By Stéphanie Giry, New York Times, Read the article here.
HONG KONG — The battle between the government and this city’s protest movement couldn’t have been on starker display last Monday, July 1 — a day that began with a closed-door official ceremony celebrating Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 and ended with an hourslong break-in at the Legislative Council.
The siege of LegCo was the most dramatic move yet by protesters who for weeks have waged various actions to oppose a proposed law allowing extradition to mainland China — a law, they say, that would become a certain tool of political persecution. The occupation ended late that night not, as feared, with a violent showdown with the police, but with a remarkable rescue mission by the protesters themselves.
The police had warned that it would clear the building at midnight, and as the hour approached, a heated discussion about whether to stay or go broke out among a handful of protesters in the council’s voting chamber.
At the doorway were two protesters wearing masks. One told me, his voice cracking, that he wanted to leave but would stay to protect the stalwarts.
A few moments later, outside the building, scores of protesters took a loose vote on what to do. “We leave together! We leave together!” A group rushed back inside to retrieve the few still in the chamber and dragged them away.
The police and the tear gas got to the building just after everyone had cleared out.
It is the footage of that rescue mission and those last moments in the council chamber — not the photos of shattered glass and graffiti — that best capture what the events of that day, and the protest movement itself, really stand for.
The break-in into LegCo was not, as has been widely described, an “unprecedented scene of chaos” or an occasion of “wanton vandalism” — or even violent. Nor is the event significant for exposing divisions over tactics that threaten to tear the pro-democracy camp apart.
Of course, there are differences among the many people who have rallied against the extradition bill and the Hong Kong government: How could there not be when the opposition has grown so big, the issues it is taking on seem intractable and the stakes are so high? That there are differences between protesters isn’t notable; what’s notable is the protesters’ will to stick together despite those differences.
Also notable about the LegCo break-in was the police’s absence from the scene. This was a relief, given the violence of itscrackdown on a protest on June 12. But it is ominous as well. What kind of police force doesn’t act to prevent the legislature from being stormed? A police force that no longer sees its purpose as maintaining public order and is, instead, carrying out the government’s political agenda.
The Hong Kong police should have intervened to prevent the break-in into LegCo, and it could have. It didn’t stop the protesters because the government didn’t want it to.
At midday, amid several hundred protesters, a dozen or so people started going at a members’ entrance of LegCo on the street. They had no tools, and seemed unprepared. Apparently, no one had Googled how to break through reinforced, laminated glass and they went after the very thick window panes — instead of doors, frames or hinges — and pounded them with makeshift battering rams, including a metal cart on wheels that would bang and bounce back. Some police officers were standing inside holding a red warning flag, occasionally pepper-spraying through cracks in the glass.
After a long while of watching the scene, I wondered if the protesters really wanted to get in. Two or three hours later — I lost track — they had broken through a couple of panels. But then, that was that; the action stopped. “Tea time,” a few of us onlookers joked.
Come late afternoon, as some people were arriving from the annual anti-handover march nearby, another attempt to get into LegCo was underway, this time at the main public entrance. Walking around the building, I had just caught sight of some police officers relaxing inside, on the other side of the entrance.
This second effort to break in was more spirited than the first, but still plodding and amateurish. It took several hours of banging and pounding to break through a few doors and windows and hoist up a metal curtain. In the meantime, among both chants of encouragement and wary milling about, I asked protesters standing by if they intended to go inside. They weren’t sure. The feeling among them was general support, but also hesitation and confusion — and fear that police officers were lying in wait.
The police could easily have intervened then, and without much risk of a clash. Darkness had fallen, and simply turning off all street and building lights and activating the fire sprinklers overhead probably would have sent many people away.
Many of the protesters I watched go inside only did so after some hesitation. Once in the main entrance hall, they seemed uncertain, almost dazed. Their white and yellow construction helmets were going up escalators, and coming down escalators. Where were they heading? To the council chamber, several said, stopping to study a visitors’ map on the wall.
I wouldn’t describe the scene inside as “mayhem.” I saw jammed elevators and broken display cases, as well as signs and notes to preserve books and not damage knickknacks. Some graffiti were curses, and plenty said “dogs” — a leitmotif of anti-police sentiment. But many more of the tags were pointed political slogans, like “Hong Kong is not China.” “No more functional constituencies” was spray-painted across legislators’ desks in the main chamber, a reference to LegCo seats that are elected by special-interest groups rather than the general public. Geeky, those hooligans.
