Tear Gas On the Streets of Hong Kong
On Tuesday night, a college student named Kathy Tang stood on what would normally be a clogged central highway in Hong Kong, asking fellow protesters if they were equipped with this week’s must-have accessory.
“Do you need an umbrella?” she asked. Amid the mass movement to bring democracy to a city under Chinese rule, the eighteen-year-old student at the Hong Kong Design Institute had assumed the task of guarding protesters against rain, tear gas, and heatstroke. She fanned the crowd with a large piece of cardboard with the word “recycle” written in Chinese characters, as a friend spritzed water on their heads. The effect was delightful. The quest for suffrage need not be sweaty.
“The government will not respond to us,” Tang said. “Maybe they’ll use their force, their tear gas again.” Standing beside her, Benny Liu, also eighteen, said that the students could not retreat. “We need to fight! If there’s some worse situation, they will call in the Chinese Army. If they call in the Chinese Army, then there will be”—he lowered his voice—“a 6/4.”
With tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents now participating in the protest, which had begun in earnest on Friday, after a planned week-long university boycott triggered a citywide student strike, Liu was voicing a worry I’d rarely heard expressed among the students: What was to stop the Chinese government from deploying a force similar to the one used against students on 6/4—which is common parlance for June 4, 1989? Each year Hong Kong holds the world’s biggest commemoration for the hundreds of demonstrators who died in Tiananmen Square. Liu pointed to the grim building that loomed over our heads, which housed the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. “The door is open,” he said, “but they don’t listen to us.”
“Stay overnight with us!” Tang said, her voice rising with glee.
The idea behind Hong Kong’s Occupy movement (known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, or Occupy Central)—to compel democratic change by flooding the central business district with demonstrators—was long considered the pipe dream of flakes and wonks. One pro-democracy lawmaker, who goes by the name Long Hair, is better known for his demonstrative tactics than for the cogency of his arguments. Other activists had buried their arguments in academic papers about constitutionalism in China.
In the first days of the protests, city officials made three errors. First, they arrested a slender seventeen-year-old university freshman named Joshua Wong and held him for two nights. Wong had rallied students in 2012 to successfully protest the use of a Communism-infused curriculum in public schools. (He and another student activist in Hong Kong were the subject of a recent documentary called “Lessons in Dissent.”) Then, police choked off the bridges and sidewalks that led to the government area in an attempt to prevent more protesters from joining. This prompted thousands of people to scale the barriers along Connaught Road, one of Hong Kong’s major transportation arteries, halting cars and buses. Then came the third mistake: someone—it’s still unclear who—gave the order for police to fire chemicals into the crowd.
I was there during three of the first attacks. On Sunday afternoon, outside of the Admiralty subway station, a river of people were gathered under the bright sun. Most of us were on the roadway, unable to see the helmeted officers assembled before the park that led to the legislative chambers. The force faced the front line of protesters, some of whom were clutching inverted umbrellas. Toward the rear we heard yelling, and students at the back formed a brigade, passing water bottles, saline solution, paper towels, and more umbrellas. The kids at the front had been tear gassed.
“Oh my God, this is pretty fucking crazy!” shouted Kayi Kwok, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University. She had hoisted herself onto a concrete barrier and was filming the scene with her smartphone. “What kind of government is this?” A middle-aged man ran up to me. “It’s coming! Tell the whole world, look what they’re doing to us!” Many on the street coated their arms in plastic wrap and donned hygienic masks or wrapped towels around their mouths. Those who didn’t have silicone safety masks unspooled cellophane around their faces and eyeglasses.
The crowd trafficked in rumors. The cops would squeeze us from both sides. They would attack us with rubber bullets. Tanks would roll in. A few students showed images from Facebook of a lone tank moving down an anonymous highway. A few minutes after sundown, someone shouted, “Riot police!”
A hundred or so people darted up the highway’s westbound flyover and peered over the railing. A paramilitary unit marched in: black boots, olive jumpsuits, plexiglass helmets, and tear-gas guns. The troops halted on the lower access road, a dozen yards from our faces. One of the protesters must have seen a nod or the twitch of a hand, a silent order. We flung ourselves away from the railing. I tripped, and a college student offered me his hand.
We lurched up the two-lane road, our vision hampered by the sweat under our safety masks. Then the sounds came—pop, pop, pop. Acrid smoke filled the air. We gasped and coughed, staggering up the roadway. We heard the sounds again, then again. Turning, we saw plumes fall on the larger crowd on the main highway and heard screams as people tried to scramble over concrete barriers, away from the gas.
At the railing, after the smoke cleared, John Meldrum, a resident of more than two decades, recovered quickly. The decision to use force, he said, was cruel but effective. “Hong Kong people felt they didn’t have a voice under the British,” he said as more smoke plumes arced into the crowd below. “They don’t have a voice under their own people. And now they don’t have a voice under China.”
That night, the police returned and hit protesters with more tear gas. In a press conference the next day, police officials disclosed that eighty-seven rounds had been deployed.
As China’s National Day, on October 1st, approached, secondary-school students joined the strike, as did the city’s largest teachers’ union. Employees at many companies walked off their jobs, and sister protests sprung up in the Causeway Bay commercial district and a working-class area called Mong Kok. More adults streamed into Admiralty district—bankers, importers, real-estate salesmen, teachers. Occupy Central with Love and Peace called for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to resign. Donations to the protest arrived by cart, motorcycle, and truck, each load greeted with applause. It became impossible to take ten steps on Connaught without a college student pushing crackers, water, safety masks, or tissues on you. Medical students and nurses manned ad-hoc MASH units, equipped with hundreds of bottles of saline to irrigate burned eyes.
The protests developed a certain rhythm. By day, the streets filled with younger students, housewives, and bemused office workers. After five, younger workers, artists, and college students packed the area, gossiping among clusters of friends.
Tensions were highest before dawn, particularly early on Tuesday. After 2 A.M., word began to circulate through the crowd in the Admiralty that police had been seen in nearby Wanchai. On cue, thousands of people began wrapping their arms and faces in cellophane and tightening disposable particle masks around their noses and mouths. The area became very quiet. And then we sat, waiting, like extras in a bad sci-fi movie: “Night of the Plastic People.”
Many dozed off at around 4 A.M., so I left and wandered onto an east–west corridor, Queensway, a tree-shaded thoroughfare lined with corporate offices. Teams of students were pushing metal barriers into intersections, arranging them in a lattice pattern and securing them with plastic ties. They had managed to block off nearly every intersection in the main business district. Occupy Central had found a way to truly clog the heart of the city, without needing bodies at each spot.
A twenty-six-year-old, Hong Kong–born physician named Jake Chan stood by, wearing scrubs and two surgical masks, scanning the street appreciatively. He worked at a hospital on the mainland. His sister had been gassed on Sunday, and he said that he felt compelled to lend his skills to help the students. His boss had given him permission to take leave. He was partway through a twelve-hour shift at a nearby medical tent.
“It’s brilliant,” he said, watching the students push barriers in place. He feared that China would act, though, and harshly. “I think of Tiananmen,” he said. And so, he added, did the students: “They know what they’re doing—the inferences and the consequences.”