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Hong Kong under pressure

Tensions mount as police and protester clashes escalate, with China threatening intervention

Hong Kong under pressure

A couple hold hands as they join a protest in Hong Kong on Monday. (Kin Cheung/AP)

The images coming out of Hong Kong paint a stark picture: Police in riot gear shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of young protesters. Protesters tearing bricks from the sidewalk to throw at police, starting fires outside police stations, and forming blockades on the roads. Pro-Beijing men in white T-shirts beating protesters with bamboo rods. 

Well-educated Hong Kong youths are learning lessons not taught in school: how to extinguish tear gas canisters, which helmets can best protect against projectiles, and how to administer first aid for tear gas exposure.

On Monday, Hong Kong citizens held a general strike, bringing planes, subway trains, and businesses in the financial hub to a standstill. Demonstrators held rallies in seven locations throughout Hong Kong in an attempt to exhaust the police force, blockading roads and vandalizing police stations. Police threw 800 tear gas grenades, some in neighborhoods, and arrested 148 people, according to Hong Kong police.

What pushed Hong Kong, a city known for its hardworking and peaceful residents, to the brink? What caused Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front to tell The Wall Street Journal, “The government has left us with no choice. Until they address our demands, we will not stand down”?

Protests began in June against a controversial Hong Kong extradition law that would see people in the region sent to mainland China to stand trial. Hong Kong residents viewed this as a serious deterioration of the 50 years of autonomy China had promised to Hong Kong when the British handed the former colony over to China in 1997. Instead of listening to the protesters’ concerns, police used excessive force against young protesters. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to withdraw the bill, although she agreed to suspend it on June 15. Due to the distrust toward the pro-Beijing leadership, many feared Lam would revive the bill once the people backed down.

Hong Kong residents of all ages took to the streets to protest the government, the police, and China’s encroachment, and to call for democracy. Frustrated youths have stepped up protest tactics: They have vandalized government symbols, set up barricades against police, and broken into the legislative building. During the break-in, a protester painted the message on the wall, “You taught me peaceful protest doesn’t work.”

Five years earlier, Hong Kong residents occupied the main streets of the central business district for 79 days, calling for universal suffrage. The Umbrella Movement protest, which remained largely peaceful, did not change the minds of Beijing officials. In 2017, a group of mostly pro-Beijing interest groups elected Lam into office. Only 35 of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong are chosen by popular vote, so a large portion of the government is beholden to Beijing rather than to the Hong Kong people. 

On Monday, Lam made her first appearance in two weeks to chide protesters for pushing the city to the “verge of a very dangerous situation.” Praising the police officers’ response, Lam claimed the protesters had “ulterior movies” that would “destroy Hong Kong.” She refused to concede to any of the protesters’ demands.

Officials from Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office continue to support Lam, who says she will not resign. Office spokesman Yang Guang said on Tuesday that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Yang also accused the United States of influencing the protests, citing statements by U.S. lawmakers in support of Hong Kong and meetings with protest leaders.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense hinted last month that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be called in to maintain order in Hong Kong. The PLA has 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers in Hong Kong, according to The New York Times. Local officials have denied the rumors.

A military intervention would be an economic blow to the country and would alienate Taiwan, which China wishes to woo back into its fold. Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January, and the protests have already bolstered Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s reelection campaign. Cross-strait relations have soured under Tsai, who is part of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party and vocal in her opposition to mainland China. Beijing wants the Kuomintang candidate, Han Kuo-yu, to win, since his party supports greater economic ties to the mainland.

Bad news

Pu’er Intermediate Court ruled on July 25 that pastor John Cao, a permanent resident of the United States, would serve the rest of his seven-year prison sentence for “organizing illegal border crossings.” Authorities targeted Cao for his missions work training house church leaders in China and building schools in Burma’s Wa state.

And good news

Human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang escaped to New York on Aug. 3 with the help of ChinaAid and others. Because Chen represented human rights lawyers like Xie Yang, the Chinese government interrogated him and threatened him with an “enforced disappearance.” Authorities also had blocked him from leaving the country for a fellowship program in the United States in April.