by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Alex Yun for New Bloom
PROTESTS INVOLVING clashes between demonstrators and police broke out today in Hong Kong, in the apparent resumption of what was a familiar pattern in the last year. Further clashes are likely to take place as the night goes on, with police sometimes feeling more emboldened to take action against demonstrators later at night, when fewer eyes are watching, and because some forms of direct action are more likely to take place late at night.
Demonstrations began last year in protest against an extradition bill that the Hong Kong government wished to pass that would have allowed for Hongkongers to be deported to China to face charges. It was feared that the extradition bill would have led Hongkongers to be deported to China on political charges, similar to the kidnapping of the Causeway Bay booksellers—except that this would now take place on a legal basis. But after the Hong Kong government eventually backed away from plans to pass the extradition agreement, the demands of the movement expanded to broader calls for political autonomy and accountability against police violence.
Ongoing Stand News stream of the demonstrations. Photo credit: Stand News/Facebook
Hong Kong saw a lull in large-scale protests in past months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But protests have gradually begun to resume in past weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic under control in Hong Kong. Anger was stoked by plans by the pro-Beijing camp to pass changes to Article 23 that would criminalize “treason” against China and legislation outlawing mockery of the Chinese national anthem, with members of the pro-Beijing camp physically removing pro-democracy lawmakers from the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to occupy a chair position needed to pass these bills. The Hong Kong government has also suggested that it may ban the annual June 4th Tiananmen Square commemoration, one of the largest annual protest gatherings in Hong Kong, with the justification that this is to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Today’s protest, however, was against plans by China’s National People’s Congress to pass security legislation circumventing the Hong Kong Legislative Council. News that the Chinese government intended to circumvent the Hong Kong LegCo altogether to pass security legislation took many by surprise. This would be a significant blow to political autonomy for Hong Kong under the framework of “One Country, Two Systems”.
It is possible that the Chinese government hoped to take advantage of the lull in protests due to COVID-19 to pass security legislation targeting Hong Kong. Otherwise, it is possible that the Chinese government no longer has faith in the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong to carry out its will. That being said, it is to be questioned why the Chinese government saw fit to pass security legislation that would be bound to spark more outrage on the heels of last year’s demonstrations against the extradition bill.
It is unclear as to how many participated in the demonstration today, though demonstrations are thought to have involved thousands. Protesters gathered in Causeway Bay and marched to Wan Chai. But police did not wait for long to use tear gas, firing tear gas at demonstrators around 1:30 PM, kettling hundreds of demonstrators near Victoria Park, and detaining and searching journalists in Causeway Bay.
Police also fired pepper balls and rubber bullets at demonstrators. Armored vehicles and water cannon trucks have been deployed against demonstrators, with water cannons fired at demonstrators, and 120 people in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai have been arrested. Apart from videos of police violence, such as shooting a child with a pepper ball as he was leaving a restaurant with his mother, video of a police officer taking a water bottle from a store without paying has led to outrage online. 30 individuals were reportedly also arrested from a yacht party unrelated to the demonstrations.
Images of the child who was shot in the back with a pepper ball, as he was leaving a restaurant with his mother. Photo credit: USP United Social Press 社媒/Facebook
In response, demonstrators built barriers, set fires, and threw bricks at police. In one notable incident, demonstrators broke into a pro-Beijing clothing store and used the mannequins as barricades. With pro-democracy district councilors lining up to try and block riot police, with their identification visible, and calling on police to restrain their actions, a number of district councillors have been detained or searched by police. This includes Sha Tin district councilors Raymond Li and Central and Western district councilor Sam Yip. Tam Tak-chi, the vice-president of People Power, was also detained by police ahead of the rally this afternoon.
Demonstrations are likely to continue into the night, with clashes possibly growing more heated. Protests today, then, may mark the resumption of the pattern of protests breaking out every weekend in Hong Kong, with the lull in protests due to COVID-19 perhaps having provided some time for protesters to regroup before protests began again in earnest.