Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power

Hong Kong Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power
Disorganized and divided, the pro-democracy movement is losing steam.
By Suzanne Sataline
December 2, 2014
Foreign Policy

HONG KONG — By 5:00 a.m., the pre-dawn chill of December’s first day had blown in from Victoria Harbour in central Hong Kong and crept onto the sleeping protesters on Lung Wo Road on the northern lip of Hong Kong Island. Some youth nestled their heads on backpacks, while others shivered under metallic blankets that flapped in the breeze. Sitting on the highway median, protester Heman Cheung, 24, shared a cigarette with two other men. His eyelids heavy, he studied the 20 or so police officers guarding the driveway to the city’s government center. He exhaled slowly. “Perhaps it’s a mistake,” said Cheung.

Eight hours earlier, around 9:00 p.m. on Nov. 30, Cheung and a few hundred other young men and women had tried to surround the city’s government headquarters, a desperate ploy in a fight for open democratic elections in a city that many fret is increasingly resigned to Beijing’s dictates. When the tactic didn’t work, protesters surged onto a major transit route, quickly building barricades from plastic pallets, and waited for the police to chase them off, which they did.

It has been like this for just over two months in Hong Kong, a city of gleaming skyscrapers and staggering wealth where protesters are camping in tents on major commercial streets, trying to get residents to join a crusade for open elections within mainland China’s orbit. The protest initially found wide sympathy in Hong Kong, but since then has been steadily losing support as Hong Kong government officials refuse to talk and residents have tired of the inconvenience created by protest occupations. To keep the movement alive, demonstrators have resorted to increasingly brazen, even theatrical, tactics to convince city officials to pay them heed.

But those gambits, too, have failed to achieve the promise of democracy, and the movement has continued to suffer crippling blows over the past several days. On Dec. 1, a court considered an injunction request that could soon level the occupation camp set on a major highway. Later that day, Joshua Wong, the head of student activist movement Scholarism, started a hunger strike, hoping to prod the city’s government to negotiate. On Dec. 2, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group of old-guard democracy advocates, urged students to go home and regroup. All were signs that the two-month-old strike may end in the coming days — perhaps without any concessions from city leaders.

Cheung, a DJ and musician, has been one of several protesters who thinks that the student-led protest has been mismanaged. It had been too tentative and confused, they said, subject to making hasty decisions that crumble from poor planning. The pattern was on display the night of Dec. 1; Cheung said students hadn’t thought about how many people they would need to encircle the government center and hold off the police. And when police quickly cut off walkway access to the complex, the leaders had decided to take Lung Wo, a major east-west transport route that was too vast for the protesters there to hold.

Around 9:00 p.m., two student groups had dispatched supporters to surround government headquarters. Police in riot gear lined up, facing off against teens and young people wearing yellow construction helmets, and clutching wooden and cardboard shields, even a wok with arm straps. After a clattering of batons on umbrellas, raised to shield them from pepper spray, several demonstrators were helped away, clutching bloodied heads. One man hoisted a protester’s slack body over his shoulder.

Volunteer medics swaddled one young man’s head in gauze. The 20-year-old City University student, Kim Ng, said a police officer had pushed aside his black helmet and pounded his skull repeatedly, leaving him with a two-inch gash. “The officers are out of control,” said medic Max Choi, a 31-year-old EMT who said he had been beaten on the neck one night.

A few minutes after 10:00 p.m., a river of protesters streamed onto Lung Wo Road. The move had been tried several times before without success. Students soon erected quick versions of their trademark barricades of metal gates, pallets, and lots of plastic ties. Police hoisted warning signs and asked the students not to swear. “Fuck you!” the crowd cried.

The bravado crumpled by 2:30 a.m. Firing pepper spray, police pushed the crowd into Tamar Park, a speck of green along Victoria Harbour. A few of the 200 protesters who remained hurled bottles as they ran. Blood dribbled down the face of one police superintendent. Cornered by two police cordons, some demonstrators urged the police to join them. “When Hong Kong falls, you will suffer, too,” one man cried. Another called out, “How can you trust the Communists?” and, “You can’t stop us all.”

