As protesters dispersed from the streets of Hong Kong in December 2014 after months of occupying the centre of the city, they left behind large banners that read: “We’ll be back”.
On Wednesday, they fulfilled that promise.
But the mood in the city this time round as they took over parts of the central business district was far darker than at the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests — the last demonstration that brought the city to a standstill.
Hong Kong’s police force, once renowned for its amiable relationship with the people of the city, fired rubber bullets and tear gas into unarmed crowds. Videos were rapidly spread on social media of riot police wielding batons, chasing down and attacking the mostly peaceful protesters.
At least 72 people were injured in the confrontations, with many more hiding from the police in Hong Kong’s urban jungle of glitzy downtown shopping malls office buildings. Police commissioner Lo Wai-chung said the police acted in self-defence after protesters, armed with metal poles and wooden boards, threw bricks at them. Eleven protesters were arrested for illegal assembly, assault and rioting.
“The violence has escalated like crazy,” said Lokman Tsui, a scholar and activist at Chinese University of Hong Kong, who participated in the protests on Wednesday as well as in 2014. “What’s new are the rubber bullets and the intensity, frequency and ease of the use of them and tear gas without warning.”
A groundswell of anger boiled over in Asia’s leading financial centre on Wednesday after Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, ignored a protest on Sunday. Demonstrators said 1m people took to the streets in that protest against the controversial extradition bill — roughly one in seven of the population.
Critics fear the legislation would allow anyone living in or transiting through the city to be whisked off to mainland China on potentially trumped-up charges.
Unlike the Umbrella Movement, which mobilised mostly pro-democracy activists and young people united in the fight for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the extradition law has brought together a far broader group. People in the business community, who are traditionally more pro-establishment and have long had strong business ties in mainland China, fear they could be targets of the proposed bill.
“This time, people from all walks of life have come out,” said Ray Ng, a second-year university student. “It shows how unfair and problematic this law is.”
The protesters have also hardened. Instead of the ubiquitous yellow umbrellas carried in 2014, many wore masks and yellow helmets, instructing onlookers and journalists not to film or take photos of their faces. After leaders of the 2014 protests were jailed earlier this year, demonstrators this time are taking more precautions, obscuring their identities both at the protests and online.
Unlike 2014, no individuals or groups have come forward to claim responsibility as the protest’s organisers. Instead, details of the leaderless demonstrations rapidly spread through online forums and messaging apps such as Telegram, which was the target of a massive hacking attack, most likely by Beijing, during the protests.
The hope and idealism of the 2014 protests, where street art sprung up around the tent villages and campaigns of “love and peace” propelled the activists, have mostly been replaced by pragmatism and despair this week. Protesters fear this may be their last chance to take to the streets of Hong Kong, a city with a rich history of civil disobedience dating back to the colonial period that has shaped its unique identity as being separate to Britain and China.
“This is one of the last battles of Hong Kong because, once the law is passed, people won’t be willing to speak publicly about their opinions,” said Leo Lau, a third-year university student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Many of the protesters were high school or university students.
Despite the darker mood, Hong Kong’s protesters maintained their reputation as some of the cleanest and most considerate in the world. On Wednesday, within hours of demonstrators surrounding the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s local parliament, supporters had set up supply stations stocked with everything from drinking water and sanitary pads to goggles and plastic wrap to protect people against pepper spray.
Shortly after, volunteers sorted rubbish into recycling piles and composting bins, sweeping and picking up litter long into Thursday morning.
Above it all, Beijing looms. Since Occupy Central in 2014 brought the heart of Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days, the Chinese Communist party has clamped down on dissent in mainland China, as its global clout grows.
Beijing has also tightened its grip on Hong Kong, ramping up the muzzling of opposition voices. Pro-democracy legislators were disqualified from the Legislative Council for misstating their swearing-in oath in 2017.
This gave pro-Beijing lawmakers the numbers to make procedural changes last year, making it almost impossible for the pro-democracy lawmakers in parliament to block, or even delay the passing of the extradition bill, scheduled to be voted on next Thursday. Pro-establishment lawmakers hold 43 of the 69 seats in the chamber.
“That’s why they sneaked through a lot of changes to the rules and procedures last year, to make it very difficult for us to filibuster or stop a meeting and so on,” said Charles Mok, a pro-democracy legislator who represents the information technology sector in the council. “If Beijing said, ‘OK, we’ve had enough, we really can’t force it through’ then we may have a chance,” said Mr Mok. “Otherwise, I don’t know, send in the army.”
This desperation and hopelessness reverberated through the streets of Hong Kong, as police used tear gas and pepper spray to push back crowds occupying the main roads. Throughout Occupy 2014, uplifting Cantonese anthems such as Under a Vast Sky by legendary Hong Kong rock band Beyond, rippled across the city’s carnival-like atmosphere.
By Wednesday night, even though thousands of people were still on the streets, all was eerily quiet.
Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong