Highway blockade reveals splits in Hong Kong protest movement

By Jessie Pang and Kate Lamb

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters partially unblocked a key highway on Friday and then blocked it again during the evening rush hour, exposing splits in a movement that has been largely leaderless in months of often violent unrest.

Activists closed the Tolo highway this week, clashing with police and throwing debris and petrol bombs on the road linking the largely rural New Territories with the Kowloon peninsula to the south.

They turned the Chinese University campus next door and several other universities into fortresses, stockpiled with petrol bombs and bows and arrows, amid some of the worst violence in the former British colony in decades.

But many protesters left the Chinese University after some allowed the partial reopening of the highway on Friday, taking others by surprise.

“I am disappointed about the decision to reopen the Tolo highway and it’s not our consensus,” one student who gave his name as Cheung, 18, told Reuters.

“I was asleep when they had closed-door meetings. I was worried and scared after I realized what had happened and most protesters had left. I was worried the police might storm in again because so few people are left. Some protesters from the outside have gone too far.”

Most protesters had left by late evening but the road remained closed.

The Cross-Harbour Tunnel, outside the barricaded Polytechnic University where protesters have practised firing bows and arrows and throwing petrol bombs in a half-empty swimming pool, remained shut.

Students and protesters have barricaded at least five campuses in the Chinese-ruled city. Police have kept their distance from the campuses for more than two days, saying both sides should cool off, but many observers are afraid of what will happen if and when they move in.

Activists also littered Nathan Road in the Kowloon district of Mong Kok, a frequent venue for protests, with bricks and set a street barricade on fire.

NO LONGER SAFE

The week has seen a marked intensification of the violence.

A 70-year-old street cleaner died on Thursday after being hit on the head by one of several bricks police said had been thrown by “masked rioters”. On Monday, police blamed a “rioter” for dousing a man in petrol and setting him on fire. The victim is in critical condition.

On the same day, police shot a protester in the abdomen. He was in stable condition.

“We can no longer can say Hong Kong is a safe city,” Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung told a briefing.

Protesters are angry at perceived Chinese meddling in the city since it returned to Beijing rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing its colonial-era freedoms. Their demands include full democracy and an independent investigation into perceived police brutality.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. Police say they are acting with restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

China and Hong Kong both condemned an attack in London on Thursday by a “violent mob” on Hong Kong’s justice secretary, the first direct altercation between demonstrators and a government minister.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, who was in London to promote Hong Kong as a “dispute resolution and deal-making hub”, was targeted by a group of protesters who shouted “murderer” and “shameful”.

The British police said a woman had been taken to hospital with an injury to her arm and that they were investigating but no arrests had been made.

Hong Kong sank into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter, government data confirmed on Friday, with its economy shrinking by 3.2% from the previous quarter on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Organizers of the annual Clockenflap music and arts festival, due to take place from Nov. 22-24, said it had been canceled because of the unrest.

Video footage obtained by Reuters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison headquarters near Hong Kong’s Central business district showed more than a dozen troops conducting what appeared to be anti-riot drills against people pretending to be protesters carrying black umbrellas.

The PLA has stayed in the barracks since 1997 but China has warned that any attempt at independence will be crushed.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

Hong Kong protesters vow to hit the streets in major ‘illegal’ march

Hong Kong protesters vow to hit the streets in major ‘illegal’ march
By Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigners on Friday vowed to stage a major march at the weekend despite police ruling the rally illegal, setting the scene for possibly more unrest in the Chinese-ruled city, battered by months of violent protests.

Hong Kong has been relatively calm for the past week, with only small, often colorful demonstrations, and Sunday’s march will test the strength of the pro-democracy campaign, which has in the past rallied millions on to the streets.

In rejecting the protesters’ request for a march permit, police said past events had been “hijacked by a group of radical protesters” who set fire to buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police, detonated a home-made bomb and wrecked infrastructure.

“While we always respect citizens’ rights to assembly and freedom of speech, we are alarmed by this epidemic that radical protesters resort to violence in expressing their opinion,” Acting Chief Superintendent of Police Public Relations Branch, Kong Wing-cheung, said in announcing the rejection.

Thousands have defied police in the past and staged mass rallies, often peaceful at the start but becoming violent at night.

