Is there a way out for Hong Kong? Not likely, as protesters become more inflamed

After more than 100 days of protest, Hong Kong is one bitter place. Anger and resentment hang in the air and explode on the streets almost daily now. And not just outside the legislature and other symbols of a deeply unpopular government.

They’ve spread along the transit lines into most every bedroom community, sparking street brawls. This past weekend, gangs of pro-Beijing activists attacked protesters with steel pipes and meat cleavers.

Shouting “Hong Kong is China” and “love the motherland,” lines often appearing in Chinese state propaganda, some even used rods flying Chinese flags to club and bludgeon opponents.

Protesters, adopting increasingly violent tactics themselves, have fought back. The 20-something warriors — nicknamed “braves” — are pushing the boundaries of a movement that has been largely peaceful and widely supported.

Their sense of mission seems to be hardening daily.

“It’s our destiny,” said Nathan, a masked and helmeted protester who’s taking a break from university to fight on the front lines (and too afraid of police to use his full name). “If we don’t fight China now, we may never have another chance,” he said.

Young protesters duck under umbrellas as police give warning that tear gas and rubber bullets may be used to disperse what they consider an ‘illegal’ protest, one of many similar confrontations in the past week. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The protests were sparked in June by a proposed law that would allow anyone in Hong Kong suspected of a crime to be extradited to mainland China for trial and punishment. That law has since been withdrawn, but the protests have broadened their demands to something much more fundamental: full democracy.

The movement’s new anthem invokes “martyrs” who “march in blood.” For the past several days, flash mobs have gathered to sing it in malls and subway stations, and in front of schools.

“The time has come to wage a revolution,” say the lyrics, rejecting Chinese control over Hong Kong. “Freedom and liberty belong to this land,” they sang.

With those battle lines drawn, it’s hard to imagine a peaceful end — or any compromise that can reconcile this deeply polarized Hong Kong.

A poll done in late August suggests half the population distrusts the Beijing and the Hong Kong governments, with more than 60 per cent of those interviewed rejecting the ‘one country, two systems’ principle which shares power between them.

If anyone believes that they can create turmoil in Hong Kong to corner the central government in China and to force China to give in so-called pressure, that is very much indulging in fantasy.– Victor Guo, commentator

Those under 30 seem especially intransigent.

“We fear that we’ve lost one or two generations of young people who are extremely suspicious,” said Ronny Tong in an interview with CBC News. Tong is part of Hong Kong’s executive council and a key adviser to leader Carrie Lam.

He conceded that young people “bear considerable dislike if not hatred of Beijing.”

More and more that hatred is also focused on the Hong Kong police, whose standing in the territory has plummeted since it was known as a trusted service, with a history of British style, by-the-book policing.

Some now see it as the politicized enforcer for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments — simply “serving the tyranny,” according to Bonnie Leung, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has mobilized millions in a series of non-violent marches.

This past weekend, reporters saw officers ignoring violence by pro-Beijing activists and even embracing them, while arresting pro-democracy protesters fighting back. Police have also been accused of using excessive force against protesters and targeting all Hong Kong young people for searches and sometimes unreasonable arrests.

“They are forcing the protesters to hate them,” said Leung. “We see that no matter how much violence they use against us, no matter how many laws they have broken, there are no legal consequences.”

A Hong Kong riot police officer holds a ‘less lethal’ gun loaded with rubber bullets, as police threaten protesters with increasingly aggressive action to prevent demonstrations. Police have been accused of using excessive force and being unaccountable.

One of the protesters’ key demands is an independent inquiry into police abuses, something the Hong Kong leadership has repeatedly rejected as unnecessary.

Tong, the government adviser, said he thinks the police have been “very restrained.” But he agreed that many “simply do not trust the current mechanism” for police accountability.

He said an overall solution is needed, and that the administration is “working behind the scenes to reach out to various leaders of different factions to see if there’s any room to sit down to try to resolve matters.” There are no such negotiations at the moment.

Part of the problem has been that this movement is effectively leaderless, priding itself on being “like water,” somehow flowing where it wants and finding spur-of-the-moment consensus through online chat groups.

A way out?

The other problem is that few prominent voices — and no one among the most radical youth — has confidence in the authorities. Neither Lam nor anyone around her is popularly elected or accountable they say. Besides, more than a dozen of these, including four pro-democracy members of the legislature, have been arrested for their roles in the protests.

Is there a way out?

Through a think-tank he runs called Path of Democracy, Tong has proposed Hong Kong set up a kind of “truth and reconciliation” commission, modelled after similar ones in South Africa and Ireland.

A protestor runs from an advancing police line and tear gas outside Hong Kong’s Mong Kok police station in a protest that quickly turned violent last week. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

The goal wouldn’t be to assign blame, something he said would only “deepen the rift within the community.” Instead, he said, it would be a dialogue to “create common interest” and to address “frustration and anger among young people.”

But that does not seem to be the approach of Beijing, the ultimate power in Hong Kong.

“Fundamentally, it’s a law and order issue,” said Victor Guo, a political commentator for Chinese state media. From Beijing’s perspective, protesters must be “brought to justice for criminal activities,” he said.

Next step: more police

Guo said the Chinese government wants to let the Hong Kong government and police take the “primary responsibility” for resolving the issue.

But if they can’t, he said Beijing’s next step will likely be to send in extra police from cities in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong and where they also speak Cantonese.

Ordering the People’s Liberation army to restore order would be a last resort, Guo said.

Like others in China, he rejected any need for political negotiations or concessions to the protesters. State media has repeatedly suggested the protests are being organized by Western powers in an effort to embarrass China — especially as it prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Oct. 1.

“If anyone believes that they can create turmoil in Hong Kong to corner the central government in China and to force China to give in so-called pressure, that is very much indulging in fantasy,” he said.

Police sprays anti-government protesters with coloured water during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

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