Police urged the crowd to leave. A few did. The rest lined up along the road as a hesitant rain began. Protesters hoisted umbrellas, shouting, “We want universal suffrage.” Tang Wing-Yu, 20, led the cheer. “Tonight we need to do something. We need to fight,” she said. Around 3:20, students amassed on the road’s eastern end. In minutes, about 200 remaining agitators once again flowed onto the road. The more experienced rebels watched warily, as officers retreated into nearby buses, where they would nap and ready themselves.

As dawn approached, Cheung waited for defeat. “We’re going to lose the road again and about 20 people will be arrested and more people will be beaten,” Cheung predicted. He spoke with a faint French accent that he attributed to hanging out with friends from that country. He learned about outwitting the police, and anticipating their responses, from time spent at the Umbrella Movement’s sister campsite in Mong Kok, where activists sparred several times with officers. Police had cleared that protester area in the bustling commercial hub days earlier, touching off violent standoffs with police. Cheung pursed his lips and exhaled. “It’s police setting a trap,’’ he decided. “We didn’t occupy [the road] at all. We’re just waiting to get arrested.”

Cheung has a deep interest in international politics — he calls it a hobby — and lately he’s been following the Catalan independence push. He said he didn’t expect to enlist in the “whole revolution” movement in Hong Kong. He thought he’d join for a few hours on Sept. 28, the day police lobbed tear gas canisters at the crowd. “Then I saw the students staying with their books. And I felt sort of responsible to stay longer.” Soon he was helping to manage protest supplies at a camp station.

Cheung listened when a fellow protester insisted that if the citizens didn’t fight now, it would be their last chance. Cheung didn’t agree. “A revolution takes 30 years,” he said. “We are just the first generation. It’s like an education for the next generation.”

A little before 5:00 a.m., Cheung grabbed his bullhorn to issue instructions to the crowd. “Even if you’re beaten, I hope you will stay to the last moment,” he told the crowd.

Privately, Cheung sounded less confident. Through the night he had stayed in touch with 17 teammates through an ear bud and walkie-talkie that he kept hidden in his jean jacket. Some of the crew had done some reconnaissance in other neighborhoods and found large police contingents that would quickly shut down any new encampments. Protesters needed to grab small bits of territory and hold them, Cheung said. They hadn’t learned from Oct. 16, he said, when youth made roadblocks from culvert covers, and a huge battery of officers swooped in, chasing down and beating people. Trying to take Lung Wo and the tunnel beneath the park had been a “stupid decision,” he said. “We don’t have the human resources to occupy so much,’’ he said. “Yet people keep trying to expand.” The leaderless movement, he said, “is making this into chaos.”

Still, there he was on roadway’s median before dawn, his voice thin from fatigue, his thin frame aching, about to lead young protesters, many of them students, against men with military training wielding plexiglass shields and pepper spray. Cheung smiled weakly. “You got to have so-called experienced people,’’ he said. “We’re trying to organize, but obviously we don’t have enough people.” He stopped and corrected himself. “We tried. I’m still trying.”

Police regrouped at 6:50 that morning. Dozens of officers lined up on the government drive near the road, wearing riot helmets, shields, and thick gloves. The protesters donned their donated construction helmets, surgical masks, and silicone goggles. One protester was ready to head to work, dressed in a suit and dress shirt. In minutes police with batons barreled out of the government center driveway, encircling the protesters from behind, chasing them off the road, through a park, and past government offices. Many stragglers were clubbed.

Officers pushed them into the encampment on Harcourt Road, storming a quickly erected barricade. Soon, student leaders said what many protesters knew: The Lung Wo operation had been a terrible mistake.

Cheung emerged from the crowd, his skin pale. “We have the right to protest,” he said, staring at the shaken students. The government, he said, had shredded any last thread of a relationship with her people, he said. “Somehow, we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes,” he said. “I can’t promise this is a peaceful revolution anymore.’’

