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Demonstrators and police face off on Harcourt Road, Hong Kong, June 12, 2019 (Photo: Dale De La Ray)

Hong Kong, June 12

What happened, how it happened, and how it was five years in the making

On June 9, 1.03 million people marched against the HK government’s plan to legalize extradition to places to which HK currently has no extradition treaty. Most problematic by far of all those places is China, to which no one in HK wishes to be extradited due to the impossibility of receiving a fair trial there, China’s regular practice of charging political enemies with non-political crimes, and general antipathy to the Communist Party and widespread resistance to its constant attempts to tighten its grip in HK.

After that 1.03-million-person march, HK’s Chief Executive said she still intended to move ahead with the legislation, which was to be introduced in the Legislative Council on June 12. In response, a demonstration at Legco was planned on that date. Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of the June 9 march and many otheres, called on demonstrators to arrive at Legco at 10 am, an hour before the session was to begin. Unions and other groups had called for strikes. But young people weren’t following the leadership of any of them and took matters into their own hands. It was stunning how quickly people mobilized, new developments occurring so quickly I could hardly keep up.

At eight o’clock in the morning of Wednesday, June 12, I was walking toward Hong Kong government headquarters when I got word that the streets surrounding it were in the process of being occupied. Streams of young people, dressed mostly in black or white, were headed in the same direction. I told them the news and picked up my pace. They were in no hurry. It was as if they already knew they had this one in the bag.

I arrived at Lung Wo Road, which flanks government headquarters to the north, and sure enough: the road was already full of protesters and barricades were being constructed.

The police had entirely backed off. Were they taken by surprise? Did they not react because they knew control was futile, with so many people arriving in droves? They had acted so aggressively of late, attacking young protesters until late into the night of June 9 to 10 after the 1.03-million-person march, apparently with the purpose of sending the message that any aggressive protest would be met with overwhelming force.

I was a bit spooked by the police simply relinquishing the road to protesters. Were the actions the government and police had taken in the past twenty-four hours only a bluff? The day before, the Legislative Council had closed the “designated Legco protest area” to the public and issued its newfangled “amber alert”, packing the building with hundreds of police officers to defend it. The protest area had been the site of the altercation between young protesters and police late on June 9 that lead to police chasing protesters through the streets for hours into the night. The government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department had issued a notice that the lawn of Tamar Park, at the center of government headquarters, was closed for “regular maintenance work”. Civic Square, a formerly popular protest site and the place where the Umbrella Movement was sparked in 2014, was still closed, in defiance of a High Court ruling that the restricted access to the public was unconstitutional. The government was intent on turning its headquarters into a no-protest zone. The police had issued stern warnings and acted aggressively toward the relatively small number of demonstrators who’d come out Tuesday evening, with their mass stop-and-search operations in the Admiralty MTR station, the closest to government headquarters, gaining particular notoreity and opprobrium. The images of them stopping and searching people en masse gave me a sense of just how quickly our basic rights can be taken away.

And then, when Wednesday morning came, all of that intimidation simply evaporated.

Many groups and individuals had called publicly for actions on Wednesday, but most of them were scheduled to start later in the morning, closer to the time the Legco session was to begin, 11 am. But the young people had their own networks of communication, not shared publicly, and the word was clearly out: Come earlier. For many, the idea was to block pro-Communist Legco members from getting to Legco so as to prevent the meeting from even being held.

Police had erected a maze of barricades at the intersection of Lung Wo Rd and Tim Wa Ave. As during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, they were intent on defending the Chief Executive’s office, the entrance to which is on Tim Wa Ave. That one-block-long road, flanked on the other side by the People’s Liberation Army HK Garrison Headquarters, was thronged with police officers and vans.

I walked up Tamar Park to Harcourt Rd and saw that the same thing had occurred there as on Lung Wo Rd: Thousands had filled the road, and there was no police presence.

The mood of the protesters was strikingly subdued, somber if not grim. The attitude seemed to be, We have business to do, let’s do it. This was in striking contrast to the initial occupation at the start of the Umbrella Movement.

Then, there was elation. People looked around at each other in joy as if to say, We did it! Tension had been building over the course of the day. The crowds had grown so large there was nowhere else to go but the road, and eventually people flooded into it. Police cordons were surrounded by demonstrators on all sides and eventually at 5:58 pm, they shot the first of 87 rounds of teargas in an attack that went on for the next eight hours. Each time, people retreated and then returned.

By contrast, on June 12, the roads had filled up without the police so much as trying to prevent it.

Once the word went out the streets were occupied, the crowds grew and grew over the next few hours. Between 10 and 11am, it was announced Legco had cancelled its meeting for the day. Cheers went up: mission one accomplished. The ultimately objective, of course, was to get the government to withdraw the extradition legislation entirely. That was still a long way off, but this was a start.

