Day of Rage Plunges Hong Kong into Turmoil After Police Shoot Protester

November 11, 2019
Anna Kam, Casey Quackenbush, and Ryan Ho Kilpatrick
The Washington Post

The shooting of a pro-democracy protester by Hong Kong police unleashed a chain of chaotic events Monday, as thousands of demonstrators clashed with riot police in the city’s financial district and violent confrontations erupted at university campuses, plunging the Asian financial hub further into turmoil.

Tensions soared across the city. In the afternoon, police fired tear gas as protesters and office workers packed streets and flyovers in the downtown area. “Disband the police!” they shouted. Protesters threw debris into the road, brought traffic to a halt and set fires.

Later, a man was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire after he confronted a group of protestors who reportedly had vandalized a rail station.

There had been calls for a general strike on Monday, the latest step in months of anti-government unrest that has convulsed the former British colony and posed a direct challenge to Chinese rule. But the immediate spark for the escalation came when a police officer fired live rounds in the Sai Wan Ho neighborhood early in the day, critically injuring a 21-year-old protester who appeared to be unarmed. Police confirmed that one man was shot by an officer.

 “It’s a police state in Hong Kong,” said Jerry, 26, a finance worker who joined the protests and gave only one name out of fear of retribution. “Police are murderers.”

Throughout more than five months of unrest, Beijing has exhorted Hong Kong’s leaders to clamp down harder on the dissenters. Hong Kong authorities have obliged with thousands of arrests, draconian new laws, a barrage of tear gas and the detention of pro-democracy lawmakers. A protester died Friday after falling in a parking garage several days earlier as police dispersed demonstrators nearby.

Yet far from blunting the democracy movement, the intensifying crackdown has prompted protesters to adopt more aggressive tactics. With the deeply divided city descending into disorder, there has been no sign that Beijing might change tack or allow the Hong Kong government to offer a political compromise.

 “Senior officials have issued very draconian comments regarding the promulgation of a national security law and stepping up overall control,” said Willy Lam Wo-Lap, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This, together with the death of the student protester last week, is responsible for today’s outbreak of disorder.”

Student protesters “see no future ahead of them” because of the government’s crackdown and refusal to compromise, Lam added. “It seems like Beijing wants to use [the escalating protests] as an excuse to impose tougher measures,” he said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on the shooting of the protester, referring reporters to other government departments. The State Council office responsible for Hong Kong issues did not respond to a request for comment.

At an evening news conference, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said protesters were “destroying society” and labeled them “the people’s enemy,” saying their actions had far exceeded demands for democracy. The government would not bow to such pressure, she said. About 60 people were injured in Monday’s clashes, she added.

Protests began in June when the Hong Kong leader tried to push through a now-shelved proposal to allow criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China. But the movement has widened into an uprising against Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, encompassing demands for full democracy and police accountability.

The unrest has pushed the city into recession. On Monday, numerous shops were closed, train lines were shut and many workers unable to reach their offices. Universities canceled classes. Police said a gasoline bomb was thrown into a subway car. A police officer who rode a motorcycle into a crowd of demonstrators was placed on leave pending an investigation.

In central Hong Kong, as police retreated in vans at one point in the afternoon, crowds on the footbridges above chanted, “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” Other onlookers shouted and threw debris at police vans.

Protesters occupied a main thoroughfare, erecting barricades and setting fires near high-end hotels. As protesters blocked a road tunnel, they clashed with onlookers and taxi drivers. Some travelers abandoned their cars and walked with their suitcases.

Scuffles broke out between protesters and Chinese government supporters. Footage shared on social media showed two men arguing about national identity, before one man doused the other with a liquid and set him alight. He was in critical condition, hospital officials said. Police later identified the 57-year-old construction worker.

In an editorial published Monday night, the nationalist Global Times newspaper compared the Hong Kong protesters to the Islamic State.

“We sternly condemn the mobs for their barbarity of setting those ordinary citizens, those who disagreed with them, on fire. Their appalling behavior has become indistinguishable from that of IS members,” the paper’s Chinese-language edition said. “They keep on saying that they pursue democracy and freedom, but they cannot tolerate those who disagree with them to express their views. These people show vicious, primitive, absolutist zeal.”

At a news conference Monday, police defended the officer’s decision to open fire earlier in the day, saying the protester had wanted to take the officer’s firearm.

“He was under threat by two people; if he lost his gun, he would be under severe threat. Hence, he decided to fire,” Kwok Pak-chung, regional commander of Hong Kong island, told reporters.

The condition of the man, who was struck in the abdomen, was not life-threatening, Kwok said.

The unrest marks the worst violence in Hong Kong in decades, posing a quandary for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has sought to bring Hong Kong to heel without resorting to Tiananmen Square-style bloodshed.

In the United States, Congress is considering a bill that would pave the way for sanctions against individuals who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. The bill, approved unanimously by the House, would require the U.S. government to consider annually whether it should continue to treat Hong Kong as a trading entity separate from mainland China in response to political developments. However, the bill is stuck in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) so far has declined to bring it to a debate.

Hong Kong is governed by a “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Beijing pledged to maintain the territory’s relative freedoms and autonomy for half a century after its return to Chinese rule in 1997. But China has been tightening its grip, triggering anger in Hong Kong and uncertainty about its status as a global financial center.

At the heart of the stalemate is the fact that Hong Kong’s leader is not directly elected, but chosen by a committee that largely consists of Beijing loyalists. Many here perceive local authorities as conspiring with the Chinese government to undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law and bind the territory more closely with mainland China.

There has been speculation the government might use the worsening violence as a pretext to suspend local district elections planned for Nov. 24, though so far officials have said they would like the vote to proceed if possible. Although Hong Kong does not have genuine universal suffrage, a quasi-democratic process exists to choose local district councilors.

The Electoral Affairs Commission issued a statement Monday urging the public to “keep calm and return to rationality,” to allow the elections to proceed.

“However, it is important to note that the smooth proceeding of [the] election owes much to the full cooperation of all Hong Kong citizens to create a safe environment for Hong Kong,” a spokesman said.

Separately, Hong Kong’s government sought to dispel “online rumors” that it would suspend work, school classes and trading on the city’s stock market, one of the world’s largest. Such claims were “absolutely not true,” a government spokesman said. The benchmark Hang Seng Index slumped more than 2.6 percent on Monday.

Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, has declined to launch an independent inquiry into the police force, insisting that the city wait for the outcome of a probe by the existing police watchdog, which has limited powers.

Amnesty International branded Monday’s shooting “another shocking low for the Hong Kong police” and called for an urgent independent examination.

In the meantime, protesters continue to turn their fury on police.

“They’re crazy. It’s outrageous,” said Kong, a 27-year-old woman on her lunch break, referring to Monday’s shooting. “They’ve lost control.”

David Crawshaw in Hong Kong and Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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