Escalation of Protests Threatens Citizen Unity in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing for several months now, and show no signs of stopping, as government officials continue to push back against protestors’ demands and demonstrations only escalate in size and frequency. The protracted duration of these protests, however, is leading to a fracturing among activist groups, as some protestors are changing their tactics in response to continued inaction from elected officials and China. Incidences of property destruction and even violence are becoming more frequent as some activists see this behavior as a necessary response to a realization that peaceful protests have not been effective. However, not all protestors are onboard with this approach, as many activists continue to insist upon continuation of non-violent civil disobedience. As such, there exists a divide in the philosophical approach of Hong Kong activists, and while the two factions tolerate each other’s tactics for the moment, the lack of unity among protestors threatens the movement overall.

It’s worth noting that the majority of violence during Hong Kong protests comes from the local police, who use rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse what they call “riots.” Though Hong Kong is generally considered safe, with low rates of violent crime, increasing amounts of violence during protests make visiting Hong Kong currently a dangerous proposition. Police action against protestors is non-lethal, but water cannons and other methods of crowd control still have potential to cause serious injury. Additionally, protest leaders are at risk of being jailed, leading protestors to use encrypted apps like Telegram to communicate and organize, and causing protestors to adopt a more decentralized approach. While this approach makes it harder for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to stop protests, it can also lead to a divergence of tactics among protestors, as some protestors prefer a more destructive approach than others.

Embed from Getty Images

These protestors commit acts such as using makeshift battering rams to break into legislative buildings, destroying computers and vandalizing the walls with graffiti. Additionally, protestors have moved from throwing umbrellas and water bottles at police to throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails, in addition to petrol bombs. Protestors who resort to these tactics view them as a necessary evil, and consider their actions non-lethal and a response to the escalation of violence committed first by police. Angry mobs of protestors have even gone so far as to detain Chinese officials, and prevent ambulances from providing first-aid to injured people. Police, on the other hand, have claimed that they don’t resort to violence unless it is initiated by protestors, but in the chaos and confusion of a violent protest it can be hard to determine who is at fault for initiating dangerous and harmful conduct.

Embed from Getty Images

A survey conducted by Chinese academics in June indicated that roughly half of protestors felt that non-violent protests were no longer effective. Now, after several months have passed and the government has not budged, that percentage is even higher, even though protestors who favor violence threaten to alienate their fellow pro-democracy citizens. Many of the protestors are students and young people, who are more prone to engaging in reckless behavior and endangering their own safety and the safety of others. But young people also have the most to lose if protests are not successful, as control of Hong Kong is set to return to Beijing in 2047, when these teenagers will still be fairly young.

Protestors have adopted various elements of popular culture as symbols to express their discontent. A phrase from the popular Hunger Games series of books, “if we burn, you burn with us,” has been used to describe the philosophy of many protestors, who feel that maintaining their freedom is so important that it is worth risking destruction. A popular meme references Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series of films, where the word “bill” is a pun referring to the controversial extradition bill which initiated the recent protests in Hong Kong. And protestors in the streets have sung the song “Do You Hear the People Sing,” featured in the musical Les Miserables.