The main activities in the occupied areas were constructing barricades and setting up supply stations. During the course of the morning, I walked the occupation’s perimeters. They were continually expanding as more and more people came and the barricades were pushed further out. This was especially the case on the west side of Harcourt Rd, toward Central. Eventually, the barricades were pushed past Cotton Tree Drive to the west and up Cotton Tree Drive to the south. Queensway was occupied too. At its furthest extent at 3 pm, the occupied area was almost as large as it was during the Umbrella Movement, and probably the only reason it wasn’t quite that big was that making it as big as possible wasn’t the occupiers’ ambition. They had other ideas.

The June 12 protesters were overwhelmingly young people between the ages of about 18 and 25. They had to have been no more than teenagers at the time of the Umbrella Movement.

I’d been out on the streets constantly in the years since 2014, all along asking myself, Where are the young people? I’d had enough discussions and debates with them along the way to have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question, but still, I missed them and I knew the movement needed them.

And now, lo and behold, there they were! I wanted to hug each of them. From behind their masks, they looked back at my big smile with, at first, a hint of suspicion: Who are you?

After the Umbrella Movement, a lot of young people were depressed and demotivated, but there was also a lot of energy: new groups like Demosistō, Youngspiration and Hong Kong Indigenous started up, all formed by young people and appealing to young people. New ideas and thinking flourished. Localism — in a nutshell, the idea that it is important to defend Hong Kong against the Communist Party — sprouted and had wide appeal among young people. Some advocated self-determination, the idea that HK people should have the right to determine their political status, especially after the end of the 50-year one-country two-systems period in 2047. Some advocated flat-out independence.

There was also a lot of “creative destruction” (or just plain destruction, depending on how you looked at it). Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the leading groups in the Umbrella Movement, virtually fell apart, as localist-inspired disaffiliation campaigns on university campuses won referenda on student unions withdrawing from the federation. The disaffection with HKFS grew out of a perception by some that its leadership was ineffectual and its governance structure undemocratic. For years preceding the Umbrella Movement, HKFS had always in the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. Now it was moribund, and not replaced by anything else. The student unions on university campuses had, for the most part, been so neutralized politically that many wondered whether they’d fallen victim to CCP infiltrators.

From the time the Umbrella Movement ended in December 2014 until the Legislative Council elections in September 2016, this period of efflorescence, on the one hand, and “creative destruction” on the other continued. It’s not uncommon following a mass uprising such as the Umbrella Movement for such a shake-up to occur, but many wondered what if anything would come of it.

In February 2016, on the first night of Chinese New Year, clashes took place in Mong Kok between police and protesters. As with the Umbrella Movement, youth was front and center, but these young people were fed up with the “wimpy” tactics of the Umbrella Movement and were determined to stand up to the police.

Actually, what they did was hand the Hong Kong government the golden opportunity to decimate them. It immediately labeled the incident a ‘riot’ and prosecuted accordingly. Hong Kong Indigenous, a group that was on its way up, is now moribund. Of its two main leaders, one, Edward Leung, is in prison for six years for ‘rioting’, and the other, Ray Wong, has become Hong Kong’s first political refugee, gaining asylum in Germany along with fellow ‘rioter’ Alan Li. As of today, 27 people have been convicted for Mong Kok and sentenced to a total of 77 years, two months and 21 days in prison, some receiving the heaviest sentences ever in HK for protest-related crimes. And the Hong Kong government found they had a new and convenient label to apply to protests of the sort that occurred in Mong Kok — ‘riot’, because, after all, we all detested violence, didn’t we?

I am a strong believer in nonviolence, for both moral and strategic reasons. In the years after the Umbrella Movement, I spent a lot of time arguing with young people who said the movement showed that nonviolence didn’t work and violence was the only way forward. I thought that Mong Kok would show them how violence simply played into the hands of the authorities. But instead, it drove them underground. After Mong Kok, it is true that I had fewer debates with young people about violence versus nonviolence, but this is because they stopped talking.

Then in the September 2016 Legislative Council elections, localists and self-determinationists did quite well. This sounded alarm bells for the Communist Party. It decided it had an incipient rebellion on its hands and it was going to crush it.

Since then, the repression has been unrelenting. Six democratically elected Legco members were disqualified. Two of them were localists, two self-determinationists, all four were young people. A dozen potential candidates have been barred from running for office on political grounds, though there are no laws prohibiting any of their views. This leaves a significant spectrum of the electorate, consisting of as much as 20% by some estimates, effectively disenfranchised, and an even higher percentage of young people among whom localism, self-determinationism and independence have wide appeal. The use of courts to carry out political attacks was stepped up. To date, 33 pro-democracy leaders, including 16 Legco members, have faced 48 trials. Fourteen have received 18 prison sentences. Five are currently in prison. Hundreds of ordinary pro-democracy protesters have been prosecuted. For the first time ever, a political party, Hong Kong National Party, has been banned. There have been frequent direct intrusions by the Communist Party, first through ‘interpretation’ of the Basic Law to basically compel HK courts to disqualify the above-mentioned democratically elected Legco members, then by taking a part of HK land and placing it under mainland jurisdiction at the new express rail terminus, and most recently, through the imposition of a law criminalizing ‘insult’ of what the Party calls the national anthem. The attacks have been pretty much non-stop for three years now.

