HONG KONG—“You have bullets. I have the right to vote.”
Those were words found on banners and posters hoisted during peaceful demonstrations when one million, then two million people marched toward the government headquarters here in June. The message was simple: If you’re fighting for democracy, don’t forget to register to vote, and be sure to show up when it’s time.
But before the ballots, the bullets have started flying. A trigger-happy and ill-trained police force is constantly itching for a skirmish, this week placing a shot point-blank into a young man's chest. And the populace continues looking for ways to fight back, while keeping in mind that the big battle should still be at the voting booth.
In the rest of China, there is no real democracy, but the terms by which the British signed over their former colony to Beijing 20 years ago made this a very special place, where the central government was part of the same country, but under a different system—one that is designed to continually undergo democratic reforms.
Hong Kongers want to keep it that way, and have resorted to measures as innovative as they are desperate.
On Tuesday, riot police surrounded a university campus only to face flaming arrows and walls of fire, with those on the front lines supported by ordinary citizens who replenish necessary supplies.
Two days later, an elderly street cleaner died due to injuries sustained when he was hit during clashes.
Months of street-level resistance have been calculated by the protesters to translate into some degree of political ownership and Hong Kong will soon have the opportunity to exercise its right to vote—or will it?
District elections, where more than 1,100 candidates are running for 458 seats, are set for Nov. 24.
But the city’s pro-Beijing politicians, along with Chinese state-run media, have called for cleared streets and “a return to peace” as prerequisites for district elections. In particular, Global Times threatened on Wednesday that Beijing may mobilize its Armed Police Force and People’s Liberation Army in what it calls “direct intervention.” The outlet’s chief editor has characterized the “black bloc” at the vanguard of the protests and its supporters in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp as “ISIS-like terrorists.” Hong Kongers, however, see them as crucial figures in their quest to counter or even shake off the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in local governance.
The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute has been consistently polling to monitor support levels for the Hong Kong government, the police force, and the black bloc movement. As of mid-October, over 70 percent of those polled wanted the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to resign, while more than 80 percent agree that the city should have universal suffrage. (At present, Hong Kongers can vote for members of their legislative and district councils, but Beijing vets all candidates for the city’s top political leadership.)
More tellingly, since June, when the massive anti-government protests kicked off, there has been a shrinking portion of people who identify as politically neutral, and a growing population that consider themselves to be localist or part of the democratic camp.
And this is the statistic that the establishment worries about the most: support for Carrie Lam is at a mere 11 percent. Proximity to her could prove to be the downfall of some candidates running in this month’s district elections.
Last week, China Daily said in a report that “the wish for Western-style liberal democracy is a malignant virus that infects places with weakened ideological immune systems.” Translation: Beijing demands an ideological cleansing in Hong Kong. If the Chinese Communist Party had its way, democratic elections here, however limited they may be under the current system, would be null and void.
The situation deteriorated further after the death last week of Alex Chow, a 22-year-old man who sustained heavy injuries after falling from the third floor of a parking lot near a location where police were dispersing crowds. They subsequently faced allegations that they blocked an ambulance from reaching Chow. He was in critical condition for days and died of cardiac arrest.
If the rage felt by Hong Kongers in the last few months was infectious, then the grief felt after Chow died was downright viral. Impromptu memorials spread across Hong Kong. A note left by Chow’s father at the parking lot where he fell simply read, “My child, your duty is over. Rest in peace. I am proud of you.”
Vigils were held all over the city, and seething beneath the sorrow was outrage. One police officer was recorded on video saying he would pop Champagne to celebrate Chow’s death. Another shouted to a crowd, “Thank you for coming out to be shot by us!”
While street-level actions like traffic disruptions and clashes with police have been conducted chiefly by high school and university students, a vast network of medical professionals, drivers, logistics professionals, lawyers, graphic designers, printers, pastors, and other volunteers provide various forms of support for the black bloc—ferrying protesters to safety, producing infographics and banners and posters, offering pro bono legal aid, and more.
That assistance materialized in a crucial way when the Chinese University of Hong Kong—nicknamed “Rioters U” by pro-establishment figures—came under siege.
Early on Tuesday morning, police amassed on its outskirts, then stormed the campus to make arrests. Many students, in full black and equipped with respirators, were quick to erect barricades with anything they could find—chairs from classrooms, tires, roadblocks, bricks, a car, and more. Lookouts climbed aluminum folding ladders to observe and relay information about police movements. Others prepared for clashes by collecting bows, arrows, javelins from the athletics department. The students filled glass bottles with flammable liquids to make Molotov cocktails. They even built a catapult.
