The Rising Costs of Protest in Hong Kong

When the protests first began, talk of dying for the movement seemed outlandish. Now it is all too real.

Riot police spray blue-colored water during a protest on China's National Day in Hong Kong.
Riot police spray blue-colored water during a protest on China's National Day in Hong Kong. (Susana Vera / Reuters)

HONG KONG—July 1 feels like a long time ago now. That night, thousands of protesters besieged the offices of this city’s legislature, beating at security glass, trying to break through from the street into the chamber. I had spent the day circling the building, speaking with demonstrators and watching as they hammered away, an effort that at first appeared futile. Hours later, I spotted people walking up the building’s darkened staircase, their yellow construction helmets a telltale sign that protesters had finally breached one of Hong Kong’s main halls of power.

It was a radical moment, and for a minute I looked on in disbelief, before turning to an old man standing next to me to ask if the building we were looking at—one I had previously visited, and one clearly marked with signs—was indeed the Legislative Council.

The next morning, I interviewed a protester who had rushed back into the offices to try to persuade a handful of demonstrators, who were determined to stay behind and face off with police, to leave before officers arrived. When the verbal coaxing failed, he and others resorted to dragging their comrades from the building. The man was exhausted and began to cry as he recounted that some of those he had doubled back for had told him that they were willing to die for the movement. It was the first time I had heard anyone speak openly about the possibility of death at the hands of police since the rallies had begun a month earlier. Just five years before, during the Umbrella Revolution, the use of tear gas by police had stunned Hong Kong, and this time around, the use of the noxious gas was still shocking enough to lead news reports and dominate polite conversations on the weekdays between demonstrations.

But as the weeks rolled on and the authorities in Hong Kong (and, in reality, in Beijing) refused to meet most of the protesters’ demands, police were left by the government with the seemingly impossible task of solving a fundamentally political problem. The tactics of officers became markedly more aggressive and images of bloodied protesters became commonplace, the allegations of brutality fueling a stark breakdown in public trust of the authorities. Protesters fought back violently—often with the moral and material support of community members and less hard-core demonstrators. Officers began using rubber bullets and then live rounds, though the latter only for warning shots. Soon, the graffiti sprayed during marches calling for liberty or death began to look prophetic.

Last night, for a few chaotic hours, it appeared as though the first fatality of the movement would be tallied. An 18-year-old student was shot once in the chest by a police officer at close range, marking the first time the force fired on protesters with live ammunition.

Video of the moment—captured by at least three journalists—shows a group of protesters, some armed with sticks and rods, attacking a police officer in riot gear. As they whale on the downed officer, a group of police rushes from a nearby building to push them back. A protester wearing a helmet and respirator, and carrying a shield that looks to be made out of a blue bodyboard, swings a rod at one officer, who points his revolver at the man and opens fire. The shot sends the man staggering backwards, tripping over the officer who was initially attacked. The injured student was one of 269 people arrested yesterday, police said, and remains in the hospital.

A police officer aims a weapon at a protester in Hong Kong.
A police officer aims his weapon at a protester in Hong Kong. (Social Media / Reuters)

It is almost a cliché now to note that the unofficial motto of this leaderless movement is “Be like water.” For months, the protests have morphed and shifted, moving far beyond the now-withdrawn extradition bill that sparked the rallies and coalescing around a ferociously anti-China message unique in that it is emanating from within China itself.

Yesterday’s demonstration, followed by the clashes that erupted across the territory, came as Beijing held a grand military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and in spite of efforts by authorities to lock down much of Hong Kong, which included shuttering dozens of subway stations and malls. The rage expressed by protesters as the day wore on was imbued with a sense of desperation stoked by the feeling that they are largely powerless within Hong Kong’s political system.

In the afternoon, demonstrators attempted to take control of an elevated pedestrian bridge from riot officers. Rubber bullets and sponge grenades thwacked against protesters’ umbrellas as they mounted a charge up a steep escalator. It did not take a sharp military mind to see that the odds were not in their favor. Police were better equipped and had the higher ground, yet the protesters pushed on before finally being repelled under a cloud of tear gas so thick, it was difficult to see more than a few feet.

The scene was similar to one I watched play out on Sunday, when protesters hunkered down on a major roadway just in front of a luxury shopping mall and Hong Kong’s High Court, facing down seemingly insurmountable force. Police officers would rush forward from their line, with one shouldering a tear-gas launcher and firing into the crowd before retreating. In a roughly 90-second period, I counted 13 rounds being fired. Opposite, protesters crouched in a tight formation, their umbrellas creating an interlocking yet porous wall, with the umbrellas twisting and ripping, torn from protesters’ hands as police munitions deflected off of them. Demonstrators would pop up to hurl a brick or petrol bomb toward the police, with most falling short and landing with a thud or small burst of flames in the length of asphalt separating the warring parties.

The group slowly moved forward, a multicolored wall of synthetic fabric inching its way toward the officers. As police began backpedaling, protesters broke into a sprint, sending officers scrambling into vans with the press, lined up on either side of the street in high-visibility vests, giving chase. The umbrellas—used moments before as defensive shields—became offensive weapons, slamming the vans as they pulled away. Above, on the mall’s pedestrian bridge, shoppers pressed their phones to the glass, hoping to capture a few moments of the mayhem.

An online forum popular with protesters described these frontline demonstrators as “the spear” clearing the way for other, nonviolent marchers to continue on their route. As I watched the marchers move past, a protester yelled out to me. He shoved two rubber bullets into my hand, offered a muffled “Thank you” through his black mask, and pressed on, likely to the next battle.