There have been two important effects of the repression. First, it has driven resistance underground. I used to have a pretty good sense of the political lay of the land, but it’s becoming harder to read because less public. Second, young people have become increasingly disaffected from formal political groups of any kind and from the political system in general, which they rightly regard as rigged and illegitimate. The post-Umbrella parties started by young people have been crushed, and the existing pro-democracy political parties have little appeal to youth and have done a lamentably poor job of reaching out to young people.

Eighty to ninety percent of HK young people have a very strong sense of HK identity, detest the Communist Party, and want nothing to do with a China under Party rule. That’s a huge base of resistance that the Party will have to contend with for years to come and yet they’ve been largely uninvolved, biding their time in the shadows over the last five years.

This political situation could be seen on June 12. There was a huge gap between the established pro-democracy organizations and young people. The lack of communication and interaction in decision-making would have a strong bearing on the day’s outcome.

The June 12 young people are somewhat different from the ones who were most prominent in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Not as high a percentage of them are university students. They come from a less well-off socioeconomic background. About 50% of HK people live in public housing estates because they can’t afford housing at market rates in the most expensive housing market in the world. Quite a few of the young people who came out on June 12 are public housing estate kids. These are the people who can’t escape HK; they’re trapped here. These days, when I find myself in social gatherings of middle class people, an inevitable topic of conversation is, Are you leaving or are you staying? When I hang out with young people at the public housing estate, that never comes up; it’s simply not an option for them. On top of that, for all too many young people, the prospect of a decent job with decent pay and a decent place to live is not high. The June 12 young people are, all in all, a somewhat scruffier and maybe a bit tougher lot. I like that about them. We’ve needed their anger and their energy. For them, June 12 wasn’t just opposition to the extradition bill. It was rebellion against an unjust, authoritarian system that operates by excluding them and almost every one else from any meaningful participation. It was rage at how the Communist Party and the puppet Hong Kong government had kicked HK around for the last five years. The extradition bill was simply the tipping point.

And the point where all segments of the 70 percent of the population that opposes Communist rule in HK unite is the defense of HK. The June 12 protest was part of a series of protests that brought that 70 percent out to the streets.

There have been three marches against extradition to China. The first, on March 31, drew 12,000. These were mostly the usual suspects like myself who always show up for such events. The government didn’t listen. The second, on April 28, drew 130,000, already the biggest protest since the Umbrella Movement. But still, the government didn’t listen. The third, on Sunday, June 9, drew 1.03 million, the largest protest in HK since the 1997 handover.

Virtually all of civil society was mobilized to an extent greater than before the start of the Umbrella Movement. There were also lots of young people in the June 9 march; it was just that, there were so many people period, they didn’t stick out so much. 1.03 million people, 13% of Hong Kong’s population. And still, the government didn’t listen. You can see how people had reached the end of their rope. For years, young people hadn’t shown up at marches they thought they were futile. And even after 1.03 million marched, nothing. So June 12 was their day. And they came prepared.

From about 10 am to 3 pm, the occupations were calm. The atmosphere was relaxed. People were settling in.

Around noon, I heard police had warned people against throwing bricks. At first, I thought this was nothing but police propaganda. The occupations had been entirely peaceful. But then I heard rumors, and I went around to investigate. I looked in places where the bricks could potentially be stashed. I went through the crowd and looked to see whether anyone was carrying bricks. I could find no sign of them. (Later, I saw the photo that was doing the rounds and heard about the site along Lung Wo Rd where people had been digging up bricks.)

Then I heard the anonymous call doing the rounds: If the extradition bill was not withdrawn by 3pm, an escalation would occur. Its exact nature was not specified, but it wasn’t hard to guess what and where it would be.

I went back over to the south side of Tim Wa Ave where demonstrators and police faced each other across barricades. All morning, it had been one of the tenser places — police had used copious amounts of pepper spray to keep protesters a distance from their barricades — , and I could feel the tension growing.

I checked again for bricks under the Harcourt Rd flyover — none. I worked my way through the crowd and talked about the escalation with as many as I could. I argued it was better to wait at least until people started getting off work and could come out and join us. The increased numbers would provide greater protection against police aggression. From the moment I saw the street occupations that morning, I figured the police were under orders to clear them within twenty-four hours and would probably think of the late hours of the night as their best opportunity, when crowd numbers were bound to dwindle.

