How Hong Kong protesters’ tactics have evolved alongside those of police
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This weekend’s protests have seen a fresh escalation of tensions in Hong Kong, with water cannons deployed for the first time against protesters. The demonstrators say their increasingly confrontational tactics are a response to police ‘attacks’.
Thirteen weeks into a pro-democracy movement that has seen hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents take to the streets, relations between protesters and the territory’s Beijing-backed government are at an impasse. The government has made no new concessions since mid-June, when it suspended the extradition bill that sparked the protests. Protesters are demanding the full, formal withdrawal of the bill, as well as four other measures.
As frustration over the lack of a political response has mounted, so has the militancy of protest tactics -- and the use of force by police.
“We’re in a situation now where the only institution that’s dealing with the protesters is police,” says FRANCE 24’s Hong Kong correspondent Charles Pellegrin. He says Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam “tried to come up with a solution in July”, proposing to Beijing that they respond to two of the protesters’ key demands: the withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent inquiry into police violence.
“Unfortunately, Beijing completely refused to give in to these demands,” says Pellegrin.
The deadlock has led to an escalation in violence between police and protesters, reaching a new height over the past week as riot officers fired water cannons and tear gas at groups of demonstrators throwing petrol bombs.
The police’s use of force has taken centre stage among the protesters’ anger and demands.
“The police are a licenced mob, they have the licence to attack and to assault,” Kwok Ka-ki, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told AFP.
Water cannons, deployed for first time, are made in France
The 31 August protest saw the police use water cannons for the first time. Unveiled by Hong Kong police last year, the cannons sprayed a bright blue dye that local media described as a means for police to identify protesters after they left the scene.
BREAKING: Hong Kong Police for the first time deployed water cannons infused with blue dye. The idea is to identify protesters and facilitate arrests. Carrie Lam reportedly told her cabinet that she would “lock them all up.” Looks like she meant what she said. pic.twitter.com/N10HzNggk8Jason Y. Ng (@jasonyng) 31 août 2019
The South China Morning Post reported last year that police had initially proposed ordering the water cannons in 2015, in the aftermath of pro-democracy Umbrella movement.
The Hong Kong authorities finally decided to buy the vehicles from a French company.
The supplier, Armoric Holding, is a defence contractor based in Brittany. It presented the “Cerberus” water cannon, customised by its subsidiaries Essonne Sécurité and Sides, at an arms expo sponsored by the French Interior Ministry in late 2017, and at another the following summer, around the same time three of the vehicles were delivered in Hong Kong. In addition to being just water cannons, the vehicles are equipped with four high-definition video cameras for surveillance. The distribution of the vehicles was reviewed in depth by CheckNews, the fact-checking arm of French newspaper Libération, in June.
Similar vehicles were used against Yellow Vest protesters in Paris this spring. In April, one water cannon fired blue dye at protesters at Paris’s Place de la République, virtually identical in appearance to the one used in Hong Kong. FRANCE 24 was unable to confirm whether the police vehicles in use in Paris were supplied by the same company as those in Hong Kong, but the brochure of the exhibition where the Cerberus vehicles were unveiled listed Armoric Holding as one of the “happy few” suppliers of such equipment in the world. It described the Cerberus vehicles as “the ultimate in technology for a collective shower”.
Hong Kong authorities had been warning for weeks prior to Saturday's protests that they were prepared to deploy the water cannons. Nevertheless, their use took many Hong Kong residents aback. In response, changes of clothes were left in metro stations for protesters.
This in turn served as a pretext for one of Saturday’s most dramatic moments of violence: a chaotic scene where police chased protesters into metro stations, beating people with batons and carrying out arrests.
Video footage captured by local media showed elite police charging a crowd cowering inside a train carriage -- with one man, drenched in pepper spray, crying in anguish on his knees as he tried to protect his female friend. Officers left the carriage without making any immediate arrests.
News report of MTR station assault by the police. You can see multiple times in this 52 seconds of video that police uses force to people not resisting at all, including those who got beaten up in the train, and got sprayed tear liquid after the beating. pic.twitter.com/jGqFTxX9MbLO Kin-hei 羅健熙 (@lokinhei) 31 août 2019
A Hong Kong police spokesperson stated early Sunday morning that the use of force was justified against protesters who were disguising themselves by changing their clothes and resisting arrest. It was unclear, however, which of the passengers struck by police had actually participated in the protest.
Atmosphere of ‘white terror’
Besides the violent clashes, the authorities have sought to impose a wider “dragnet”, AFP Hong Kong correspondent Elaine Yu tells FRANCE 24.
“The repression is working on two levels,” she says. “The first is psychological. People commonly describe an atmosphere of ‘white terror’.”
Arrests like those of high-profile activists including Joshua Wong on Friday are “made to intimidate people”, Yu says, adding that the activists targeted were not the main leaders of the current protests. These arrests come in addition to the more than 900 others since the beginning of the movement.
The second level of repression is technological, Yu says. In response, some protesters are taking to the encrypted messaging app Telegram to communicate. This comes as one of the main, anonymous forums used by activists was hit this weekend with a cyberattack that interrupted service for several hours.
Despite the escalating violence between police and protesters, the pro-democracy movement maintains popular support among Hong Kong residents, says Yu. A mass, nonviolent march on 18 August drew hundreds of thousands of people -- up to 1.7 million, according to organizers. It demonstrated that the “peaceful camp” of the movement still holds weight.
“The movement is still backed by people who believe in peace,” says Yu. “As the violence escalates, it will inevitably make people wary… but we’ve also seen a theme where people have actually grown more sympathetic to those who embrace more confrontational tactics, because they think nothing else works.”