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August 10 2019
Protesters in Hong Kong react after police fire tear gas at them, August 2019.

On the surface, visitors to Hong Kong will find that it’s as lively, vibrant, and cosmopolitan as ever. The eco-conscious restaurant Mana! is serving vegan wraps and fig-and-banana shakes at their new branch in Wan Chai. In the tourist-friendly district Causeway Bay, Tower 535 features a smorgasbord of restaurants and bars offering sushi, Wagyu beef, Thai, hot pot, and fluffy Japanese pancakes. A four-day FinTech event at the Convention and Exhibition Center attracted 16,000 global attendees last month. The visiting British football team Manchester City recently thrashed the local champion team Kitchee in a nighttime match at Hong Kong Stadium. The Lion King and Once upon a Time … in Hollywood are holding court at the Palace IFC Mall cinema alongside a local hit, Line Walker 2. Barring the odd incident, you can still move around safely to do what you want and when you want in the city that rarely sleeps.

Ground Zero

Except on weekends. That’s when Hong Kong becomes Ground Zero for protests that may ultimately change the fabric of the city forever—and possibly China too. While a proposed criminal-extradition bill created without proper citywide consultation was the tipping point, anger amongst youths—and other sectors of the city—has been brewing for years. Increasingly high rents, smaller unaffordable flats, a perceived government coziness with business cartels, and the sense that China is marginalizing Hong Kong into becoming just another Chinese city—these are only some of the frustrations that residents have been facing. And when it comes to the city’s young people, they have never experienced firsthand the pre-1997 “glory years” when Hong Kong was a British colony and which are often depicted in films and the nostalgic descriptions of older generations as an example of the city’s “can do” spirit. In their lifetimes, they have only encountered the cold—and at times corrupt—leadership of four handpicked chief executives, who always seemed to pay more attention to China’s wishes than to the young people’s own needs.

“The young people see no hope,” says one local banker taking part in a recent protest march. “People can’t buy homes, can’t speak out, and feel constantly monitored. The China way only works in a closed system, not in a country which has one country, two systems. I’m surprised [current chief executive] Carrie Lam, who worked for the British government, doesn’t realize this.”

Handpicked chief executives who always seemed to pay more attention to China’s wishes than to the young people’s own needs.

If the 2014, 79-day-long “Umbrella Movement” was their fledgling practice session, then today’s movement marks the era when Hong Kong’s protesters have mastered the course. Scorched by the fact that several of their previous ringleaders were eventually rounded up and sent to prison, the 2019 protesters, some as young as 13, have adapted a “Be water” approach. Taken from the philosophy of martial-arts hero Bruce Lee, they have become shapeless and formless, adaptable, like water. Even without a discernible leader, the growing ranks (some estimate groups of 50,000 or more) are able to organize and communicate via local online forums, the online Telegram app, and AirDrop on phones. “There are organizer groups and logistics groups,” says one protest documentarian, who has become well known by his Twitter moniker, Hong Kong Hermit. “The crowd itself becomes like a hive mind. Though scared, they’re thinking, Go to jail in Hong Kong today or go to jail in China tomorrow.”

Hong Kong riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesters, August 6, 2019.

By day, the protests—which are held in different parts of the city in order to attract people to their cause—are largely serene affairs, filled with placard-waving supporters, young and old. Stacks of money and subway cards are left atop train vending machines so protesters can freely get around the city. The ballad “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” the unofficial anthem, is often performed a cappella. A growing amount of “Lennon Walls,” where people write peaceful messages on yellow Post-It notes, have sprouted up throughout the city. Volunteers are careful to clean up any trash that has been generated. “Revive Hong Kong—revolution of our times” has become the hopeful protest slogan.

“Go to jail in Hong Kong today or go to jail in China tomorrow.”