“We will not back down even after the attack on the Civil Human Rights Front convener Jimmy Sham. Our most powerful force is the unity and resistance of this civil society,” said the rights group, calling on the public to rally on Sunday.

Prominent rights activist Jimmy Sham was brutally beaten by four men wielding hammers and knives on Wednesday, a move pro-democracy lawmakers said was meant to intimidate protesters and incite violence ahead of Sunday’s planned march.

Protesters on Friday night formed a human chain wearing Jimmy Sham face masks, with a banner reading: “We are all Jimmy Sham. Je Suis Jimmy Sham.”

The human chain was planned to stretch a 40 km (25 miles) along the city’s metro, with many people wearing eccentric masks in defiance on a ban on covering faces at public rallies. Wearing a face mask at a public rally carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

“I am not worried about being prosecuted because I violate the anti-mask law. I think people won’t be afraid to come out on Sunday,” said Kiki, 29, wearing a pig face mask.

Hong Kong has been hit by four months of protests, driven by concerns Beijing is eroding freedoms granted when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

China denies the accusation, blaming foreign nations such as the United States and Britain for inciting the unrest.

The crisis in the Chinese-ruled city is the worst since the handover and poses the biggest popular challenge to China’s President Xi Jinping since he took power. Xi has warned he would crush any attempt to split China.

HONG KONG MAN ACCUSED OF MURDER

Riot police and protesters have fought street battles, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally live rounds against brick and petrol-bomb throwing activists.

Two people have been shot and wounded by police and thousands injured. Police have arrested more than 2,300 people since June.

Many Hong Kong residents are angry with what they believe is excessive force by police and the introduction of the face mask ban by embattled leader Carrie Lam.

Lam has rejected the protesters’ five core demands: universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into police behavior, amnesty for those charged, stop describing protesters as rioters, and the formal withdrawal of an extradition bill.

The bill, which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to Communist Party-controlled courts for trial, was seen as the latest move to erode those freedoms and sparked the unrest. Lam says the bill is now dead, but it has not been formally withdrawn.

The case of a young Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan last year before fleeing back to Hong Kong, was held up originally as an example of why an extradition bill was needed.

Lam’s office said on Friday Chan had written to her saying he would “surrender himself to Taiwan for his alleged involvement in the homicide case in Taiwan upon prison discharge”.

Chan is currently serving a 29-month sentence in Hong Kong for money laundering. It was not immediately clear what had prompted his letter or what plea he planned to make.

Hong Kong hub is facing its first recession as a result of the unrest, which has damaged tourism and retail.

Protesters dressed in black ninja-like outfits have torched metro stations and Chinese banks and shops they believe are linked to mainland China. Many businesses have been forced to close.

China has banned the bulk shipment to the city of black clothing and other items popularly used by Hong Kong protesters, staff at Chinese courier firms said.

Secretary for Transport and Housing, Frank Chan, said on Friday it would be weeks before the metro operated fully.

Pro-democracy candidates will stand in almost all 452 seats in Hong Kong’s upcoming local elections, encouraged by the protests, with the outcome of the November poll a barometer of support for the city’s government.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

Special Report: Rudderless rebellion – Inside the Hong Kong protesters’ anarchic campaign against China

FILE PHOTO: Police fire tear gas at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Ah Lung spends his days working as a clerk for a Hong Kong shipping firm. At night, he dons a mask, black helmet, and body armor, and heads out into the streets to face off against the city’s riot police.

The 25-year-old activist has been a constant presence at the often violent protests that have rocked Hong Kong this summer, rallying comrades, building barricades and rushing from district to district in a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with police.

Ah Lung, who would only identify himself by his nickname, which means “dragon” in Cantonese, is representative of a growing number of discontented young Hong Kongers who are fueling a protest movement that, unlike its predecessors, is taking aim directly at Beijing.

It is a movement without clearly discernible leaders or structure, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively target — and increasingly hard for the protesters themselves to manage.

While it has the support of established pro-democracy groups, the amorphous movement is fueled by activists like Ah Lung – young Hong Kongers who operate independently or in small groups and adapt their tactics on the run.

“We’re not so organized,” Ah Lung said. “Every day changes, and we see what the police and the government do, then we take action.”

“My dream is to revive Hong Kong, to bring a revolution in our time,” Ah Lung said. “This is the meaning of my life now.”

