Protests in Hong Kong escalate: Is there a way out?
'I think if anything has moved, it's an escalation,' says reporter Mary Hui
As anti-government protests in Hong Kong reach their tenth week, one journalist covering the conflict says tensions between police and residents aren't showing signs of slowing.
On Friday, demonstrators crowded the halls of Hong Kong's main airport, handing out leaflets to travellers that describe the city as "broken, torn-apart" and "unlike the one you once have pictured." The Canadian government raised a travel advisory for the country the day before.
Meanwhile, Quartz reporter Mary Hui, says police have been firing record numbers of tear gas canisters into crowds.
This is the start of week 10 of the Hong Kong protests. Is there any sense that the line is moving, that a resolution may be coming?
I think if anything has moved, it's an escalation. We, this week on Monday, saw the largest strike in decades in Hong Kong and that was followed by rallies all throughout the city. I've never seen so many demonstrations and protests break out on the same day.
And because of that there was also a record amount of tear gas fired by the police throughout the city and it just developed throughout the day and into the night. So that is definitely the most tense I've ever seen it here throughout the 10 weeks.
And the response from the Chinese government was this threat that came midweek, it has very strong language in it: Do not mistake restraint for weakness, they say, and those who play with fire will perish by it.
What do you make of this threat? Are people taking this seriously?
This is the second time that the Hong Kong and Macao affairs office in Beijing has spoken out directly about these protests.
The first time they did so was last week and they did it again this week after the Monday strike and the protests. It's definitely a stern warning from them, but at the same time, they are saying that they have complete faith in the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police to restore order and stability.
What I read from that is that they are willing to, at least for now, leave things in the Hong Kong government's hands.
Of course they have not categorically ruled out sending in the military — I don't think they will ever say that that will never happen. They always want to leave a slight [possibility] ... and of course that is written into Hong Kong's Basic Law, the mini constitution of the city, that the People's Liberation Army can be brought in if necessary.
So we do have to read between the lines of what China is saying, and right now it seems like they do want to leave things in Hong Kong's hands, but leave open the possibility of course, however remote — and I think it is quite remote at this point of sending in troops.
That's good, because that could be very bloody, and a lot of people look at that and predict there could be another Tiananmen. But things have obviously changed a lot since 1989. Why do you think that the Chinese government is is willing to use restraint in this case?
I think what we have this year, 2019, is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China which, of course, is a hugely important anniversary. And I don't think [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping will want anything to detract from that as they celebrate this milestone.
Earlier this week the Chinese official for Hong Kong affairs said, about the protests, this is a quote: "At the front there are a small number of violent radicals; in the middle are some kind-hearted citizens who've been misguided and coerced to join."
What they seem to be suggesting is what they said in 2014 when the Umbrella Protests happened — that a silent majority in the city is on Beijing's side. Do you think that they're right about that?
I think that's a very paternalistic way of looking at things. That's probably not giving any credit or agency to the citizens on the ground here to make their own decisions and evaluate what they want to do and how they want to carry out their own actions of course.
It's absolutely correct that people on both sides — both the police and protesters — have stepped up their actions. We have seen bricks being thrown at police stations; bins have been set on fire; what appear to be Molotov cocktails have been hurled at police stations.
And at the same time the police have unleashed a record number of tear gas canisters — some of which appear to be expired — and [they] also fire them in densely populated residential areas, really drawing in residents and civilians who may not actually be taking part in these protests.
So if you're right and there is not a major crackdown, a violent crackdown, coming from Beijing, what would be their next play? What's the best thing, what's the most reasonable thing you could expect from China to try to defuse things?
I think the easiest option right now — the lowest hanging piece of fruit — for the Hong Kong government and for the Chinese government is to set up an independent commission to look into alleged police misconduct. But also to look into how this entire extradition bill saga came to be, but also to look into protests.
So an all-rounded investigation to get the truth out. That would be one. Another is to actually just say we are completely withdrawing the bill, not just suspending it — not just saying that it's dead, but that it is completely, officially withdrawn in the legislative sense.
I think those two things will really de-escalate the situation and allow people to regain some trust in the government. It does not look like the Hong Kong government is about to do either of those things anytime soon.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Mary Hui, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.