AP

Hong Kong’s ‘front line’ protesters explain their stance

Aug 20, 2019, 6:54 AM
A protester is shrouded by tear gas in Hong Kong, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. Droves of protesters filled...
A protester is shrouded by tear gas in Hong Kong, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. Droves of protesters filled public parks and squares in several Hong Kong districts on Monday in a general strike staged on a weekday to draw more attention to their demands that the semi-autonomous Chinese city's leader resign.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

HONG KONG (AP) — On a recent sweltering Saturday, a day now reserved for protest in Hong Kong, a demonstrator named Wayne stepped past a row of plastic barricades, lifted a pair of binoculars and squinted.

Four hundred meters away, a line of riot police stood with full-length shields, batons and tear-gas launchers.

It was a familiar sight for Wayne after more than two months on the front lines of Hong Kong’s turbulent pro-democracy demonstrations. Along with hard hats and homemade shields, face-offs with police have become part of the 33-year-old philosophy professor’s new normal.

The stories of Wayne and three other self-described “front line” protesters interviewed by The Associated Press provide insights into how what started as a largely peaceful movement against proposed changes to the city’s extradition law has morphed into a summer of tear gas and rubber bullets. They spoke on condition they be identified only by partial names because they feared arrest.

The movement has reached a moment of reckoning after protesters occupying Hong Kong’s airport last week held two mainland Chinese men captive, beating them because they believed the men were infiltrating their movement.

In the aftermath, pro-democracy lawmakers and fellow demonstrators — who have stood by the hard-liners even as they took more extreme steps — questioned whether the operation had gone too far.

It was the first crack in what has been astonishing unity across a wide range of protesters that has kept the movement going. It gave pause to the front-liners, who eased off the violence this past weekend, though they still believe their more disruptive tactics are necessary to get the government to answer the broader movement’s demands.

The demands grew from opposing legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited for trials in mainland China’s murky judicial system to pressing for democratic elections, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s resignation and an investigation into allegations of police brutality at the demonstrations.

The protesters on the front lines are the ones who throw bricks at police and put traffic cones over active tear gas canisters to contain the fumes. They have broken into and trashed the legislature’s chambers, blocked a major tunnel under Hong Kong’s harbor, besieged and pelted police headquarters with eggs and halted rush-hour subways by blocking the train doors from closing.

To Lam, these are “violent rioters” bent on destroying the city’s economy. To China’s ruling Communist Party, their actions are “the first signs of terrorism.”

To these most die-hard protesters, there’s no turning back.

“The situation has evolved into a war in Hong Kong society,” said Tin, a 23-year-old front-line demonstrator. “It’s the protesters versus the police.”

___

When Hong Kong’s youth banded together for this summer’s protests, they established a few rules: They would not have clear leaders, protecting individuals from becoming symbols or scapegoats. And they would stick together, no matter their methods.

The peaceful protesters would not disavow the more extreme, sometimes violent tactics of the front-liners, who would distract the police long enough for others to escape arrest.

These were lessons learned from 2014, when the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement fizzled after more than two months without winning any concessions. Many involved feel internal divisions partly led to defeat.

Chong, a 24-year-old front-liner, said everyone’s opinion is heard and considered, and they decide on the right path together. But no decision is absolute: The demonstrators have pledged to not impede actions they may disagree with.

Two massive marches roused Chong and others who had given up on political change after the failure of Occupy Central, also dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.

On consecutive weekends in June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the extradition bill. It struck at fears that China is eroding civil rights that Hong Kong residents enjoy under the “one country, two systems” framework.

“I didn’t think I would ever do this again,” said Chong, who quit his job as an environmental consultant to devote himself to the protests. “But this time, society is waking up.”

On June 12, three days after the first march, protesters blocked the legislature and took over nearby streets, preventing the resumption of debate on the extradition bill. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Lam suspended the bill indefinitely the day before the second march, but it didn’t mollify the protesters, who turned out in even greater numbers.

As their demands expanded, Lam offered dialogue but showed no signs of giving ground.

That’s when hard-liners like Chong and Wayne became convinced that peaceful protest might not be enough.

They blocked roads with makeshift barricades and besieged the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, defacing the national seal over its entrance. Week after week, they clashed with police, who became an object of their anger. Every round of tear gas only seemed to deepen their conviction that the government did not care.

“We’ve had numerous peaceful protests that garnered no response whatsoever from the government,” said J.C., a 27-year-old hairstylist who quit his job in July. “Escalating our actions is both natural and necessary.”

