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‘Facing the darkest hour’: Hong Kong’s protest movement in crisis

Many demonstrators have been deterred by the police’s increasingly forceful response.
Many demonstrators have been deterred by the police’s increasingly forceful response. Lam Yik Fei/New York Times

HONG KONG — Protesters have deleted their social media accounts, afraid that their messages could be used against them under China’s new national security laws. Young parents have scoured the Internet for instructions on emigration. Organizers have planned rallies, only to cancel them at the last minute in the face of impenetrable police blockades.

Hong Kong’s protest movement — which last year cowed the local government and humiliated the authorities in Beijing who direct it — is in crisis. The tactics that had pushed officials to retreat at times are suddenly inadequate against an aggressive police force, fear of the coronavirus, and a Chinese Communist Party that has run out of patience. Many protesters feel they have exhausted their options.

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“It’s the beginning of the end,” said Michael Mo, a protest organizer and local official.

The Chinese government’s plan to impose security laws on Hong Kong that could curtail the city’s civil liberties has left the freewheeling and decentralized opposition movement seeking not only a next move but a new vision.

Its campaign for democracy was always a long shot, targeting a local government whose leadership is only accountable to Beijing. But China’s direct intervention has made the challenges even more explicit, forcing a more fundamental reckoning about how to fight back, what the goal is — and whether it is even worth it to try.

Further complicating their calculus, the protesters, a jumble of students, teachers, politicians, and activists, find themselves at the center of a fight between China and the United States.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sees the security push as necessary to protect the country’s sovereignty, while President Trump has cast it as an encroachment on civil liberties, moving on Friday to strip away some of Hong Kong’s privileges with the United States.

Some protesters say they will continue to march, futile though it may be, while others who had thrown Molotov cocktails say they now prefer boycotts or strikes. Some want to preserve Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from China, while others have joined the once-taboo call for outright independence.

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Many are pinning their hopes on the United States’ pressure on China, but others fear they will become pawns in their rivalry.

What binds many of the protesters together, more than anything, is weariness and dread.

Their demands for universal suffrage — which would allow for direct elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive and all lawmakers — and for a more accountable police force remain unmet, despite months of demonstrations. Now that Beijing has escalated the fight, many protesters realize that they may not be able to do the same.

“We tried almost everything we could think of last year,” said Alex Tang, 32, a labor organizer. “Maybe we will come up with something better later. But in this moment, the people just feel tired.”

The movement’s wounded condition has been most evident in the place where it first showed its strength: the streets.

Protests against the national security laws in the past week drew thousands, demonstrating that months of pandemic-induced stasis had not dampened their anger. But the turnout fell far short of the hundreds of thousands — and at times, more than 1 million — who attended some of last year’s marches.

Many demonstrators have been deterred by the police’s increasingly forceful response. Last year, peaceful protesters were given wide latitude, and when clashes erupted, they raged for hours. Protesters lobbed bricks and gasoline bombs, while officers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

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Now, swarms of anti-riot officers, under the command of a new police chief appointed by Beijing, scatter even peaceful demonstrators with water cannons and pepper spray from the outset. On Wednesday, protesters called off a rally at the legislature after hundreds of police officers preemptively surrounded the complex.

When the protesters poured into the streets instead, the police detained them en masse, in some cases within an hour. More than 360 were arrested Wednesday on top of 180 earlier in the week.

Organizers have acknowledged that for some, the cost of protesting may be too high.

“My gut feeling is that it might let really peaceful protesters, average Joes, stay at home instead,” Mo said of the pending security laws. “They are afraid of being arrested, harassed by police.”

Activists suggested that labor unions and boycotts of pro-Beijing businesses could offer new avenues for resistance. That approach had worked in August, when large numbers of air traffic controllers called in sick, forcing the cancellation of more than 200 flights.

In February, even as the coronavirus made large gatherings impossible, a medical workers’ strike helped force the government to close parts of the border with the mainland.

Some protesters fear that the security laws, which will be sweeping in scope, could target unions and nongovernmental organizations, many of which formed out of last year’s protests.

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The language of the security plan, which China’s legislature approved Thursday, is broad: China could impose laws punishing any “acts and activities” that threaten national security, according to state media. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, suggested that tweets critical of Beijing could run afoul of the rules.

Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing have dismissed fears of overreach, promising to uphold Hong Kong’s relative autonomy. But on the mainland, the party has accused church leaders, union leaders, and other organizers of undermining state security.

Timing is also not on the unions’ side. The pandemic has further battered Hong Kong’s economy, and some workers are reluctant to strike when unemployment is high, said Tang, the labor organizer, whose union of information technology workers is one of the newly formed groups.

That could change if the global recession, on top of a crackdown, worsens the deep income inequalities fueling many young protesters who feel that they have little to lose.

“If you just give them some time, and the environment is getting worse, they may just say, ‘Screw it. I’ll go out anyway,’ ” Tang said.

In perhaps the clearest sign of how Beijing’s latest move has forced many protesters to reassess their strategy, calls for independence for Hong Kong — once a fringe idea — have become common at recent demonstrations.

Historically, most democracy supporters had dismissed the idea of independence as impractical and needlessly divisive, pointing to Hong Kong’s cultural and economic ties with China. They pushed instead to preserve the city’s high degree of autonomy enshrined in the “one country, two systems” political formula enacted in 1997 after Britain returned Hong Kong to China.

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But activists said the new push by Beijing proved that the status quo was untenable, and that it had jolted awake protesters who thought they could work within the system.

“Maybe they still had some hope in the coming election, or they still had some optimistic expectation in the future of the movement,” said Ventus Lau, 26, a prominent organizer who identifies as a member of the protests’ “radical” wing, referring to legislative elections in September.

The brazenness of the security laws, which bypassed Hong Kong’s government, was “a very good reminder” for those people, he continued.

“We’re already facing the darkest hour,” Lau said. “And we will continue to fight.”