Hong Kong’s protesters were working Wednesday to maintain a united front and take stock of the movement’s gains and losses, as police said they had arrested eight people for disclosing police officers’ personal data online without their consent.
On Tuesday, a core group of younger demonstrators drew condemnation from Beijing and the local government for storming the city’s legislature a day earlier.
The Chinese government has urged the city’s officials and police to restore social order and bring to justice those responsible for Monday’s destructive protest, in which dozens of mostly young activists armed with metal bars and makeshift battering rams charged and briefly occupied Hong Kong’s legislative office building. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, and the police have promised to pursue those responsible for the damage.
The forcible occupation of the legislature sent shock waves through this slick financial hub, known for its efficiency and orderliness. The question now is whether the largely leaderless protest movement can maintain enough unity — and public support — to push its demands, or whether Monday’s vandalism will irreparably splinter the movement or damage its credibility.
The arrests appeared to deal a blow to the protesters’ efforts to retain the moral high ground in their dispute with authorities.
A police spokesman, Mohammed Swalikh of the police force’s Technology Crime Division, told reporters Wednesday evening that members of the police force had reported more than 800 incidents of harassment of themselves or family members following the release of their data, a practice known as “doxxing.”
His announcement came a few weeks after critics of police conduct began creating open-source databases in which users shared officers’ phone numbers and the names of their spouses and high schools, among other details, with some lists referring to the police as dogs.
The protest movement is divided to some degree over how best to push its demands as some have started engaging in more militant action. Many in the movement agree on what those demands should be — a full withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China; the resignation of the city’s chief executive; and the opening of an independent inquiry into reports of police brutality against protesters at an earlier demonstration — but differ on whether destructive acts would help or hurt the cause.
The protests on Monday started out with a march that was intended to disrupt the Hong Kong government’s celebration of the anniversary of the territory’s return to China from Britain.
But police beat back those protesters and doused them with pepper spray, and a core group of demonstrators later turned to target the Legislative Council. Police later said that during the confrontations, some protesters threw a toxic substance at officers that could cause itchiness and difficulty breathing, and that 13 officers sought medical treatment.
As the protesters bashed their way into the legislature, hundreds of thousands of other demonstrators joined a peaceful afternoon march calling for Lam to resign.
Several protesters said they did not take part in storming the legislature but defended it as an act of desperation by demonstrators who felt that peaceful tactics had failed to persuade the government to meet the demands of the broader movement.
The demonstrators were also saddened and outraged by the recent deaths of three people in what they described as protest suicides, and have held them up as martyrs in the face of repression.
Some were increasingly worried that there would be more deaths, and people began sharing their concerns and suicide hotline numbers on message groups. A few dozen people on Wednesday morning went out looking for people who had posted despairing messages on social media accounts.
Billy Li, head of the Progressive Lawyers Group, an association of prodemocracy lawyers and students, said that while the use of unlawful force against property could legally be considered violence, the government’s emphasis on the protesters’ vandalism was politically motivated.
“They are using the protesters’ violence to shift the public’s attention away from their demands,” Li said. “The government’s indifference is an even greater violence. Three young people have already given their lives in protest.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, a prodemocracy group that organized several well-attended marches and rallies against the extradition bill, expressed qualified support for the siege.
“Although we hope certain actions that were aroused by tyranny would not need to take place, we fully understand that it was the protesters’ decisions,” the group said in the statement. “Some chose to escalate their actions without calculating their own personal costs. In fact, these protesters have taken a step that none of us were brave enough to take.”
But as the protesters debated their next steps on social media, some raised concerns that a destructive approach — in contrast with demonstrators who had earlier been praised for cleaning up trash after huge rallies — would alienate the public.
Reporters invited by public officials to tour the scene of destruction Wednesday saw brightly lit rooms strewn with snacks, trailing wires, defaced portraits, and graffitied walls. A few binders of confidential documents spilled from shelves.
“I think that this type of action will gradually drain the momentum built by 2 million protesters, because it clearly creates a riot-like impact,” said Candice Lee, 38, a social worker who had participated in previous marches against the extradition bill with her children. She said she believed Monday’s occupation would “cause peaceful protesters who have always been supporting them to part ways with them in disappointment.”