Hundreds of lawyers opted for a silent march through city streets to decry what they said were politically-motivated prosecutions, designed to scare people.
The arrest for buying a gadget sold readily at street stalls outraged students, who promptly bought hundreds more. They gathered at the smooth white dome of the space museum that night to try to “blow it up” with their “laser guns”. It was a dazzling light show.
The levity of the young protesters cut a contrast to the special meeting of China’s top officials on Hong Kong gathered across the border in Shenzhen. With 500 pro-Beijing politicians and establishment business people summoned from Hong Kong to attend, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, used the word “turmoil”.
Beijing had the capability to “quicky quell” unrest if the Hong Kong government was unable to handle it, he told the meeting.
Turmoil is a loaded word in China’s political lexicon. It evokes the summer of 1989 in China, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Zhang said the Hong Kong protests looked like a “colour revolution”.
As the violence spirals on the streets, the historical resonance of 1989, which also began as a long, hot summer of street marches, chills older Hong Kong residents.
This week, Beijing has begun to sabre rattle. The most senior Communist Party official for the People’s Armed Police, Guo Shengkun, a Politburo member, arrived in Shenzhen. An anti-riot drill was staged by 12,000 Shenzhen police across the water from Hong Kong on Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Hong Kong police fired 800 rounds of tear gas to quell protests at seven locations after a general strike where protesters blocked roads, disrupted trains, surrounded police stations, lit fires and threw rocks. Residents emerged furious at police as tear gas swept through residential neighbourhoods, affecting the elderly and children.
The chaos erupted after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam gave a televised address accusing the protesters of calling for “revolution”.
The similarity between Lam’s words on Monday, and a pivotal People’s Daily editorial of 1989 that condemned student protesters – ahead of martial law being imposed – is striking.
The April 26 1989 editorial also labelled the protest movement “turmoil”. A conspiracy by a small minority had provoked the masses to try to achieve their political goals of toppling the Communist Party, claimed the People’s Daily in a story which is believed to have been written by hardline Premier Li Peng himself. They had even shouted reactionary slogans, it said. They must be prosecuted by law. The economy was at risk. People needed to understand the seriousness of the situation and take a clear-cut stand to unite and oppose the disturbance.
According to Lam: “What is now in front of us is an extremely serious matter, and that is Hong Kong’s continued safety, security and of course, prosperity … so it is for all of us to join hands, to rally together, to say no to the chaos and the violence.”
A small, violent group behind the protests were “concealing ulterior motives” of revolution, she said, and must be dealt with by police. Hong Kong is “on the verge of a very dangerous situation”.
Lam refused to meet any of the protesters’ key demands: fully withdrawing a controversial extradition bill, setting up an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct, universal suffrage.
At the Shenzhen meeting on Thursday, Zhang reportedly said it is not the right time for a commission of inquiry, because the violence must first be stopped.
Li, who died last month, refused to negotiate with student leaders in 1989, insisting social stability first had to be restored.
As Beijing reverts to the 1989 playbook, Hong Kong’s smartphone-wielding masked protesters are in a completely different game. There are no protest leaders for Lam, or the real decision-maker, Beijing, to refuse to hold a dialogue with. It’s all about laser parties, flash mobs, storming the parliament – and Bruce Lee’s kung fu mantra “Be water”. The next protest is organised through an upvoting system on an anonymous Cantonese forum called LIHKG, which also spreads calls for supplies and crowd funds for advertising.
The “leaderless” concept arose because anyone who becomes a face for the movement is likely to be arrested, as happened to the 2014 Occupy leaders who were jailed en masse earlier this year.
Umbrella founders Joshua Wong and Nathan Law are around on the street, but so are a range of student, church, political and activist circles. The hierarchy of decision-making is determined on social media.
And recently, the decisions have been more hot-headed as police make more arrests. Drown the Chinese flag, deface the national emblem, seige police stations, they say.
A handful of masked protesters held two press conferences this week but said they represented only “some” views of the movement and not all. They wouldn’t negotiate on their original demands, and dismissed Lam’s claims they wanted “revolution”.
Professor Sonny Lo Shui-hing, a political analyst at Hong Kong University, and author of 11 books on democratisation, policing and China’s United Front, says there is a huge gulf between the protesters and the government.
Lam’s attack on the protesters had mirrored pro-Beijing media and Beijing’s office, he said. Instead, the government should offer public discussion on democratic reform, and hold an independent commission into the whole extradition bill saga, on the proviso that violence stops, he said. It could also offer an amnesty for arrested protesters until the independent commission reported its finding.
“Self-restraint and concessions from all stakeholders appear to be very critical in the search for a solution to the political impasse,” he said.
But the absence of flexible leadership on either side makes this unlikely.
“One complication of the entire chaos in Hong Kong is that while the ruling and the central authorities are politically hard-line, the protester side remains very fragmented and appears to lack ‘leaders’ who would be able to call the shots and to order a termination of violent activities.”
If the tide of public opinion turns, Beijing hopes, this will be the beginning of the end of this current cycle of protests.
Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“As such, the political circumstances will likely remain volatile, uncertain and unstable. Unless intermediaries emerge to serve as an acceptable and a trusted bridge between the protesters and the government, unless both sides can consider making mutual concessions, and unless Beijing agrees to such concessions from both sides, the Hong Kong disturbances will likely persist.”
Intervention by the Chinese military, the People’s Armed Police, “become a realistic possibility”, says Lo.
Beijing can legally intervene if it declares Hong Kong is in a state of emergency, the official China Daily editorialised on Thursday.
Yet the biggest reason why the Chinese military won’t be called onto the streets of Hong Kong also stems from 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre was so damaging that China has spent 30 years trying to expunge the military crackdown from popular memory and official history.
It casts a shadow so long in the west that Hong Kong’s foreign investors would likely flee. Troops on the streets in the sophisticated financial hub would be a body-blow to China’s attempt to cast itself as a responsible global power spending billions of dollars on the Belt and Road Initiative for no military goal.
“Beijing’s only credible policy toward restoring law and order is to wait until public opinion turns against the protesters,” says Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Beijing is stonewalling demands for political change; the protesters are getting angrier. But the latter may have fallen into Beijing’s trap.”
“Beijing hopes the protesters will use more violent tactics so that more members of the silent majority (as well as the business community) will feel alienated. The stock market is not doing well and people have lost money. If the tide of public opinion turns, Beijing hopes, this will be the beginning of the end of this current cycle of protests.”
But Lam says this won’t resolve the “deep-seated contradictions” in Hong Kong, where support for democracy chafes against Beijing’s encroachment, and which originally sparked the million-strong marches against the extradition bill in June.
In trying to guess at Beijing’s next move, two key dates emerge: soon China’s leadership will decamp to the seaside resort of Beihaide for the annual conclave in August. A wide circle of party elders and policy makers will decide the path ahead on key issues. No big decision is likely before this meeting.
But October 1 may loom as the other bookend of Beijing’s tolerance. The date marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, to be celebrated with a military parade in Beijing and fireworks in Hong Kong.
Willy Lam says: “The PLA garrison won’t be deployed – if at all – before October 1. This would spoil the atmosphere for the big show for the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC.”
But could such a large public ceremony be held in Hong Kong amid unpredictable “flash mob” protests that target the Chinese flag, with clouds of tear gas billowing through the city?
Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.