Then came the “white shirt” attack. On July 21, dozens of men beat people indiscriminately with wooden poles and steel rods in a commuter rail station as protesters returned home, injuring 44. They wore white clothing in contrast to the protesters’ trademark black.

A slow police response led to accusations they colluded with the thugs. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said resources were stretched because of the protests.

Many saw the attack as proof police prioritized catching demonstrators — around 700 have been arrested so far — over more violent criminals. That view has been reinforced by other images, including police firing tear gas at close range and a woman who reportedly lost vision in one eye after being hit by a beanbag round shot by police.

Each accusation of police brutality emboldens the hard-core protesters to use greater violence. Gasoline bombs and other flaming objects have become their projectiles of choice, and police stations are now their main target.

___

In this cauldron of growing rage, the protesters set their sights on Hong Kong’s airport.

Hundreds of flights were canceled over two consecutive nights last week as protesters packed the main terminal, blocking access to check-in counters and immigration.

While the major disruption of one of the world’s busiest airports got global attention, it was the vigilante attacks on two Chinese men that troubled the movement.

In a written apology the following day, a group of unidentified protesters said recent events had fueled a “paranoia and rage” that put them on a “hair trigger.” During the prior weekend’s demonstrations, people dressed like protesters had been caught on video making arrests, and police acknowledged use of decoy officers.

At the airport, the protesters were looking for undercover agents in their ranks. Twice they thought they found them.

The first man ran away from protesters who asked why he was taking photos of them. Protesters descended on him, bound his wrists with plastic ties and interrogated him for at least two hours. His ordeal ended only when medics wrested him away on a stretcher.

The second man was wearing a yellow “press” vest used by Hong Kong journalists but refused to show his credentials. In his backpack, protesters found a blue “Safeguard HK” T-shirt worn at rallies to support police.

A small group of protesters repeatedly beat him, poured water on his head and called him “mainland trash.” He turned out to be a reporter for China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper.

Footage of the mob violence inflamed anti-protester sentiment in China, where the reporter became a martyr. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers said it was something that “will not and should not happen again.”

Within the movement, some apologized for becoming easily agitated and overreacting. Others questioned whether provocateurs had incited the violence.

Through it all, the front liners called for unity. They pointed to the injuries sustained on their side and the rioting charges that could lock them up for 10 years.

On the night of the airport beating, Wayne couldn’t get through the crowd to see what was happening, but he understood how the attackers felt.

“I would have done the same thing,” he said. “It’s not rational, but I would have kicked him or punched him at least once or twice.”

___

This story has been corrected to show that Chong is 24 years old, not 27.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

Microsoft is cutting 10,000 workers, almost 5% of its workforce, in response to "macroeconomic cond...
MATT O'BRIEN, Associated Press

Job cuts in tech sector spread, Microsoft lays off 10,000

Microsoft said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that had just notified employees of the layoffs, some of which begin immediately.
14 days ago
exxon mobil sign pictured...
SETH BORENSTEIN and CATHY BUSSEWITZ Associated Press

Study: Exxon Mobil accurately predicted warming since 1970s

Exxon said its understanding of climate change evolved over the years and that critics are misunderstanding its earlier research.
20 days ago
FILE - Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, stand on the roof of the...
The Associated Press

Brazil and Jan. 6 in US: Parallel attacks, but not identical

RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — Enraged protesters broke into government buildings that are the very symbol of their country’s democracy. Driven by conspiracy theories about their candidate’s loss in the last election, they smashed windows, sifted through the desks of lawmakers and trashed the highest offices in the land in a rampage that lasted hours […]
22 days ago
President Joe Biden pictured...
ZEKE MILLER AP White House Correspondent

DOJ reviewing potentially classified docs at Biden center

Special counsel to the president Richard Sauber said “a small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered at the offices of the Penn Biden Center.
23 days ago
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: A poster advertising the launch of Prince Harry's memoir "Spare" is s...
Jill Lawless Associated Press

Prince Harry says explosive book is a bid to ‘own my story’

Prince Harry defended his decision to publish a memoir that lays bare rifts inside Britain’s royal family.
23 days ago
utah capitol, a new bill heading to lawmakers will affect the utah sex offender registry...
HANNAH SCHOENBAUM Associated Press/Report for America

States target transgender health care in first bills of 2023

After a record flow of anti-transgender legislation last year, Republican state lawmakers this year are zeroing in on questions of bodily autonomy.
25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Hong Kong’s ‘front line’ protesters explain their stance