Through interviews with dozens of protesters like Ah Lung and reporting from dozens of protests, Reuters has pieced together a picture of how this movement functions and the mindset driving it.

‘FREE HONG KONG’

The protests, which started as a peaceful rebuke of the Hong Kong government back in April, have evolved into a direct challenge to Communist Party rule over this former British colony.

With slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is not China,” Ah Lung and his fellow protesters have made clear they reject a future in which Hong Kong is inexorably absorbed into the mainland giant, eventually becoming just another Chinese city.

Protesters are provocatively calling the demonstrations an “era of revolution,” a formulation that has infuriated a ruling Chinese Communist Party determined to crush any challenge to its monopoly on power.

Scenes once unthinkable in Hong Kong are now commonplace: The city’s international airport being shut down this week after a prolonged occupation by protesters; a Chinese official publicly suggesting that aspects of some of the protests were terrorism; the legislature stormed and ransacked by protesters; police officers repeatedly baton-charging crowds of protesters and unleashing torrents of tear gas in famed shopping districts.

On Tuesday, protesters who managed to shut down the airport also attacked a Chinese man for being a suspected undercover agent. He was identified as a reporter for the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by Beijing, highlighting how activists are making the Chinese government the target of their protests.

It also brought another issue into focus: the risks of waging a leaderless rebellion. Demonstrators later apologized for the disruptions at the airport, apparently concerned that their chaotic protests might alienate broader sections of the Hong Kong public who had been supporting them.

“The movement has a large degree of self-restraint and solidarity, but of course that’s very conditional,” said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has conducted surveys of protesters to understand their motives and support base.

“If certain actions spin out of control, if say someone dies from it, then that might be a game-changer.”

ONE-COUNTRY, TWO-SYSTEMS

Under the “one-country, two-systems” formula, China promised Hong Kong it would enjoy autonomy for 50 years after its handover from Britain in 1997.

Unlike those who negotiated the deal, for young protesters born after the handover that deadline will fall in the middle of their lives. And, as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong, the future they see careening toward them is that of an authoritarian mainland China with curbs on the freedoms and rights they now enjoy.

“In 2047, if it returns to China, real Hong Kongers will leave and emigrate from Hong Kong,” said Ah Lung, speaking in a small apartment in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood as he prepared for a night of protests that quickly descended into violence.

“By then, it won’t be Hong Kong anymore, but Xiang Gang,” he said, referring to the name commonly used on the mainland for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that protesters’ calls for a revolution to “liberate” Hong Kong are illegal acts that challenge the authority of the central government in Beijing.

In response to questions from Reuters about the protests, a spokesman for Lam referred to her promise to address income disparities in the city once the violence subsides.

The Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s main representative arm in the city, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The Hong Kong police did not respond to questions from Reuters. During the protests, police spokesmen have repeatedly defended the use of force and have pointed to escalating violence by protesters that has included throwing bricks and fire bombs.

LEADERLESS MOVEMENT

The protesters’ mantra – “Be water!” – epitomizes the movement’s tactics. A phrase borrowed from the Hong Kong movie star Bruce Lee, who used it to describe his kung fu philosophy, it is a call for flexibility and creativity, moving forward to press an advantage and pulling back when a strategic retreat is needed.

Its latest manifestation is the series of wildcat protests that have spread across the city in recent weeks. When police turn up in numbers at one protest, the activists often engage them, tying down officers before melting away and reappearing to stage a fresh protest in another area.

Pro-democracy protests that paralyzed much of downtown Hong Kong in 2014 involved blocking several key roads for more than two months. The more fluid tactics now being deployed by protesters, often masked to avoid surveillance and dressed in black, present a greater challenge for the police. Frontline officers speak of exhaustion, saying they never know where the activists will strike next.

Protesters say their movement is leaderless. In some ways, that’s a reaction to the 2014 demonstrations in which many of the leaders were arrested and given prison terms.

Unlike those protests, when leaders like Joshua Wong became globally recognized names, frontline activists like Ah Lung are deliberately staying under the radar, using pseudonyms and appearing at protests with their faces obscured by masks and sunglasses.

The leaderless nature of the protest movement is made possible, to a large extent, by social media.