Hong Kong Protests Turn Violent

Hong Kong Showdown

Pro-democracy protests enter a nasty new phase following a violent pre-dawn police raid.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 15, 2014
Foreign Policy

The city’s youth were at it again. On the night of Oct. 15, hundreds of young democracy protesters converged on Lung Wo Road near the government center, prepared for what they hoped was the next step in bringing democracy to the Chinese territory. First, they needed heavy objects.

The protest known as the Umbrella Movement — a student-led effort to ensure free and open elections for Hong Kong’s head of government in 2017 — had suffered setbacks of late. After nearly three weeks of occupying the city’s business core, the number of people taking part had shrunk. Government officials had refused to discuss changes to an elections plan that will let Beijing vet the city’s next leader, then canceled all talks with student leaders on Oct 12. On Oct. 14, it took police less than an hour to level the protesters’ dramatic barricades of bamboo, wood and concrete on Queensway, a commercial hub, returning the street to vehicles. So some of the remaining protesters decided to grab the government’s attention by taking a roadway near the government chief executive’s office.

At the eastern end of Lung Wo, a hundred or so protesters fashioned a new barricade in a manner fast becoming their signature — a matrix of steel barriers, heavy plastic gates, and wood. Then someone discovered that culverts on both sides of Lung Wo’s highway were covered with thick blocks of roughly 18 square inches — blocks that most anyone could lift. Protesters lay row after row of the slabs on the highway. Dozens of helpers, some fresh from work, knelt on the tarmac and joined the blocks with plastic ties. Sweat stained their dress shirts.

“It’s like the China Great Wall!” said Chester, a 21-year-old, slightly mangling his English. With all the photographers snapping pictures, many of the young people in the tunnel wore surgical masks and asked that their surnames be withheld to prevent future problems with police.  Around the fourth row of blocks, a group of about 15 youth, dust clinging to their clothes, debated if the slabs should be set upright, or laid down. Some protesters acknowledged that they could not fend off police forever. Terence Lau, a 26-year-old assistant engineer, observed the debate. “The government,” he said, “is crazier than us.”

Around two o’clock, a cry arose from the crowd. “Police!” people shouted. The trill of whistles pierced the air. The protesters raced from the tunnel, donning safety goggles and masks. After 10 minutes, a sea of bobbing blue lights drew closer from the road’s western end. Word raced through the crowd. More police were coming from the east. And a cluster of white lights emerged from the walkway along Victoria Harbour. None had helmets — a good sign, I thought. That meant no tear gas. Hundreds of officers, with round riot shields, began pushing the crowd backwards, toward the tunnel. Another contingent pushed protesters in the other direction. Suddenly, the officers coming from the shore amassed a few feet from a group of us in Tamar Park, a small patch of lawn and trees atop the highway tunnel. The officers addressed the crowd over a bullhorn.

“They say we are here illegally,” said Lock Cheung, a freelance videographer. “Police say if they don’t leave, they will use spray.” The crowd hissed. “Gangsters!” Cheung urged us to be careful. The police, he said, “don’t follow any rules anymore.”

In minutes, police were several feet from us, yelling and shining flashlights in our faces. Along with Cheung and David Feith, a Wall Street Journal writer, I took off. The incessant, unintelligible screech of a female officer’s voice filled the air.

The line of officers ran toward us, but they were spread out along the water. Somehow, they tramped past me. I was behind the police cordon and I heard David calling to me: “Get out of there.” A male cop pushed me, and then a female officer hurled me toward some trees. I tore through bushes, past clumps of officers standing over people prone on the ground. That’s when I realized what the female voice had been saying: “This is a police line. Do not cross.”

