A pro-democracy protester is detained by riot police in Hong Kong on November 11, 2019. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Violence and chaos mars Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, now in their 24th week.
A police officer shot a Hong Kong protester Monday morning, setting off a wave of violent confrontations in the territory where pro-democracy demonstrations have raged for nearly six months.
Protesters on Monday had planned for a city-wide strike — intended to bring the city to a standstill — in response to the death of a protester, who fell from a parking garage last week and died. Demonstrators have blamed the police for the 22-year-old’s death, as officers were firing tear gas in the area, though the circumstances are still a bit murky.
That tragedy was a harbinger of the violence that marred Hong Kong on Monday, including the shooting of a 21-year-old protester by a police officer. The incident, which was filmed by a Hong Kong-based production company called Cupid Producers, showed a police officer grabbing one protester in an intersection and then brandishing his gun and firing at a different man wearing black, his face obscured by a scarf. In the video (warning: graphic footage), the victim tumbles to the street, and the officer appears to fire a few more shots, based on the audio — though it’s not clear in what direction, as the footage gets shaky.
The protester is currently in critical condition, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Huge crowd chanting and flipping off police in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district. Seconds after this, they fired tear gas. pic.twitter.com/0RtOSWDj9d
— Ben Westcott (@Ben_Westcott) November 11, 2019
The shooting of the protester is likely to intensify the unrest in Hong Kong, which is entering its 24th week of sustained demonstrations. The protests began in June over a controversial extradition bill that’s since been withdrawn, but the uprising has continued as activists demand accountability for what they see as police abuses during the weeks-long protests and continue to fight to preserve and expand democracy in Hong Kong and resist the influence of China. Hong Kong, a former British colony, has its own government and judiciary under the “one country, two systems” rule, though pro-democracy advocates say China is trying to circumvent this.
Monday was also not the first time that a Hong Kong police officer has fired at protesters. But the scene, captured on video, is likely to galvanize the movement that already views the police as overstepping their authority.
In a separate area of Hong Kong, a man was set on fire after getting into a confrontation with protesters, also on Monday. A protester dressed in black doused him in a liquid and then put a light to the man, who was then engulfed in flames. The man is also in critical condition, according to the Guardian.
These two disturbing incidents fueled increasingly tense protests across the territory on Monday afternoon — and showed just how volatile relations are in the city between pro-democracy activists and those opposed to the movement.
Demonstrators descended on streets Monday, including in Hong Kong’s central business district, to the police, who responded with tear gas at the crowds. Protesters vandalized transit stops and buses and businesses seen as pro-Beijing. A police officer was captured on video riding a motorcycle and clipping protesters on an otherwise deserted road. (Officials say he’s been suspended.) At least 60 people were injured in Monday’s turmoil.
When will Hong Kong’s protests hit a breaking point?
The unspooling violence puts Hong Kong in uncertain terrain, as China grows increasingly impatient with the unrest, and distrust between the protesters and the Hong Kong authorities has become toxic.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam — whom protesters see as aligned with Beijing — condemned the violence on Monday, saying that demonstrators were “destroying society.”
“If there is still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the government will yield to pressure,” Lam also said, according to the Guardian. “I am making this clear and loud here. That will not happen.”
But the political crisis in Hong Kong is quickly becoming untenable. Aggressive police tactics have inflamed the protesters, which has only escalated the brutality on both sides. Though the government rescinded the extradition bill, it’s continued to ignore the other protest demands, including an independent investigation into the police and the chance to elect the city-state’s leaders without input or meddling from Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has given his backing to Lam, who was Beijing’s preferred candidate in the last election. But Chinese officials are also urging Hong Kong’s government to impose stricter security laws to curb the unrest — although that could just as likely ignite even more furious protests.
“The need to safeguard national security and strengthen law enforcement have become prominent issues and urgent tasks facing the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and people from all walks of life,” Zhang Xiaoming, the Chinese government official who runs the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said this weekend, before Monday’s protests.
Many Hongkongers are looking toward November 24, when Hong Kong is holding its district council elections. Hong Kong has 18 district councils, representing 452 separate constituencies. These elections are semi-democratic; the chief executive can appoint a certain number of people to the councils, but the rest of the seats are up for a vote. This year, pro-democracy lawmakers are going all out to try to contest almost every seat they can that’s held by a pro-Beijing lawmaker.
But given the backdrop the chaos in Hong Kong, it’s unclear if these elections will go off smoothly — if they go off at all.
Last week, Hong Kong authorities arrested seven pro-democracy lawmakers, accusing them of obstructing the debate over the now-withdrawn extradition bill months ago. The pro-democracy advocate argued their arrests were an attempt to put a chilling effect on the local elections, where pro-democracy lawmakers are expected to win big. The Hong Kong government denied that they were doing anything other than upholding the law.
But some fear that the Hong Kong government might cancel or postpone the elections, citing the violence in the city. And there has been violence against lawmakers seen as sympathetic to Beijing; one pro-Beijing lawmaker was stabbed on the campaign trail last week by an opponent posing as a supporter.
There are still two weeks to go until that vote. As the date approaches, the volatility and anger in Hong Kong has only become more palpable and unpredictable, and the divisions seemingly more intractable than ever.