied, a case that has prompted investigations of excessive force.
On Oct. 15, Leung invited students to talk with government officials — an offer the administration had already made once and then retracted after student leaders vowed to continue protesting. Some weary demonstrators were hopeful that the talks might give them a way to end their all-night camping sessions on highways and roads. But the morning of Oct. 17 dawned with officers walking through the camp, clipping barricades with bolt cutters. About a hundred protesters watched glumly as cranes scooped up their tents and even a roadblock Christian chapel — complete with table, a Bible, an icon, and a crucifix. Traffic resumed on most nearby streets. But after the workday ended, protesters and their supporters poured into the working-class area, many set to challenge the police.
By 10:45 p.m., on one swath of Nathan Road, a contingent of police in riot gear stood to face the crowd, though it was hard to see them behind the dozens of umbrellas protesters had popped open. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and alleys, standing atop walls and barricades, and waiting. Most wore safety masks and silicone goggles, knowing that pepper spray might be part of the plan. Spectators passed, snapping selfies with their phones. Whispers went through the crowd; the police had shown the now-familiar red banner instructing civilians not to push or the police "will use force." "Hoi lo! Hoi lo!" the protesters cried, meaning "Open up." "You can come down here and fight with me!" a mustachioed man shouted.
"Don’t worry about the crowds turning violent,” said K.C. Wong, 22, a Hong Kong University (HKU) student standing on a sidewalk near a shuttered Starbucks.* He had arrived with his fellow medical school friends Michael See and Harry Tse, both age 22. They all wore their safety masks. They have fallen a bit behind in their medical school studies, but have come to the protests for many days — sometimes working as medics, other times just cheering on the crowds.
See, in an HKU medical school T-shirt, was nervous. He would have an oral exam in pediatrics in just days. But there was no quitting the protest now. "If we lose this, we lose everything," See said. Losing Mong Kok would mean the students would have "nothing to bargain." The government, they said, didn’t listen when tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets on July 1, right after Beijing released a paper asserting its authority over Hong Kong. "We never had a response. It shows the government doesn’t listen to us," Tse said.
"We want universal suffrage!" the crowd cried. "We want civic nomination!" A police officer speaking into a bullhorn advised protesters to "remain calm" as demonstrators passed compact umbrellas to one another. On the sidewalk, Tse dismissed the idea of talks with the Leung administration as "a trick." "This umbrella revolution is the last resort," he said. "We cannot just retreat."
A protester with a bullhorn called everyone to attention. "Lung Wo Road has been taken!" The crowd cheered. Lung Wo lies near the government center, and protesters had been barricading the road on Oct. 15 when many were attacked and arrested. "Open up!" the students on Nathan Road cried to the police. "Now," Tse said, "we have to take back our own land."
Around 11:46 p.m., the air filled with a series of short pops, sounding like muffled fireworks. "The red flag is up!" someone cried. Police had showered the front crew with pepper spray. The throng drew back, and some tried to flee. Scattered screams sliced the air. Then a yell to get back, get back! Dozens of umbrellas flew over our heads to protect the people at the front. "First aid!" yelled a young man dressed in white, standing atop a recycling bin. One young man lay blinded as medics in scrubs poured saline in his eyes. Another man lay next to him. There was another wave of umbrellas. Then more, as a cluster of saggy, broken ones came from the front.
The crowd pressed forward more, pushing against the officers. At midnight, the crowd exploded in applause. Standing atop a trash can, I saw the police begin to retreat. They moved silently down to the next block and beyond until their work lights went dark. The crowd erupted. Shortly after, protesters ran past, whisking a clattering train of steel barricades. They halted before the intersection with Argyle Street, where another group of police stood in riot gear. Within minutes, protesters had tied the barriers together in a series of triangles, forming a large buffer between them and the officers.
Although the Leung administration could likely quell some unrest by offering compromise, it appears increasingly likely that the sit-ins and roadblocks are the start of a long period of unrest and agitation. How long can protesters keep this up? "Until [authorities] give us something solid,” said Mason Ma, 30, a high school teacher, overlooking the new barricades. "Whenever they clear us, we will come again to take our place back."
*Correction, October 19, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated a student’s location. He was standing near a Starbucks, not a McDonald’s. (Return to reading.)
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