I ran until I reached a metal barrier, the edge of a highway construction site. I turned to face the officers, holding my press badge high. I could see nothing but the flashlight beams. “Tell me where to go. I’m a reporter! I’m not crossing your fucking line.” Piercing cries distracted the cops. A few dozen feet away, a tall man was restraining a skinny young man in a teal sweatshirt and shorts, who was clearly cursing. A male officer grabbed him by the shoulder and rammed him to the ground. The officers pounced on him, binding his hands with plastic ties. I saw another set of officers sitting on top of someone else.

Running along the metal wall, I encountered a burly man with black curly hair and a beard. His face was bright red and his eyes were clamped shut. He said his name was Daniel, he was from New York, and that he’d been videotaping when a cop hit him with pepper spray. I took hold of his wire rim glasses, coated in orange goo. With two other men, we led Daniel around the fencing and police ordered us to head back toward the government complex. There the cops had pushed hundreds of protesters who were jammed between some temporary metal structures and the large network of barricades that they had created. Some young people, in their panic were climbing over the road blocks. In the mob, I let go of Daniel’s arm and lost him.

The police had stop screaming and the crowd hurried through a path and into the driveway of the office of the Chief Executive. The police had succeeded; they had pushed the protesters off Lung Wo Road and retaken the area. Soon cars and taxis buzzed past.

Stunned and exhausted, the protesters lay in heaps on the curbs and walkways. Many fell asleep. Several people mentioned seeing people kicked and beaten with fists and batons. The protesters shared their videos showing police shoving their riot shields into people’s chests. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Hong Kong,” said Adrian Gauci, who is 22. “People were just holding umbrellas and they were just hitting them.”

On Lung Wo, a new shift of police officers marched in, the boots crunching the plastic ties littering the street. “They’re like triad members,” said Cheung, the videographer I had met in the park, referring to Hong Kong criminal gangs. “We take their territory and they have to take their territory back. It’s like the 80s or 90s Hong Kong gangster movies.”

Hours later, we would all see the video: A local television crew captured police leading a man to a secluded corner where officers take turns kicking him, as another cop stands guard. A lawyer and colleagues later identified the man as Ken Tsang, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party. In all, 45 people were arrested early Wednesday, and a team of pro-democracy lawyers told the media that five or six of those collared complained that police had punched or hit them.

Protest participants and organizers have fretted in the last two weeks that the democracy movement was fizzling, its fans fracturing without clear leadership. Some of the public, inconvenienced by blocked roads, have slammed protester actions, with some thugs attacking demonstrators sitting at major crossroads. The students pulled back from earlier demands, such as the resignation of C.Y. Leung, and focused on election rules to let the public nominate chief executive candidates — a request that Beijing has flatly rejected. Despite this, the city has been unable to end the protesters’ quixotic crusade. Sit-ins are still going on at three smaller sites.

Wednesday morning, the police action may have revived the democracy movement’s solidarity. Thousands of people came to Harcourt Road in Admiralty, and student leader Joshua Wong described the force as “thugs.” The crowd cheered.

The Barricades of Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Are Digging In

Pro-democracy demonstrators are fortifying barricades with wood, bamboo, even cement.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 13, 2014
Foreign Policy

Outside of the Admiralty subway station in downtown Hong Kong, about 30 young people sat on the pavement near a large and dusty pile of plaster, plasterboard, and wood, which someone had scrounged from an office renovation nearby. Wearing cotton gloves and safety masks, the young men and women pulled nails from thin slats. Some used bricks to nudge the iron from the wood. The dust rose and the sound glanced off steel beams overhead. The building of new barricades had begun.

Pro-democracy protesters who call themselves the “umbrella movement” took some hard blows on Oct. 13. Two weeks after commandeering a highway and part of three shopping districts, bringing a good deal of commerce and traffic in Hong Kong to a halt, student leaders offered a deal to the city. They would allow cars into the Admiralty area in downtown Hong Kong if the city would let protesters meet in Civic Square, near the government headquarters.

