Clad in black T-shirts and face masks, a small group of protesters emerge from a subway station at the North Point district of Hong Kong and begin to dismantle nearby roadworks.
Trailing sidewalk gates, traffic cones and signposts, they carry the items to a local police station where they begin to build a barricade. Over the course of the next 20 minutes they will block off the entire street, stopping traffic as more protesters gather, before suddenly dispersing as police sirens wail louder as they approach.
“We’re going around to stop the police from catching us,” says one woman, who asked to not be named, as she observes the barricade-building.
“Our aim is not to let the police arrest us. We need to be like water.”
“Be water” – a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote to be “formless, shapeless, like water” – has been a rallying cry of the leaderless protest movement since demonstrations in Hong Kong began on 9 June, but it appears to have been perfected over the past weekend.
For three consecutive days, tens of thousands of protesters took part in an amorphous protest movement that would flare up in one district only to die down and reemerge with intensity in another district a short while later.
“Be water” can feel chaotic, with people running from one train station to the next, but it is backed by a highly disciplined strategy. Protesters are often following alerts on Telegram and a website documenting police locations or protest groups needing backup.
“If we find stopping in one place is not workable, we will go around to different place to block the gate of a police station or a government department,” the North Point protester told The Independent.
The tactic has come to play a critical role in the Hong Kong protests, now in their ninth week, and a change from initial protests such as a massive event on 12 June that felt like a battle between protesters and riot police.
The emerging strategy, however, is more guerrilla-style, and a way to avoid the increasingly heavy-handed police actions that have seen hundreds of people arrested and more than 1,800 rounds of teargas fired over nine weeks – including 800 on Monday alone – as the once peaceful Asian financial capital has become the centre of a political crisis.
Mass protests first began when Hong Kongers rallied against a now-suspended legislative bill that they feared would have infringed on their civil rights, and which unleashed a wave of anger and longstanding grievances with the Beijing-backed government.
In a fortnight they will surpass 2014’s 79-day Umbrella Movement democracy protests – but where those protests had largely fizzled out by the end, Hong Kong’s current movement has remained fiery and even escalated in the wake of police violence and apparent government inaction.
“After 21 July, police clearly escalated the use of force, especially the use of teargas to disperse the demonstrators,” says Icarus Ho, a spokesperson for Civil Rights Observer. That was the date when protesters defaced the walls of Beijing’s government headquarters in Hong Kong.
Ho says protest observers found police were using increasing and indiscriminate amounts of teargas as well as rubber bullets and sponge-tipped bullets as they attempted to clear protesters from occupying streets and buildings.
More recently police have begun to fire teargas on bystanders, including last weekend at Wong Tai Sin when they appeared to become angered by a group of residents jeering at them during a stand-off with protesters.
“The police tactics are making the situation worse because when the police escalate their force (against) the demonstrators they are also trying to escalate their actions in order to make themselves able to stay longer on the street,” Ho says.
Protesters, however, appear to be learning with their new mobile “be water” strategy, with the vast majority of a group clearing out of a location as riot police close in.
A small group often remains, forming a phalanx formation with umbrellas to conceal their identity from police video cameras and protect themselves from teargas and pepper spray.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, meanwhile, has continued to characterise the protesters as largely violent radicals who have used the extradition bill drama as a pretext to foment “revolution”, with similar statements shared by both Beijing’s Hong Kong affairs office and the Hong Kong police.
Lam has further declined to meet any of the demands of protesters, including that the government form an independent commission into police violence, even as the city has seen record-breaking peaceful marches of residents alienated by the extradition bill but also by police violence.
And in such a fraught climate, many in her government have appeared to turn against her. A rally on Friday saw 40,000 civil servants and other protesters, according to opposition estimates, pour into a park near government headquarters where many spoke of their discontent with Lam and police violence.
One civil servant, who attended the rally and did not want to be named, said afterwards that he thought the police had become “drunk with power” as Lam’s administration had lost control of the force. He was also angry that police had been filmed in riot gear without identification, making disciplinary actions impossible
“They just make arrests any time – even of people who did nothing but just shout at them,” he said.
“They are just ready to use violence on those protesters who just demonstrate peacefully.
“This is totally not acceptable for disciplined forces … They abuse their powers and on the other hand they avoid being governed.”
Many Hong Kongers believe that Lam has become a lame duck as the political crisis has spiralled, with Beijing now appearing to many to be calling the shots from behind the scenes. She has rarely been seen in public in recent weeks and at her most recent appearance was flanked by a number of colleagues.
“I can’t help feeling that the police force feel that they don’t just have the Carrie Lam government’s backing but the backing of Beijing, so they are feeling very empowered as a result,” says pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo, who says Hong Kong police are now standing in for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“I don’t think there are many conventional police tactics involved. They are able to use as much power as necessary and they would fire indiscriminately at protesters – it doesn’t matter whether you are a reporter, or just a passerby or if you are a nurse helping out.
“They feel they are the substitute for the PLA because it’s obvious by now that Beijing has lots of reservations about deploying PLA troops or tanks onto the streets of Hong Kong, so they are relying on the police force to clamp down on protesters.”
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