Once well-functioning society now struggles with day-to-day living
HONG KONG — Hong Kong this week witnessed the fiercest violence since the anti-government demonstrations began, as university campuses became flash points for clashes between protesters and the police.
A student from the University of Hong Kong who joined others at the Chinese University of Hong Kong — where protesters have barricaded the sprawling campus — was confident their strategy was working. The student, who only gave the name Thomas, said the plan “to win” is to “paralyze the economy, stop everything, stop people going to school, stop people going to work, paralyze the society.”
Thomas conceded this was “selfish” but said, “We tried the peaceful way in the beginning, but no result — we have to escalate.”
With the protests now in their sixth month, China’s official media and other observers are openly questioning whether Hong Kong is sliding toward anarchy.
A recent editorial in the state-run China Daily, under the headline “HK must not be ruled by anarchy,” said that protesters were “adopting terror tactics” and warned that “more stringent measures” were needed to control the situation. Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, last month on CNBC described the scene in Hong Kong as “destructive anarchy.”
Authorities in Hong Kong also are using strong language to characterize the demonstrations. “Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” a senior police official said at a news conference on Tuesday, adding that Hong Kong’s rule of law was nearing a “total collapse.”
On Thursday, another senior police official said that CUHK had become a weapons factory for petrol bombs, catapults, and bows and arrows. “Their acts are another step closer to terrorism,” the official said.
The daily operations of this once well-functioning society are certainly struggling. Residents who had prided themselves on the city’s peaceful reputation were stunned this week by video footage showing an officer shooting a protester at close range and a China supporter being set on fire. Both victims remain hospitalized.
In another incident captured on video this week, a 70-year-old man died after being hit in the head with a brick during a clash between two groups. It was the second death directly attributed to the demonstrations, following the death of a 22-year-old university student who died last week from head injuries suffered in a fall from a parking garage where police had fired tear gas.
Riot police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and other means to subdue protesters, who have hurled Molotov cocktails, set fires, vandalized train stations, disrupted rail services and blocked roads.
Some office employees stay home or leave work early to avoid commute delays. Medical and social welfare services have been affected, and all classes from kindergarten to secondary school have been suspended until Sunday. Business presentations, arts performances and industry events have been canceled or indefinitely postponed.
CUHK this week announced an abrupt end to the current semester, while other universities said they would move all classes online for the rest of the term.
There is widespread speculation that the government could cancel or postpone this month’s local elections, and a report on Twitter from China’s state-run Global Times — later deleted by the top editor for being “not sufficient” — said the Hong Kong government was expected to announce a curfew.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a target of criticism from both pro-establishment and pro-democracy politicians in the lawmaking Legislative Council, appears increasingly isolated.
Felix Chung, leader of the pro-business and pro-Beijing Liberal Party, on Thursday criticized the Lam government’s efforts to end the unrest, saying there was no indication it had a viable plan.
The lawmaker told public broadcaster RTHK that the government’s recent actions made it appear it wanted to cancel the elections, but he said that would only inflame tensions. “This is not acceptable at all,” he said. “I mean, it seems that the government is pretty useless in this situation.”
Another lawmaker, Alvin Yeung of the pro-democracy Civic Party, said that this week’s escalating violence underscores how the government’s credibility has “gone down the drain, together with the police.”
Yeung said the government miscalculated in expecting public support for the protesters to wane as clashes grew more violent. “The peaceful faction of this movement has moved to the radical wing,” he said, particularly noting the turnout of workers in the Central business district.
Ray Chan, of the pro-democracy People Power party and a member of the Legislative Council, said that he has “reasons to believe” that the government and police “want to escalate the violence to achieve political objectives.”
“The police, fearing that they will be investigated and sanctioned, is believed to instigate more violence so nobody will ever dare to criticize the police force,” he said. “The police know they can now act with impunity.”
Chan called for Lam and other senior officials to step down, and demanded a “reputable, independent commission of inquiry to investigate the police’s abuse of power.”
So has Hong Kong now slipped into anarchy?
“I do not think anarchy is the right word to describe the situation in Hong Kong,” said Tam Man-kei, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong. “Anarchy implies that the government cannot do anything to de-escalate the situation, but there are things that the government can do.”
Tam described police force as “excessive” and “sometimes illegal,” and said it needed to be restrained. He also called on the government to set up an independent inquiry into police actions, which he said have violated human rights.