The difference between Occupy and extradition protests: more Hongkongers now believe the use of violence is justified

Riot police stand guard on Monday as protesters smash windows of the Legislative Council complex in Tamar.
South China Morning Post/Sam Tsang

Back in 2014, at the height of the Occupy protests, Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung tried to dissuade a group of young protesters from breaking into the Legislative Council complex with metal barricades – but to no avail.

On Monday, the mediation efforts of the trained social worker at the very same venue came to naught once again. This time, a much bigger crowd of protesters used a metal cage trolley and iron poles as battering rams to shatter the glass exterior of the building. Cheung was left standing haplessly by the side.

Glass doors at the entrances of the legislature were smashed in a violent showdown. While they appeared to retreat over the next hour or so, by nightfall, their numbers grew again and they redoubled their attacks. As the holes in the glass doors grew bigger and a metal shutter was pried open, they flooded into the building, making their way into the legislative chamber, spray-painting graffiti and defacing the seal of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

What moved them to such violent acts? Whatever happened to the peaceful and non-violent principles the city had long embraced – and as witnessed in the countless protests over the past two decades?

Almost to a man, observers and protesters alike pointed to a real and perceptible shift among the demonstrators – that violence could be a means to achieve an end, even if the outcome was chaos to force the government into a corner, and the cost, their arrest, and in the extreme, even their lives.

“Young protesters’ anger against the government reached boiling point today,” Cheung said. “They argued they have no choice but to escalate their protests given the inaction of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.”

Lam made her first public appearance in two weeks as she delivered a speech at a reception to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the city’s return to China. Despite offering an apology in person earlier over her handling of the bill, she refused to budge on any of the protesters’ demands, such as having an independent inquiry into the police’s use of force in handling the earlier anti-bill protests.

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Cheung, who talked to the protesters at the scene, told the Post the recent suicide cases that appeared to be in relation to the bill were one of the trigger points for the youngsters.

“These protesters believe they should be held responsible for the three victims as they have failed to force the government to address their cause,” he said.

“They are sad, angry, guilty and in despair. They have a strong desire to sacrifice themselves regardless of the consequences. This is very different from five years ago. It is very sad and a really dangerous sign.”

Protesters use metal poles on Monday to smash windows of the Legislative Council complex in Tamar.
South China Morning Post/Sam Tsang

While most Hongkongers still preferred peaceful protests as the way forward, Cheung emphasised it was no longer just a small group of people advocating physical clashes. “We are talking about thousands here,” he said.

A number of pan-democratic lawmakers, who had been trying to be peacemakers, had succeeded at times in stopping protesters from escalating their actions over the past weeks. But on Monday, they found themselves outflanked and shouted down as the crowd grew more agitated as the day wore on.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting knelt before the angry protesters – almost all wearing helmets and masks and with cling film over their limbs – and begged them to calm down. Roy Kwong Chun-yu, his party colleague who was once popular among the protesters in the movement, was called “useless” when he tried to reason with them.

When lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung tried to spread his arms and come in between the protesters and the metal trolley and the glass door, a protester in helmet and goggles swooped in and tackled him to the ground.

“They questioned what could the legislature still achieve when even 2 million people have failed to budge the government,” Leung said, referring to the massive anti-bill march on June 16. “Sadly, I could not answer.”

“These young people are in despair and they have no hope for the government any more.”

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While most participants during the Occupy protests had emphasised “love and peace” in their demands for universal suffrage, the threshold for confrontation and violence seemed to have been lowered, five years on.

From the crowds present and interviews with protesters, a much larger proportion of Hongkongers appeared to be no longer opposed to violence as a means to an end compared to five years ago.

“The Occupy sit-ins and marches can no longer affect the government’s policies,” said Courage Chiu, a 62-year-old retired primary schoolteacher who joined the march on Monday.

The actions to besiege Legco on June 12 had proven effective, he said, because it forced the government, which had turned a blind eye to the massive turnouts of peaceful marches, to suspend the bill.

Chiu believed different methods of resistance could coexist in the movement, contributing to one end goal: forcing those in power to listen and acquiesce to the people’s will.

If there was one similarity between Occupy and the protests of recent weeks it was the deepening split in society, as snowballing protests have soured relations between the public and police officers, who had been accused of being heavy-handed during the clashes of June 12.

Protesters against bill accused the government of being the one to blame for sowing the seeds of division once again.

“I think the saga is putting a strain on and bearing down hard on many families, friendships and community relationships,” said Kan Ho-ching, 24, a university student.

“It is up to the political leaders to moderate their language and take concrete actions to heal the divide in the society and bring everyone together.”

Read also: Protesters in Hong Kong may have almost won this battle — but the fight for freedom and identity is far from over

King Shen Ka-man, a 27-year-old civil servant, also said relations among his police friends and other friends had become awkward since the June 12 melee.

“When there were get-togethers, my police friends would not want to join, and those who organised the events did not want to invite them,” Shen said.

He said he understood that frontline officers had the responsibility to keep public order and that he would respect their stance. But he agreed that relations between police and the public had been broken, and that only the government could mend it.

“It all depends on whether the government will respond to people’s demands,” Shen said. “The ball is in their court.”

Lawmaker Cheung said he was saddened to see the rift in the society deepen once again. “It could take decades to mend the hatred and misunderstanding.” Additional reporting by Rachel Cheung and Victor Ting

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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