Protesters take their cues from more than 100 groups on the instant messaging app Telegram, dozens of Instagram sites and online forums like LIHKG. The groups are used to post everything from news on upcoming protests to tips on dousing tear gas canisters fired by the police to the identities of suspected undercover police and the access codes to buildings in Hong Kong where protesters can hide.

It’s not an issue of having “no leader, it simply means that everyone is a leader,” said one 22-year-old Hong Kong student based in Britain who helps run “antielabhk,” an Instagram page that includes details about protests that has amassed more than 50,000 followers. The student asked not to be named.

Ma, a 28-year-old university student who would only give her surname, said at a recent protest in the volatile Mongkok district that she had come after seeing recruitment appeals in a Telegram group. “We were only notified or briefed today – like an hour ago,” said Ma, as she handed out water to protesters.

THE FRONT LINES

A feature of the protests in recent weeks has been the sight of ordinary activists like Ah Lung, the shipping clerk, rallying other protesters.

In Sham Shui Po on Sunday, Ah Lung joined other masked “frontliners” as the protest began. Some used wrenches to loosen bolts on roadside fences, which were then shaken loose, bound with nylon ties, and formed into makeshift barricades against the police.

Ah Lung, brandishing a Star Wars light saber he had bought at a toy shop, called out instructions on where to position the barricades. As they worked, other masked protesters used hand-held telescopes to track police movements.

The improvised, bottom-up nature of the protest movement is further evident in the scores of medics, some of them medical staff from local hospitals, who say they have turned up unprompted at protest sites to treat the wounded and administer saline solution to tear gas victims.

Kay, a 28-year-old medic who works in information technology and would only give her first name, said she prepared an emergency kit, including iodine, bandages, tourniquets and saline solution before every protest.

“I was hit by a tear gas canister one time and then when I retreated to a safe spot, some people helped me. I felt touched, and I wanted to help some people back.”

While the protest movement may not have clearly identifiable leaders, it does have the backing of prominent pro-democracy activists and groups who have organized some of the demonstrations. In the past, they have led smaller, more orderly demonstrations that were not aimed so pointedly at the leadership in Beijing.

Reuters reporting shows there is a high degree of coordination among a small circle of these activists, many of whom participated in the 2014 protests that were sparked by Beijing’s refusal to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage.

For instance, members of Demosisto, a party that advocates for greater democracy in Hong Kong, have been behind a number of demonstrations, some of which ended in violent clashes with riot police, according to the group’s members.

Last month, Tobias Leung, a member of the party’s standing committee, applied for police permission to stage a rally in the suburban district of Sha Tin. Leung’s link to the protest wasn’t immediately clear because he applied under the name of a local community group, according to Wong, the leader of Demosisto.

Wong and other prominent activists have been present at various demonstrations, sometimes close to the front lines. But they have struggled to impose leadership on the streets, with the protesters debating amongst themselves and consulting their phone groups on what action to take.

Along with other prominent democrats in the city, Wong has been seen at protests by Reuters being shouted down by activists who say they don’t want the movement hijacked by any single leader or group.

“I’m quite happy people are saying we should not rely on any specific political leader to lead this movement,” Wong told Reuters.

Jailed independence activist Edward Leung, who is revered by many of the protesters, is currently serving a six-year sentence for rioting stemming from a protest in 2016.

Francis Lee, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has written a book on Hong Kong social movements, describes the protests as an “open source” movement. Protesters often aggregate the best ideas in online groups and vote on courses of action, he said.

China has accused foreign countries of being behind the protests. Both Western and Asian diplomats in the city monitor the protests closely and some have been seen at events. Diplomats say this is part of their routine work.

FRUSTRATIONS BOIL OVER

The protests erupted in late April over a bill proposed by Lam that would have allowed the extradition of defendants from Hong Kong to mainland China. Unlike the demand for universal suffrage, which fueled the 2014 protests, the extradition bill was seen as a specific, tangible threat by many Hong Kongers, galvanizing hundreds of thousands of people.

Facing huge protests, Lam announced on June 15 that she was freezing the bill.

That wasn’t enough for many Hong Kong residents, many of whom flooded onto the streets in one of the largest protest marches ever seen in the city, largely organized by a coalition of civil society groups. The march brought together a diverse cross-section of Hong Kong society, including members of the city’s politically conservative middle class.

