Anti-extradition bill protests, Hong Kong, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo Anti-extradition bill protests, Hong Kong, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo

As the battleground shifts to universities, pro-democracy demonstrators continue to be met with violence in Hong Kong, reports Alex Doe

On Tuesday 12th November, the leafy riverside campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) became the battle ground between pro-democracy demonstrators and the Hong Kong Police as the latter laid siege on the university community, firing 1312 rubber bullets, 380 beanbag rounds and 1567 teargas canisters (according to police figures). Just a week earlier, hundreds of gowned students marched to their graduation ceremony carrying black banners with the familiar slogans of the movement, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” “Five demands not one less” and “CUHK stand with Hong Kong”.

The siege at CUHK and the violent police storming of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the early hours of Monday 18th November, where hundreds were trapped overnight, mark the latest phase of violent suppression of prodemocracy demonstrations that has been dubbed Tiananmen 2.0. The pro-democracy movement has drawn wide support across the territory from university students, school pupils, the elderly, and city workers who are regularly joining lunchtime demonstrations in Central, Hong Kong’s equivalent to Wall Street. According to a poll broadcast on the Hong Kong TV channel Now News last Tuesday, 82% of Hong Kongers are now against the Beijing appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her response to the demonstrations.

The attack on universities is a deliberate attack on intellectual freedom, the fuel that has ignited the drive for self-determination that the young and educated in Hong Kong are at the forefront of. It is part of a programme of cultural cleansing of Hong Kong by Beijing that aims to turn Hong Kong into an annexure of China (such as in Tibet and Xinjiang, albeit with higher material standards of living). Anxiety about Chinese authoritarianism is not new for the people of Hong Kong. The signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration by Thatcher and Deng in 1984 with the agreement that sovereignty over Hong Kong would be returned to the PRC in 1997 sparked unease across the territory, particularly following the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Many of those who could, emigrated, the vast majority to Canada. After 1998, as the one party two systems model of governance appeared relatively stable, many of those who had emigrated returned. Recent events have seen the reversal of migration out of Hong Kong. With overseas passport holders leaving for the safe havens of their adopted countries. We can expect further outmigration of the middle classes from Hong Kong and their replacement by politically compliant bourgeoisie from the mainland. The attack on Universities is designed to drive out critical voices that hold intellectual authority.

The Hong Kong police have been the main instrument of violent suppression of the movement since the summer. Despite tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops assembled on the border between Hong Kong and the Mainland since August, they have not officially been sent in to clamp down on the protests, rumours and increasing evidence point to the deployment of PLA soldiers dressed in Hong Kong police fatigues during the most violent of skirmishes.  Police have been indiscriminate in their use of violence. Images of infants caught in teargas, children violently tackled and arrested, young female protestors subjected to misogynistic taunts, the elderly forcefully shackled with zip tie handcuffs and pregnant women pepper sprayed and tackled to the ground, now litter the internet. There are now frequent reports of police violence in custody including the gang rape of a teenage demonstrator. Hong Kong police refuse to treat the discovery of the naked body of a 15 year old active protestor as suspicious. It has become common consensus that those killed by police will have their death’s framed as suicide prompting the ritual whereby those being arrested shout out their names and announce that they will not commit suicide so that others can document their claims.

Calls for greater international attention on the territory have been made, particularly in relation to human rights abuses. In the last few days, the U.S. Senate has moved to expedite a bill that would open the path to sanctions against those seen to be eroding freedoms in Hong Kong by not honouring the Sino-British declaration to protect Hong Kong’s freedom and legal system. However, given the primacy of US-China trade negotiations, it is difficult to see how such a bill will manifest materially. In spite of the escalation of violence overnight, Hong Kong’s benchmark stock index rose by 1.1 per cent in late morning trading – buoyed by hopes of progress in the US-China trade negotiations.

Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors recognise that the plight of Hong Kong is an international issue, but this is not the same as seeking international intervention, or a pro-Western stance, as Beijing propaganda would have us believe. Rather, it is a call for solidarity. For all eyes to be on Hong Kong.

The sheer numbers of people flooding the streets of Hong Kong in spite of the physical dangers that it brings is unprecedented in the history of the territory. As I write this, thousands are making their way to Tsim Sha Tsui, where the siege of Poly U continues. Parents of those trapped inside have assembled overnight. Many others are making their way in spite of station closures, water cannons and threats over the use of live ammunition by police. This is a fight for the soul of Hong Kong. And Hong Kongers know that the fight will be on their streets.