Hong Kong’s quiet and determined ‘hard hat revolution’ is braced for a lurch towards civil war

The young Hongkongers planning to protest again tomorrow are not stereotypical hard-bitten agitators, but they are idealistic and desperate

Stuart Heaver
Friday 26 July 2019 16:25
Hong Kong protesters violently attacked in metro station

Watching while your once-peaceful and tolerant home city unravels before your eyes, in the intense summer heat, is truly distressing.

Tomorrow, at 3pm local time, it is widely expected that confrontation and anger will reach new levels in the latest in a series of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong which have occurred every weekend since late June.

This event called Reclaim Yuen Long is a coordinated response to the shocking events witnessed last Sunday evening, when an angry mob violently assaulted members of the public with bamboo poles in an underground railway station, while the police appeared to turn a blind eye.

There is no shortage of phone video footage from Yuen Long station on social media. It shows terrified passengers standing in an open train carriage, trying to defend themselves with umbrellas, as violent thugs in white T-shirts hurl abuse and attempt to beat them with sticks and poles. More than 40 people were admitted to hospital. One unconfirmed report indicates a pregnant woman was beaten to the ground and one male passenger is still in a critical medical condition.

The mob, thought to have affiliation with organised crime (Triads) were targeting protestors against the controversial extradition bill but ended up randomly attacked any passengers wearing black (the traditional colour for protestors) and, apparently, anyone they didn’t like the look of.

There was human blood shed on the polished marble floor of a major public transport hub and it’s still hard for many locals to digest these events. This is the safest city in the world, or at least it was, and though no one in Hong Kong makes predictions anymore, many fear there is worse to come.

On Thursday, the police refused consent for the Reclaim Yuen Long march but no one thinks this will have much impact on the numbers of demonstrators attending. Since officers failed to turn up for more than 30 minutes and then seemed very reluctant to make arrests in Yuen Long last weekend, they are struggling to retain public trust.

They have been accused of colluding with the Triads and the force once dubbed “Asia’s finest” is now distrusted by most and hated by many. Instead of a demonstration, posters on social media are now promoting Yuen Long shopping trips and even Yuen Long mass-prayer meetings but everyone knows what they really mean.

I have only been to Yuen Long twice before, and on both occasions it was only because I caught a bus going in the wrong direction. It’s a tough and utilitarian new town of some 150,000 people in the northwest of Hong Kong’s New Territories which some locals refer to as the wild west. For several days this week, the town was in shutdown with mobs prowling the streets like a dystopian scene from 1970s Haiti.

Anger, confrontation and polarisation has been bubbling away for years but this latest bout of civil disobedience was triggered by the government’s attempt to introduce the extradition bill. This unpopular measure, since declared “dead” by the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, offered the chilling prospect of political dissidents being extradited to face the arbitrary criminal justice system in mainland China.

The broader motivation behind this “hard hat revolution” (named after the headgear protestors have taken to wearing) can be traced back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement and beyond. There is bitter resentment of what many see as the erosion of Hong Kong’s much cherished liberal values, government collusion with big business and Beijing, as well as a more general anxiety that the city’s unique identity is under threat.

That resentment has left us locked in a battle of tear gas, rubber bullets, blood and random mob attacks with bamboo poles. It’s not civil war yet but it is spinning out of control at an alarming rate. There is open discussion about when Beijing might dispatch the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to restore order and send tanks to roll past the designer boutiques of the city. The government has been quick to deny this is an option.

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Carrie Lam’s political administration is running on empty in terms of credibility or legitimacy. Propped up by Beijing, by corporate elites and now it seems, by organised crime syndicates. They remain completely impervious to the demands of ordinary people. When police claimed to have found bomb-making equipment at premises rented to pro-independence political groups, the scepticism was immediate.

The young Hongkongers I talk to are not stereotypical hard-bitten agitators but they are determined, idealistic and desperate. Most seem highly vulnerable and any skills in the art of street protest were gained via their mobile phones in air-conditioned shopping malls, not paramilitary desert training camps.

One young local activist who will be reporting on the Yuen Long protests for her university magazine, lent me her spare hard hat for Saturday. This quiet 22-year-old student of diminutive build has been already been tear gassed twice. She insists on writing "press" in Chinese characters on the side of my hard hat and warns me to take care.

No one knows what will happen next. It feels like a revolution but it also feels like a pending catastrophe. No one is predicting a happy ending.

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