A major turning point in the protests was an assault on July 21 on Beijing’s Central Government Liaison Office – the most prominent symbol of China’s authority in Hong Kong.

Black-clad activists arrived at dusk at the glass-steel skyscraper that bears the red state seal of China above its entrance. As the crowd quickly swelled to thousands, some protesters hurled eggs at the building. Others used spray paint to scrawl the words “Revolution of Our Time” on the walls.

Some tried to neutralize surveillance cameras by targeting them with laser pointers. To roars of approval, protesters then lobbed black paint at the state seal of China.

“Carrie Lam has refused to listen to our concerns about Communist Party interference,” said one 27-year-old protester who would only give his name as Paul, as he attached vials of anti-tear gas fluid onto his military style backpack. “Now we have to send our message to the communists directly.”

The Liaison Office has since become the target of repeated protests.

Nick Tsang, a protester clad in a black balaclava and black clothes, was in a crowd that began congregating in a Hong Kong park on the afternoon of July 28.

Tsang checked out a Telegram group to see where other protesters were going. One group of protesters splintered off and headed to the city’s police headquarters, while another group branched out in the direction of the Causeway Bay shopping district. Later on, some backtracked toward the Liaison Office. Tsang followed them.

This time, the building was fortified with water-filled plastic barriers, and several battalions of riot police and other elite units. Liaison Office staff, meanwhile, had replaced the sullied state seal with a new one and encased it in a plexiglass box.

Following several hours of heated clashes in the streets around the Liaison Office, a rearguard of protesters, including Tsang, found themselves surrounded by police. With tear gas swirling, they made a run for the Hong Kong subway system and escaped onto a train.

“We can’t retreat or the authoritarianism will worsen,” said Tsang, referring to the Chinese government.

“This is not about me. This is for Hong Kong, my home city.”

(Multimedia package on Hong Kong protests : https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/hongkong-protests-protesters/)

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim and Anne Marie Roantree. Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, David Lague, Felix Tam, Donny Kwok, Marius Zaharia, Vimvam Tong and Noah Sin; Editing by Philip McClellan and Peter Hirschberg)

China makes disrespect of national anthem a crime

China's President Xi Jinping arrives at a welcoming ceremony for Brazil's President Michel Temer (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 1, 2017.

By Christian Shepherd and Venus Wu

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Anyone who mocks China’s national anthem faces up to 15 days in police detention after parliament criminalized such acts in a new law on Friday that covers Hong Kong and Macau.

Since taking over as president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ushered in new legislation aimed at securing the country from threats both within and outside its borders, besides presiding over a sweeping crackdown on dissent and free speech.

Protecting “the dignity of the national anthem” will help “promote patriotism and nurture socialist core values”, says the new law passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC).

It governs when, where and how the anthem, the “March of the Volunteers”, can be played.

The law bans its use as background music and in advertisements, rules out playing it at funerals and on other “inappropriate occasions” and prescribes administrative detention for any “distorted” or “mocking” renditions.

Those attending public events must stand to attention and sing in a solemn manner when the anthem is played.

The new law brings treatment of the anthem into line with desecration of China’s national flag, or its emblem, which has been a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 days’ detention since the 1990s. Those laws also apply in Hong Kong and Macau.

Wu Zeng, the office head of the NPC’s national laws panel, confirmed that lawmakers had agreed the law should also apply to Hong Kong and Macau by being written into their constitutional provisions, the Basic Laws.

The law has fueled concern in Hong Kong, whose residents have grown nervous over China’s perceived encroachment of the city’s autonomy following such events as the disappearance of booksellers who later emerged in mainland Chinese custody.

Hong Kong lawyer and pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said she expected “a series of obstacles” when the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, adopts the law.

“The rights and freedoms protected under Hong Kong laws have come under challenge in recent years,” she said. “So it is right for people to be concerned.”

The city’s Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, said he hoped “the intention of the national law would be upheld without affecting Hong Kong people’s basic rights and freedoms”.

In 2015, Hong Kong football fans booed the Chinese anthem during a World Cup qualifier, prompting a fine for the territory’s football association from world body FIFA.

Last month, Shanghai police detained three men for having “hurt patriotic feelings” by dressing up as Japanese soldiers and posing for photographs outside a memorial to China’s war with Japan, state media said.

 

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)