Instead, the city continued to insist that the protesters, who are demanding universal suffrage in the Chinese territory and the ouster of the city’s head of government, C.Y. Leung, were breaking the law. Police arrived at Admiralty early on the morning of Oct. 13, cutting plastic ties and removing metal police barriers that students had strung together. Hours later, dozens of thugs arrived and started pushing the metal gates, as well as some protesters. Area office workers watched from nearby bridges, some filming the melee. A crane rolled to the scene and scooped up metal barriers.

But far from being cowed, students soon began re-building their barricades out of anything else they could find.

Instead of abandoning their posts, protesters are once again digging in.

With the nails removed, the youth piled the wood onto a handcart. Two young men wheeled it past a new barricade — one with pieces of wood interlaced with metal and large swaths of beige carpet fastened over the contraption. The men zoomed out to Queensway, a wide road where a crowd of about 200 had gathered. A trellis of bamboo scaffolding jutted skyward, rising from a heap of metal and plastic street barriers topped with wood slats and metal rods, knotted with plastic wrap, steel wire, and bundles of plastic ties. The bamboo rods reached higher than a nearby pedestrian bridge, the ends sawed off to make them sharp. Every head was tipped upward, toward two men who balanced on bamboo scaffolding while knotting a series of plastic ties.

The crowd burst into applause. “This is Hong Kong! They will never beat us!” cried Chris Wong, 26, a healthcare worker. A New Yorker in his 20s named Joe stepped up to the barrier, narrating the scene into his cell phone pressed to his ear. “It’s like Les Mis,” he told the caller.

Innana Chow jumped deftly from a horizontal bamboo pole to the street. A compact man with cat-like grace, he was one of five scaffolding workers there Monday night, none of whom knew the others. But he said they had similar goals. “I want to build something to protect the students,” said Chow, who is 25.

At the base, a team of about 30 construction workers — deeply tanned, with long, lithe muscles — re-checked the plastic ties at the barricade’s base. They don’t work together, but all are friends on Facebook in a group started by construction worker Kruzo Cheuck as a way to socialize. Cheuck said the workers didn’t like that their trade association leaders had blamed the student movement for a recent lack of work. Construction jobs had slowed, and 2,000 workers have been idle, through no fault of the protesters, he said. “We came because we think we are being used,” said worker Manson Lau.

Instead, the workers taught the youth how most anything could be used to block vehicles and protect their turf. Metal bars were joined with chains or wads of twist ties slathered in glue and swaddled in plastic wrap — to make it impossible for the police to simply cut them free. Bamboo poles, brought by the workers, were in abundance. At one barricade, about 20 rods affixed to the metal barriers jut straight out like swords. The ends were sheathed in plastic wrap or bottles, to prevent passersby from injury.

When the crew ran short of metal structures at the east end of Queensway, a central tram route, the team created a matrix of bamboo rods that threaded through trash bins. Wet cement affixed the contraption to the pavement. About 150 feet away, eight police officers stood watching. “We should get the ‘Occupy Best Design of the Year’ award,” exclaimed Max Lee, a 28-year-old environmental consultant. “I don’t think a tank can get in,” said friend Desmond Wai, 30, an assistant manager at a fashion company.

Around one o’clock in the morning, a crew of young workers readied their final barrier of the night — wall after wall of bamboo, metal, and plastic and wood pallets. Workers had dragged large planters from elsewhere to the inside of the maze.

I asked a young man with a skull and bones neckerchief over his mouth if he knew the designer. “I’m pretty sure it’s me,” said Jason Yim. The 23-year-old sound engineer said he was in Mong Kok on Oct. 5 when crowds who opposed the democracy protesters beat up student occupiers in the busy shopping district, leading to 19 arrests. Police said eight suspects had links to the city’s triad underworld. The occupiers, some who sleep at the sites all night, needed to ensure the gangs wouldn’t return.

Thinking of how to shore up roadblocks, Yim recalled a favorite childhood pastime. “I said, ‘why don’t we put it together like Legos?'” Most of the barricades have held in Mong Kok and they will hold in Admiralty, he said — should the government, the police, or the triads return. “I’m pretty sure it’s wisely designed.”