Beijing and Hong Kong’s protesters can agree on this much about the unrest now in its ninth week: the turmoil is growing and violence is intensifying. The region is facing its most serious crisis for decades. In the first eight weeks, police fired 160 rubber bullets and 1,000 rounds of teargas. On Monday, they came close to matching those figures in a single day. Meanwhile Beijing issues barely veiled threats, such as the mass drill of 12,000 riot police in Shenzhen, just across the border, or explicit ones: “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Hong Kong’s fabric is unravelling. Thirteen of the city’s 18 districts have seen protests. The youngest of those arrested is 13, the oldest 76. Thousands of civil servants, finance workers and lawyers have rallied. On Monday, Hong Kong’s first general strike in half a century brought out teachers and construction workers alike, halted metro lines and cancelled hundreds of flights. Many who were largely apathetic about the original issues are furious at the behaviour of politicians and police, but views are polarising: others are angered by or fearful of the disruption.
A small but growing number in this leaderless movement has turned to force, mostly against property, but also against police. Others are dismayed by those tactics, and fear the reaction to direct if symbolic attacks on Beijing’s authority, but are outraged by the double standards. A student union leader has been arrested for possession of “offensive weapons” – laser pointers – and others have been charged with rioting, carrying a jail sentence of up to 10 years. In contrast, the men arrested after a gang rampaged through a metro station assaulting suspected protesters with metal and bamboo rods – while police were mysteriously absent – face the much lighter charge of unlawful assembly.
Though demands have proliferated, many of those taking part would probably think again if the government formally withdrew the extradition bill which ignited this movement, rather than simply repeating that it is dead, and launched an independent inquiry into the unrest and its policing, as even pro-establishment lawmakers have requested. But officials ruled that out on Wednesday. Protesters are moved more by despair than hope. Some even say they are sticking it out because they could be arrested later: they see it as now or never.
A deployment of the People’s Liberation Army remains a last resort for Beijing. Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing probably hope the return of schools and universities in September, as well as the sheer exhaustion of non-stop activism, will take the steam out of the movement before the Communist party celebrates the 70th anniversary of its taking power in China on 1 October. But they also seem to be relying on harsher policing on the streets and a more punitive pursuit of protesters through the justice system. Everything to date suggests this will pour fuel on the fire. How much more can Hong Kong take?
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