Marching for Freedom in
Steve Shaw reports from Hong Kong on the revolution sweeping through the streets of the island and its fight for democracy.
Rain poured down from the lead grey sky hanging over Hong Kong as thousands of protestors neared the end of a two mile march to a town in the Western New Territories called Tseun Wan.
On the final stretch, anti-government chants – mainly shouted in Cantonese – faded away to be replaced with a quiet sense of unease; a result of the massive deployment of riot police taking up positions all around the town.
The crowd, people young and old and from all walks of life, had no idea how safe they would be from the trigger-happy officers waiting to launch the first round of tear gas but relied on each other for guidance, exchanging maps, photographs and warnings over encrypted messaging services.
“You are a journalist?” one protestor asked me. “You should be careful here, the police try to target journalists now, I guess so they cannot take away evidence.”
The march on 25 August marked the twelfth week since ordinary citizens began pouring out of their homes and offices to join what they have dubbed “the revolution of our times”. Close to 2,000 tear gas rounds have been fired at them, as well as rubber bullets and many have been brutally detained and beaten.
The protests had initially centred on an extradition bill introduced in Hong Kong’s legislature, which would have made it legal for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China to stand trial. Those early demonstrations had limited success, with the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, suspending the bill but stopping short of withdrawing it. Since then she has refused to discuss any further demands.
Week after week the protests have continued, evolving to be about far more than just extradition – the goal now is to prevent the city from slipping further towards a totalitarian state under the command of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and guaranteed that the island’s citizens would have a “one country, two systems” arrangement until 2047, granting them the same freedoms as those in western democracies. China says that the agreement “no longer has any practical significance”.
The total breakdown between the government and the citizens was written on the walls around the protestors marching toward Tseun Wan. Graffiti was everywhere declaring “absolute power corrupts, absolutely”, “we shall never surrender” and a new term coined by many to describe the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – “ChiNazi”.
Walking among the protestors, it was striking to hear what has become the norm in one of the world’s most influential cities. A young protestor who had accompanied me on the march, Alan, casually explained that he had never experienced being tear gassed but felt that he should because so many people he knows have. “It sounds crazy I know,” he continued. “But this is what it is like in Hong Kong now.”
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Later, another protester – no older than 15 – asked if I knew the taste of tear gas before pulling a face, disgusted by the memory. “First you get the chemical taste,” he said, “then your eyes will stream”.
Hong Kong’s youth have faced the gas so many times that many have become experts in dealing with it. Umbrellas have become shields against gas grenades, water sprayed from bottles are used to defuse it, and some have even turned it against the police by throwing it back like a hand grenade.
But, their resourcefulness has not protected them from the side-effects of exposure. One city councillor, who also works as a doctor at a public hospital, told reporters in August that medical experts investigating the effect the gas had on those exposed during a night of clashes in June found that 96% experienced difficulty breathing, persistent coughing or coughed up blood. Another 72% developed skin conditions, while 40% experienced gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea or vomiting.
Empty gas canisters collected in the aftermath of police clashes also revealed that much of the gas being used is out of date, potentially posing even greater risks to public health as the gas becomes more toxic.
Protestors seem to have accepted that all demonstrations – legal or not – will result in a violent response from the authorities and, like a well-oiled machine, they rapidly transformed the industrial town of Tseun Wan into one poised for an invasion.
All around, metal clattered along the ground as large roadside barriers were rapidly dismantled and dragged off to form makeshift barricades. In front of them, fishing wire was strung between lamp posts and dish soap poured on the ground – all an attempt to slow down an impending charge from heavily armoured riot police.
Small groups dressed in black and ready take to the frontline huddled together to check over gas masks and pull on helmets. Many were no older than teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them. Warning that it was time to leave, Alan explained that, at previous demonstrations, police had given people the chance to get away before charging – but not anymore. “No one can predict when they will come,” he said.
But escaping the area presents its own set of challenges. The company behind the city’s vast subway network MTR has begun closing down stations at the start and end points of marches. They claim it is due to “passenger safety”, but unverified pictures circulating on social media show the trains being used as transportation for more riot police. The closures also came just days after Beijing accused MTR of aiding the protestors.
The transport operator is one of many businesses to have caved to pressure from China in recent weeks. The largest has been the airline Cathay Pacific, which has been denounced by Hong Kong residents for firing staff members that took part in demonstrations. This escalated further when a note was sent to all staff members warning them that the company has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to “illegal” protests.
For many people, including myself, safety out of Tseun Wan eventually came in the form of one of the few buses still ferrying people out. But, minutes after the bus reached the highway, the town was transformed into an urban battlefield.
Protestors and police exchanged petrol bombs, bricks and tear gas and the police used a water cannon for the first time since the demonstrations began. As night fell and running battles continued to erupt on the streets, a group of protestors tried to charge officers with sticks and poles but were met with pointed handguns.
An older man dropped to his knees with his arms outstretched, begging the officers not to shoot. Their response was to kick him to the ground – a response they would later describe at a press conference as a “natural reaction”.
By the end of the night, the ‘peaceful’ demonstration resulted in 15 police officers being sent to hospital and 36 arrests, including that of a 12-year-old boy. Police said the following day that protestors had “overstepped the bottom line of a civilised society”.
None of the protestors I spoke to could predict how this would end but they seemed to have little doubt that the violence was going to get worse. “We can get the attention of the world,” one explained. “But our own government won’t listen to us. What else are we supposed to do?”