Still, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a legislator, was worried about the optics. “It was a trap,” he said, looking around the chamber, and the protesters had walked right into it. He also said that throughout the day the office of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had “blankly refused” repeated requests from legislators to meet to find a way to defuse the situation.
When the police finally did come, just past midnight, their clearance operation seemed close to exemplary. They had set a deadline and announced it on social media, giving protesters ample warning. They marched up the streets toward LegCo decisively and left obvious escape routes. They used tear gas, but only minimally. They would advance quickly and loudly and then stop, allowing protesters to keep their distance. Within less than an hour, almost all protesters had vanished into side streets — some darting into the subway station to catch the last train home.
The officers’ restraint that night was a relief, yet the broader implications of it are sinister: If the police knew precisely how to handle that situation, then their abuses of June 12 were not a slip-up but deliberate. They can’t possibly have learned to do their job properly in just those few intervening weeks; what they learned from June 12 was that they didn’t want more public outcry over another display of police brutality.
And yes, perhaps the protesters’ case would now be simpler and tidier — more morally photogenic — if once inside LegCo they had touched nothing and staged a massive sit-in, arms locked, or something reassuringly Gandhian and abstemious like that. But considering the circumstances, it seems oddly squeamish and rather perverse to be scandalized by broken glass and tagged walls. Far more troubling than anything the protesters did last Monday is what the police didn’t do — and what the government hasn’t done.
And to excuse the break-in as an act of brash folly by desperate youth seems like misguided bien-pensant paternalism. This, too, is falling into a trap.
However muddled some of the protesters’ methods may seem, their underlying purpose and principles couldn’t be clearer. There is no arguing about the heart, the spirit and the extraordinary decency of the small group who went back into LegCo to drag out the few who remained or the many more who stayed outside the building to act as a buffer against the police.
Something similar goes for that large segment of the broader public that has mobilized against the extradition bill, the Lam administration and creeping encroachment by the Chinese government. My sense, based on conversations, anecdotal evidence and intuition, is that solidarity prevails within this movement despite any disagreements, however deep, over tactics.
Even people who frown on the siege of LegCo aren’t suddenly going to support extradition to mainland China or start trusting the Hong Kong government. And plenty seem to respect the courage of those they think were foolhardy to break in. Some say they cried watching footage of the last-ditch rescue party, with its interview of a young woman who describes, sobbing, how scared she is that the police will arrive — and how much more scared still she would be for anyone left behind.
Since the early days of the 2014 Umbrella Movement I haven’t known how to think about, much less describe, the force that drives the surges of contestation in Hong Kong. Protesters today are demanding, among other things, that Ms. Lam resign. But they know that she is unlikely to and that if she does, it won’t change anything. That’s too lucid a position to be called naïveté, and too defiant to be called defeatism.
Whatever this combination is, though, it can be as powerful as it is mind-bending and moving. The extradition bill was suspended, after all, in the face of mass marches. True, it wasn’t withdrawn, and there is a difference between those two things. But there is an even bigger difference between the bill’s being suspended and its having passed.
The stakes and the dangers feel far greater today than they did in 2014; self-sacrifice is in the air. One of the last protesters in the council chamber, a young father, told a reporter he would stay until the end; his own father had escaped China, wounded, during the Cultural Revolution, he explained, and now he was defending Hong Kong for his children. Another took off his mask before declaring the movement’s core demands.
Protesters like them, who are willing to risk their education, career or a family life to face lengthy prison terms, are being called 義士, roughly, “justice warriors.” On Wednesday, a fourth personcommitted suicide, partly, it is thought, because of despair over this political crisis and Hong Kong’s prospects. “Martyrs” is some protesters’ word for those dead.
Last Monday evening, as I was watching the slow-motion break-in at LegCo’s public entrance, a protester who had just mocked the effort as ham-handed, said, “Is it too grand, ridiculous, to say that Hong Kong is at the forefront of the fight for freedom?” It does sound grand, but where else are so many people, unarmed, so brazenly resisting the Chinese government’s authoritarianism? The garrisons of the People’s Liberation Army are a block away from LegCo.
Stéphanie Giry is an editor in the Opinion section, based in Hong Kong.