Over at another school, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, riot police dragged off a member of the university’s governing council to beat him up.
Around 8,000 students live on the Chinese University’s campus. After dark, citizens formed human chains to pass supplies to the students. Police arrested some individuals who were attempting to take more toward campus, alleging that they had “stolen goods” in their possession.
By evening, Chinese University’s vice chancellor managed to establish an agreement with the police force’s commanders for the riot police surrounding the campus to cease fire. However, when he approached the riot police to inform them of this development, they launched tear gas at him. Police reinforcements trickled in.
The university fitness center was converted into a first aid station. During a respite, students slept on a running track and grass field.
When asked why police superiors didn’t directly order frontline police to stop their barrage, the vice chancellor said, “They did already, a few times.” To put it plainly, there was a total breakdown in the police force’s chain of command. Attempts by superiors to deescalate the situation were refuted by officers on the ground.
The campus hosts the city’s internet exchange point, where 99 percent of Hong Kong’s web traffic is routed through.
Chinese University has ended its semester early. Kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary schools across the city were closed on Thursday. The University of Hong Kong and several other tertiary education institutions have suspended their classes on campus for the rest of the semester. There are professors who are holding classes in their own homes. Others are using Skype or other online tools to wrap up their courses.
For days in a row, over in Central—the city’s busiest business district, where many multinational corporations and blue chip companies have their Asia Pacific headquarters—office staff, many in business attire, stalled traffic and occupied roads during their lunch breaks, lining up in formation to face off with riot police.
Violence has been mounting across the city. On Monday morning and early afternoon, two black bloc protesters were shot with live rounds; a traffic cop rammed into protesters multiple times with his motorcycle; students on their way to school were stopped, lined up, and searched by police. A person was shot in the eye with a tear gas canister or rubber bullet, public transportation was set on fire or damaged, scuffles broke out between people who hold different political stances. A 57-year-old man who was arguing with protesters at a train station was splashed with a flammable liquid and set on fire; he was hospitalized with second degree burns mainly on his chest and arms.
With that said, it’s important to distinguish the reactions to violent acts committed by protesters and the police force. After the man was set on fire, members of the black bloc and their supporters overwhelmingly condemned the attack and said the individual responsible should at a minimum sit out future street-level engagements. The police, however, doubled down to defend their officer who shot an unarmed protester point blank with no warning.
On Wednesday night, another protester, dressed in full black, was found dead. Like Chow, he fell from a height.
By Thursday morning, students at multiple universities had fortified the entrances to their schools and blocked roads that lead to their campuses. Supplies donated from all over the city streamed in. Notably, Polytechnic University is beside one of the People’s Liberation Army’s barracks in Hong Kong. Baptist University, which has fortifications to hinder police entry, too, is situated next to another PLA facility.
In the past week, altercations between individuals holding different political stances have become common. In some cases, they escalate quickly. On Wednesday, two groups hurled bricks and rocks at each other. One brick struck the head of a 70-year-old man who was hired by the government to clear debris from public areas. He was hospitalized and died on Thursday.
A police spokesperson said on Thursday that university campuses are “just like cancer cells.” Carrie Lam has said previously that those who oppose her governance have “no stake in society.” This week, with renewed backing from Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, she went further to call Hong Kong’s protesters “the enemy of the people,” lifting language used by the most odious dictators and authoritarians in modern history.
On Thursday, as legislators debated how to mitigate the violence that is unfolding in Hong Kong, with pro-Beijing figures laying the blame on university students and their educators, even toying with the idea of passing a “fake news law” like Singapore’s to censor media outlets publishing reports that are unfavorable to the government, office workers in Central occupied roads in the district again—for the fourth consecutive day. Nearby, someone wrote with black spray paint, “We will not forget Alex Chow.”
In this city of more than 7.4 million people, Hong Kong has around 4 million registered voters. If the election isn’t postponed, November 24 will be the first time for Hong Kongers to vote since widespread, decentralized anti-government organization kicked off in June.
Current sentiment is overwhelmingly against Carrie Lam and her supporters despite the black bloc’s increasingly violent tactics, largely because these public officials have consistently voiced support for the police.
This election will be the first step for the black bloc and pro-democracy figures to seize more seats in the government—and more importantly, positions within the 1,200-member body that selects the chief executive.
That is, if the elections happen.