By Matthew Aslett
HONG KONG, China, 4 September 2019
On the evening of Sunday on 23rd of August 2019, a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in the Tsuen Wan district of Hong Kong ended in violence. What follows is a first-hand report from the frontline barricades.
I can see crouched behind my bush that the battle is going well. The no-man’s land between the police and protesters is well defined. The police are just out of range of the protesters’ rocks, and the protesters are regrouping and making ready their next assault from behind their makeshift barricades. Police warning flags are again held aloft, rocks rain down falling just in front of the police line. Police release a barrage of teargas, the protesters retaliate with Molotov cocktails which smash upon landing spraying fire on the bushes and towards a huddled group of media who quickly retreat. Another Molotov lands a metre behind a photographer — he’s unaware, busy photographing the police as they repeatedly fire canister after canister of teargas. Rubber bullets ricochet off umbrellas and road bollards as protesters fight to maintain the frontline. Every teargas grenade thrown by the police results in a multitude of retaliatory strikes as protesters throw back the small cluster bomblets of noxious gas. The illusory protection offered by my bush located in the road’s central reservation is my only shelter as the drama unfolds around me.
Twelve weeks ago the first demonstrations took place over a controversial extradition bill that was seen by many HongKongers as a further infringement of the Hong Kong Basic Law. In 1997 Hong Kong had been returned to China after the expiry of a 99-year British lease, a century-old legacy retained from the “Opium Wars” of the 1800s. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its ruling Communist party, have allowed Hong Kong to retain its basic law and self-govern as a special administrative region, the HKSAR. In 1984 Britain and China both signed the Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong, which was intended to insure Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China’s socialist system for 50 years, until 2047, Permitting time for a smoother and more gradual transition from Hong Kong’s long-established capitalist system into socialist China.
HongKongers fear that the PRC’s Communist leadership in Beijing have plans to accelerate the HKSAR’s integration into the mainland. In 2014 electoral reforms of Hong Kong’s democratic system were announced by Beijing which allowed for the pre-screening of political candidates by the Communist party. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong in peaceful sit-in protests that lasted 79 days, becoming known as the Umbrella Movement.
The air is now saturated with teargas, and it starts to seep into me. My bush is no longer the sanctuary it once was. I carefully retreat beside the line of riot shields and police. The reporter next to me starts to vomit into her mask. As I glance around looking for the safest way out, a police officer takes note and assists her to move back away from the front line. It is not long before I too am overcome and abandon my position. I search for a pocket of fresh clean air, I need to remove my mask, I need to breathe. I make for the nearest entrance away from the line of fire.
The loading bay is already filled with reporters washing and drinking from an open cold water tap, the air is still heavy with gas. Locating a service door, I head further inside hoping it will lead to breathable air. Now standing in a food court I’m surrounded by firefighters and restaurant staff, a few reporters are there also. We exchange knowing glances while being handed glasses of water by the staff.
“Would you like anything to eat?” a young man asks me, “You can order whatever you like from the menu, we’ll take care of it.” But there’s no time to eat. His earnest sentiment resonates the same tone as that of the protesters. They appreciate that reporters are present, that our reports are helping communicate their struggle and keep them safe.
I return to the barricades just as the police are preparing to baton charge the line. The protesters have withdrawn and the police have taken the advantage. They charge into the now-deserted barricades, ripping them apart to make way. Behind them are half a dozen support vehicles, and for the first time two armoured water-cannon trucks.
It is early evening and the light is beginning to fade. A yellow cast of sodium light begins to flood the streets. In the shadows the protesters are again regrouping, busily discussing and deciding on their next strategy. I walk slowly along Yenug Uk Road towards the frontline of protesters. Every junction has been barricaded, an assortment of road bollards, street furniture, building materials, and trash piled up and strewn across the streets. The protesters have fallen back to the junction of an overhead expressway.
The police do not move, they are waiting for reinforcements. I had noticed the expressway junction earlier during the day’s march, and had mentioned to my colleague that this would be a good place to fall back to, and now here we are, awaiting perhaps a final confrontation. The atmosphere is tense, the heavy rain unrelenting as yet more police reinforcements begin to arrive. From behind me comes a sudden shout and the sound of a large vehicle accelerating. I turn around to see a police water cannon opening fire towards the protesters, who turn and run, dispersing like water into the darkness beyond the overpass.
As we now enter the 13th week of protests in Hong Kong, a peaceful resolution seems unlikely. There is no indication that the violence is abating. Within the last 24 hours Hong Kong Police have charged MTR stations and trains injuring terrified civilians whilst attempting to arrest protesters. Just across the border, the Chinese army are conducting anti-riot drills using armoured cars. With violent clashes between protesters and police continuing to be increasingly aggravated, further escalation seems unavoidable.
Beijing continues to publicly condemn the pro-democracy protesters, labelling them seditious agents of Western states. As the people of Hong Kong continue their struggle for democracy, they believe their fate may be determined by political pressure from the international community. Whether the international community takes any action could be the defining factor in a peaceful outcome. Until that time, the battle for Hong Kong is sure to continue.