But by seven p.m., unless you’re hard-core, you want to get the hell out. For that’s when the yellow hard hats come out (one unofficial symbol of the group), as do the goggles, masks, clear Saran Wrap, and shields, which are made from cardboard, coconut husks, surfboards, and even toilet seats. The logistics groups provide whatever is needed, be it first-aid kits or water, while the organizer groups line up and use an array of hand signals to efficiently convey what those in the front may want. It’s time to face the police in riot gear. On one recent volatile night, the masses were able to dismantle heavy metal sidewalk barriers and reconfigure them to block roads within minutes, all through the use of simple plastic-bag ties, commonly used for food. Bins full of bricks were also carted in for use during possible skirmishes. “The mantra these days is to not back down at any single point, to not leave until the last train has gone or that you’re so outnumbered by police that you get overwhelmed,” says Hong Kong Hermit. “They don’t want to give the police a single easy night.”

Thick Blue Line

The 30,000-plus members of the Hong Kong Police Force have long been recognized as some of Asia’s finest and most professional. But they too were criticized in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Now they’ve decided to be more aggressive. On June 12 alone, Hong Kong police fired 150 rounds of tear gas, double what was fired in 2014. Nearly two months later it was revealed that they had fired 800 rounds of tear gas, 140 rubber bullets, and 20 sponge grenades during a single day of clashes on August 8. They have also arrested 420 people on a variety of charges related to the protests.

At this point, the young protesters have become so used to the tear gas—incidentally, manufactured in Pennsylvania—that they now use bottled water, traffic cones, and steel woks to cover and diffuse it.

Jose Lopes Amaral, a Taiwan-based photographer from Luxembourg, witnessed the recent aggression firsthand when eight local policemen clad in black riot gear fired a round of tear gas directly at a cowering photojournalist 20 yards away. “Hey! You shoot journalists,” he yelled. “You shoot journalists, motherf——s!” The “popo,” as they are locally called in Cantonese, responded by screaming for Amaral to leave the area, before threatening him with their guns. “Do it, do it, do it,” he defiantly yelled. “This is still Hong Kong, not China! Not yet. Not yet.”

Thousands of civil servants at​tend a protest rally in Centra​l, Hong Kong, on Friday evening,​ August 2, 2019.

There is dissension within the police ranks, too, as they feel they are the unfair buffer between a government hanging them out to dry and the protesters. After working long hours and many overtime shifts, some have reportedly questioned the tactics ordered by superiors. There’s also a potential investigation looming by the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption stemming from an incident late last month when dozens of suspected white-shirted triad gang members beat protesters and passersby in one of the city’s subway stations. Police reportedly didn’t arrive on the scene for an hour, after the suspects had already fled. The incident has fueled passions, leading a wide section of the city to suspect that the police and triads are in league with each other. Now the protesters are regularly using the Cantonese slang term “black cops” (a euphemism for corrupt police officers) to further taunt them.

Lonely at the Top

As for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, despite claiming the extradition bill is “dead,” she hasn’t officially “withdrawn” it. In a rare appearance on Friday, Lam announced that she will not make concessions to protesters. With a salary that’s the second highest in the world for a political leader, questions of “What does she do all day?” resound frequently. “She’s politically tone-deaf,” says one inside observer. “She’s a civil servant, not a visionary, with terrible optics, too.”

“This is still Hong Kong, not China! Not yet. Not yet.”

Hundreds of protesters flooded the Hong Kong International Airport on Friday, intent on camping out, while police banned four protests scheduled to take place elsewhere in the city. Emboldened by their success so far, the protesters vow to keep going indefinitely, though there is some speculation that the intensity will die down once a new school term begins. In the meantime, they’ll keep pressing for their five demands. That some civil servants have controversially gone on strike is seen as a sign that the current pressure is working. On the flip side, observers are worried that the police will also increase their use of force. Of course, the prospect of China watching over the city’s shoulder, like a giant overlord, is also starting to weigh on the minds of residents, protesters, and businesspeople alike. “Whatever happens here is like putting a Band-Aid on someone with cancer and a fever,” says one Hong Kong resident who asked to be nameless. “Even if you get rid of Carrie Lam, what you really need is systematic change across the whole country, and that won’t happen anytime soon. China needs Hong Kong because it needs the two systems, but it doesn’t need the people, and that’s something these protesters should keep in mind.”

Scott Murphy is an American journalist based in Hong Kong.