‘Path of No Return:’ Hong Kong Protests Reach New Intensity, Prompting Fears of Protracted Crisis

By Cathy He
Cathy He
Cathy He
Cathy He is a New York-based reporter focusing on China-related topics. She previously worked as a government lawyer in Australia. She joined the Epoch Times in February 2018.
November 13, 2019 Updated: November 13, 2019

The city of Hong Kong has seen regular eruptions of violence and chaos over the course of almost six months of mass protests. But the level of intensity over the past week has prompted fear that the crisis may never reach a resolution.

It started with the death of a 22-year-old student on Nov. 8, who died from his injuries after falling one story from a parking garage where police had fired tear gas to disperse protesters—the first fatality connected to police actions in the continuing pro-democracy movement. His death triggered a wave of protests over the weekend.

On the morning of Nov. 11, an unarmed protester was shot at close range by a police officer—the third demonstrator injured by a live round fired by police. That sparked fresh waves of anger toward Hong Kong authorities as protesters called for a citywide strike and disrupted traffic to try to pressure the government into hearing their demands.

Tensions escalated on Nov. 12 when protesters and police engaged in an hours-long standoff lasting late into the night at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Police fired 1,567 canisters of tear gas, 1,312 rounds of rubber bullets, and 380 bean-bag bullets—most of that at CUHK to disperse students who had set up blockades, hurled bricks, and threw petrol bombs to keep police from the campus.

A day earlier, police had charged into CUHK, other universities, and a church to make arrests—the first time authorities had entered those properties to crack down on protesters.

“Things are escalating both in frequency and in degree,” said Jason Ng, lawyer and convenor of Progressive Lawyers Group, a local group of lawyers who advocate for pro-democracy causes. “That’s what makes it troubling. And what makes it worse is that there’s no end in sight.”

Epoch Times Photo
Protesters (front, L) and journalists react after police fired tear gas at CUHK on Nov. 12, 2019.(Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images)

Direction From Beijing?

The Hong Kong government has maintained that it can put an end to the crisis, repeatedly blaming “rioters” for intensifying the situation. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, at a recent press conference, again vowed that she wouldn’t give in to protesters’ demands, which include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality against protesters.

Lam’s remarks came after a visit to Beijing in early November, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the regime’s top official overseeing the city’s affairs publicly backed her handling of the protests. The trip was read by some commentators as a sign that Lam received support from Beijing to harden her stance toward the protesters.

There has been a “remarkable change in her behavior, both in speech and in action,” since Lam’s meetings with Beijing leaders, Ng said.

“The rhetoric [used by Lam] has become much more uncompromising,” he said, adding that the unprecedented police enforcement over the past week has demonstrated that such rhetoric has been matched by action.

Epoch Times Photo
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference in Hong Kong on Nov. 11, 2019. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

There has been a “clear shift” by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities toward a willingness to “use lethal force” to reassert control of the city, Dan Garrett, author of “Counter-hegemonic Resistance in China’s Hong Kong: Visualizing Protest in the City,” told The Epoch Times via email.

He said the communist leadership in Beijing appears to have decided that sending in the Chinese military to quell protests would be untenable due to the potential international backlash, so they’ve instead adopted the approach of militarizing riot police to forcibly subdue the protests.

“This, however, requires an aggressive … campaign to frame the protesters as extremists and terrorists using exceptional violence, thereby necessitating and legitimating the use of lethal force,” Garrett said.

The Chinese regime has been doing so for months. Chinese officials and state-run media frequently paint protesters as criminals and “extremists,” and have urged a tough response by local authorities.

Geng Shuang, Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokesperson, at a regular press briefing on Nov. 13 labeled protesters as the “enemy of the people,” echoing Lam, who used the same wording to describe protesters days earlier. Geng also reiterated the regime’s “resolute support” for the Hong Kong government, police, and courts in taking “effective measures to severely punish illegal and criminal activities.”

Epoch Times Photo
Office workers and pro-democracy protesters gather during a demonstration in Central in Hong Kong on Nov. 12, 2019. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

As early as July, the second month of mass protests, there were indications by the Chinese regime that it would push for a stronger police response, Garrett said. For instance, a July 22 editorial by hawkish state-run newspaper Global Times said, “An essential cause of Hong Kong’s chaos lies in the greatly limited police power,” and called for the lifting of “all restrictions” on law enforcement.

Then, top officials at a Party conclave held in late October also emphasized the need for “perfecting” Hong Kong’s “legal system and law enforcement mechanism” to “safeguard national security,” according to the communique.

That directive was reflected in recent statements made by senior regime officials, such as Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office within the cabinet-like State Council, who, in an article published on the office’s official website on Nov. 9, said that strengthening Hong Kong’s “law enforcement power” is an urgent task for the Hong Kong government.

Anger and Despair

Protests show no signs of easing, with claims of police violence growing by the day, aggravating the unrest. Social media is awash with video footage that shows instances of police aggression, including officers beating subdued protesters, and pepper-spraying bystanders and journalists.

A recent viral video shows a police officer pepper-spraying a woman in the face after she confronts him. The officer sprays her again when she attempts to swat an officer away. Multiple officers then tackle her to the ground.

The Hong Kong police have also attracted international condemnation.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) recently described officers as “out of control,” while Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) labelled the recent police shooting as “Tiananmen 2.0,” referring to Beijing’s bloody crackdown of student protesters 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square.

A September report by Amnesty International found that police had engaged in a “disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during the protests.”

“You can’t expect protesters to … just roll over and let you beat them up, let you arrest them, let you even shoot them with live bullets,” Ng said.

But the more the protesters push back, the more reason the police have to crack down on them, he said.

“So it just becomes a vicious circle,” Ng said.

Epoch Times Photo
A man is detained after police fired tear gas at CUHK on Nov. 12, 2019. (Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

Besides public anger, a growing sense of despair appears to have spread among protesters.

“I feel helpless … I don’t know how to achieve my political ideals,” an office worker surnamed Chan told the Hong Kong bureau of The Epoch Times. He took part in a demonstration in the central business district on Nov. 13.

Chan, an alumnus of CUHK, said he understood the actions of students who clashed with police at the university on Nov. 12, one of the most intense confrontations since the mass protests began.

“They don’t know what to do to resolve the problem. They’re using their last resort,” he said, as he begins to cry. “I hope the government can seriously consider the protesters’ demands and settle this crisis. Otherwise, there will be many casualties. Hong Kong will head toward the path of no return.”

Ng believes that the movement may have reached the point where it’s “never going to end.” Even if the unrest eases up for a while, the moment the government acts in a way perceived by protesters as unreasonable, another escalation will ensue, he said.

It’s going to turn into a “rolling crisis,” Ng said, in which the city will “simmer constantly for months or even years to come.”

Eva Fu contributed to this report. 

Cathy He
Cathy He
Cathy He is a New York-based reporter focusing on China-related topics. She previously worked as a government lawyer in Australia. She joined the Epoch Times in February 2018.