Asia Pacific | FOCUS

Hong Kong police struggle to contain unpredictable protesters

by Shawna Kwan, Fion Li and Owen Franks

Bloomberg

From an airport sit-in to violent clashes in a suburban area to aimless marches through busy shopping districts, Hong Kong’s weekend of unrest illustrated the challenge of quelling a protest movement that’s leaderless, unpredictable and widespread.

Police on Sunday fired tear gas and charged at thousands of black-clad protesters who gathered to air their grievances for the eighth straight weekend. They marched east through the city’s central business district, then west, before spontaneously splitting in two. The shifting tactics seemed to catch police off guard as demonstrators again focused their anger at officers following a day of clashes in Yuen Long, near the mainland Chinese border.

By Sunday night, clouds of tear gas hovered over the normally buzzing downtown area of Sai Ying Pun, which also hosts the Chinese government’s main office in Hong Kong. Protesters vandalized the building last week, drawing stern warnings from Beijing and sparking fears that China’s military would be called in to restore order.

The chaotic weekend showed that Hong Kong’s protesters are sustaining momentum for a protracted fight against embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her supporters in Beijing, drawing comparisons with France’s Yellow Vests movement. The question now is whether she — or Chinese President Xi Jinping — can make any more concessions to deflate the uprising, which threatens to paralyze policy making and scare away businesses from the financial hub.

“I don’t know how it’s going to end,” said opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who stood with a group of protesters in the central shopping area of Causeway Bay, which remained peaceful. “The only solution is for the government to back down. Otherwise, I think we would be going toward more casualties and I am afraid even fatalities.”

With demonstrators dispersed across four separate districts over the weekend, it was hard to tell how many took part compared with previous weeks. Protesters said thousands joined the airport sit-in, and about 300,000 people took part in Saturday’s march through Yuen Long, where train commuters, including a lawmaker, were attacked last weekend. Police wouldn’t estimate crowd sizes because all but one protest lacked a permit. About a dozen protesters were arrested, and injuries — some serious — were reported among demonstrators and police.

The protests are increasingly hurting the city’s reputation as a stable environment for business. Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in a blog post Sunday that many local retail and catering businesses had experienced a “sharp decline” in business, warning that small and medium-size enterprises will face more pressure the longer the historic protests go on. The sprawling Sogo department store in Causeway Bay, owned by Lifestyle International Holdings Ltd., was closed on Sunday.

Chan and other officials are grappling with the longer term implications of Hong Kong’s biggest political crisis since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. What began eight weeks ago as a mass movement to stop the passage of legislation that would ease extraditions to mainland China has since widened to include calls for Lam’s resignation and an investigation into the force used by police — including tear gas and rubber bullets — as they’ve dispersed crowds.

“Even Carrie Lam’s resignation and universal suffrage aren’t going to resolve the crisis in Hong Kong,” said Oscar Cheung, an office worker in his twenties, as he gathered in a downtown area. “The truth is China is having a tighter and tighter grip on Hong Kong and our rights.”

Several protesters carried American flags as they marched, threatening to further stoke tensions between China and the U.S. even as high-level trade talks restart on Monday. Beijing this week said Washington should remove its “black hand” from Hong Kong’s protests, some of its most pointed criticism yet against what it says is American interference in the city’s affairs. The U.S. denies backing the protests.

China’s complaints have increased as the U.S. issues statements urging it to respect the rights of protesters who oppose its increasing control over the city. Xi has so far maintained support for Lam in part to avoid setting a precedent in which popular protests initiate political change. Chinese officials are scheduled to brief reporters in Beijing on Monday on the situation in Hong Kong.

Riot police on Sunday carried shields, marched in rows and were backed by police vehicles with flashing lights as they engaged in a tense hourslong standoff with demonstrators, eventually charging at them and forcibly wrestling some people to the ground to arrest them. Protesters wore masks and hard hats, occupying a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood. As violence kicked off, some used street signs as shields.

Earlier in the day, demonstrators marched from a central gathering point without a definite plan toward the Admiralty, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay areas that were ground zero for previous mass rallies. They chanted slogans including “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” “shame on police who beat people” and “return us the right to demonstrate.”

“Sadly and shamefully, the leaders in Beijing now do not address all these demands,” said Kwok Ka-ki, a lawmaker in a pro-democracy party. “They just use police, use all the forces, use the tear gas, use the rubber bullets just to force the people away. It doesn’t help at all. We all know you can’t deal with a political issue by using force.

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