Hong Kong authorities declared their ransacked halls of government “a big crime scene” Tuesday, as they began the process of investigating and repairing the damage caused by Monday’s protests. But for the city’s pro-democracy movement, the response to Monday’s unprecedented storming of the government headquarters looks a lot messier.
The actions of a splinter group of unarmed pro-democracy protesters in occupying the Legislative Council (LegCo) building — where they spray-painted anti-Chinese slogans, tore down politicians’ portraits, and even raised a British colonial-era flag — has divided the public and taken the protests into unchartered waters.
Now, the popular movement, which has mounted the most direct challenge to Chinese rule in the city since the handover of the former British colony in 1997, must weather internal divisions and public criticism as it prepares for Beijing's brutal backlash.
“People are waiting with bated breath to see what Beijing will do,” Emily Lau, the former head of the city’s largest pro-democracy party, told VICE News. “I certainly hope that the Chinese government will not have a very harsh crackdown. This is Hong Kong, this is not Tiananmen Square.”
Like many establishment pro-democrats, Lau supported the protesters, but not the actions of those who stormed LegCo — an act that many in the order-loving city viewed as a step too far and ultimately played into the hands of Beijing. She said the potential response from Beijing was hanging heavily over the city and pointed to the 6,000-strong garrison the Chinese Army keeps in the financial district.
“What I say to the small minority who attacked LegCo is: Can you be more violent than the police? Can you be more violent than the People’s Liberation Army, whose barracks is right next door?” said Lau.
Few genuinely expect Beijing, with the world’s media watching, to roll its tanks through Hong Kong’s streets of glittering skyscrapers any time soon. But activists and analysts alike are predicting a hardline political response to what amounted to Hong Kong’s most direct challenge to Beijing’s rule.
“Can you be more violent than the police? Can you be more violent than the People’s Liberation Army, whose barracks is right next door?”
“What happened yesterday would have truly alarmed them,” Steve Tsang, director of London’s SOAS China Institute, told VICE News. He anticipated China was now weighing a plan to take more direct control of the governance of Hong Kong, if the city’s leadership fails to swiftly bring the protests under control. “A more liberal response is not in the genetic pool of the CCP.”
Tom Grundy, founder of crowdfunded media outlet Hong Kong Free Press, tweeted that the coming crackdown “may be worse than post-2014,” predicting that China would attempt to justify the clampdown on pro-democratic forces in the name of “public safety” and “national security.”
The storming of the government complex has already drawn fury from Beijing, which rules the former British colony under a “one country, two systems” policy. The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, its main arm in the city, called the occupation “shocking, heart-breaking and angering,” adding that it was “totally intolerable.” A separate statement by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council labelled the protest “a blatant challenge to the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula.”
Others expect Beijing to seize on Monday’s violence as a pretext tighten its grip on the city’s governance and further clamp down on protests.
The united public front against a controversial extradition law — that had twice drawn more than a million people into the streets — had been compromised, said Tsang. He called the storming of LegCo a major miscalculation.
“It divides the people in Hong Kong and thus weakens the previous clarion call on Carrie Lam to withdraw the bills and resign,” he said.
No clear new direction emerged from the city’s protest movement Tuesday. Instead, figures within the leaderless movement took to the internet to try to process the scenes at LegCo.
Some expressed the view that the hardliners had blundered by falling for a deliberate police trap in storming the building. “The strangest thing was, police were there all along in the morning, confronting the protestors and standing guard inside LegCo. Suddenly they all disappeared late afternoon, leaving an empty LegCo wide open for the protestors to enter. Empty fort strategy much?” democracy activist Denise Ho said on Twitter.
Joshua Wong, a high-profile student activist who was previously jailed for his role in the umbrella movement, acknowledged the public unease with the hardliners’ actions, but stressed they were non-violent and had exhausted all other means to force the government to change course. “They wanted to make the regime hear Hong Kongers’ voice, and they had no other option. WE ALREADY TRIED EVERYTHING ELSE,” he tweeted. Like others, he stressed the good behavior of those who had occupied the building.
He said the course of the protests so far had “already defied the expectations of not just every commentator and scholar but also myself as an activist. I would be foolish to try to predict what is next.” Still, he vowed to fight on.
That hardened resolve is widely shared throughout the movement, suggesting this standoff is far from over. Tsang said he expects the situation will only worsen if Beijing tightens its grip on the city. “(It) will inflame opinions even more, and put Hong Kong into an escalatory spiral.”
Cover: Police officers with protective gear clear protesters from the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, during the early hours of Tuesday, July 2, 2019. Hundreds of protesters in Hong Kong swarmed into the legislature's main building Monday night, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray-painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber as frustration over a lack of response from the administration to opposition demands boiled over. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)