My arguments weren’t having much effect. People wanted something to happen, and sooner rather than later. I’d heard that pro-democracy Legco member Wu Chi-wai had also called for an escalation at 5pm, the nature of which was unclear. At least in the part of the crowd where I was, that didn’t resonate at all. Pro-democracy Legco members had been performing the important and largely thankless task of standing between police and protester barricades and attempting to mediate. At one point, Alvin Yeung came over to the protesters and said the police wouldn’t charge if protesters didn’t, to which one protester said, I don’t like you but thank you for telling us that.

Some have referred to the June 12 demonstration as “leaderless” and compared that to the Umbrella Movement. But it’s more complex: In 2014, when the police started firing teargas, some student leaders such as Joshua Wong, Lester Shum and Alex Chow were still in prison, being held there for up to the 48-hour limit after their arrests over the course of the previous two days for occupying Civic Square. When the teargas went off, two of the main groups, Hong Kong Federation of Students and Occupy Central with Love and Peace, actually called on people to leave for their own safety, fearing the police could escalate to live ammunition. But the “leaderless” people didn’t listen to them. If they had, there would have been no Umbrella Movement. The recognition of certain groups as de facto leaders of the movement, first and foremost HKFS followed by Scholarism and OCLP, really only came after things had settled in, and even then, there was always an uneasy relationship between these leading groups and the people occupying the streets. So there was a degree of anarchy in the Umbrella Movement too.

It is not uncommon that when street movements ‘explode’, there is no clear leadership. Often things just seem to happen, and it’s only once they go on for a while that some form of leadership usually emerges. Obviously, June 12 didn’t last long enough to find out whether that would have occurred.

The thing that was striking about June 12 was the extent to which anonymous calls were influential. There is a big potential downside to that: Who are these people? What are their intentions? There is always the potential of agents provocateurs, infiltrators, or people with interests that aren’t necessarily aligned with those of most protesters. Leaderless actions are vulnerable to manipulation. They leave a lot to chance. And this way of decision-making can only be considered democratic if the anonymous call really does seem to resonate with most people. Even then, it’s hardly a process of calm and rational deliberation.

But where I was, at the south side of Tim Wa Ave, people wanted something to happen. Moments after 3 pm, some in the crowd near the eastern side of the barricades moved toward the police line. Altogether several dozen people were involved. Everyone else stood watching them, cheering them on, yes, but not participating. This went on for some time. They’d move a few steps forward, the police would shoot streams of pepper spray, they’d rain bottles, hardhats and umbrellas (but no bricks or poles) down on the police. They weren’t making much progress, and it didn’t look like they would.

Then, quite suddenly, the police who had been at the barricades retreated, taking their yellow containers of pepper spray on wheels with them. They were replaced by a smaller number of fiercer-looking officers in dark uniforms. I could see an officer hiding behind them with a teargas gun. What were the police up to?

Then those cops started retreating, and as they did, they fired teargas. I thought the main reason they were doing so was to provide cover for their retreat. Before long, they’d disappeared, and after the teargas dissipated just a bit, protesters swarmed into Tim Wa Ave.

In the 79 days of the Umbrella Movement, demonstrators had never gotten in there, and now police were just letting protesters in, even though their cordon had never been breached. Something was fishy.

Protesters were rushing in barricades (as someone said, this should be Hong Kong’s Olympic sport) and placing them directly in front of the entrance to the compound containing the Chief Executive’s office. As they were constructing the barricades, more teargas started coming, it was hard to tell from where. Demonstrators scattered to both ends of Tim Wa Ave. They weren’t exactly panicking, but they were confused and uncertain, just the effect the police presumably hoped for. Along with many others, I emerged from the south end of Tim Wa Ave into Lung Wo Rd.

Before long, a line of less than a dozen of the vicious-looking police officers in black uniforms emerged from the Lung Wo Rd underpass. I shouted at the crowd, There are only a dozen of them and thousands of us, just sit down. A few began to sit down, but then more teargas went off nearby and many more dozens of officers in riot gear appeared and ran toward us.

It was then it occurred to me that the police were taking the opportunity of the escalations (I later heard another occurred at Legco at about the same time) to do what they otherwise probably would’ve waited until late at night to do: clear the whole area of demonstrators. And they were adopting the militaristic, shock-and-awe approach of overwhelming force.

I still wanted people to sit down, but now no one was paying attention to me. As I saw it, when you have that many people, there’s really nothing the police can do to you unless they decide to open fire, and if you simply sit down, they have no pretext for doing so. Apart from that, I didn’t think the police had gotten to the point of opening fire on people. But when the other protesters didn’t listen to me, I could see that the urgent objective had bcome getting people safely out of harm’s way.

For the people who’d continued west toward Central on Lung Wo Rd, that was not so problematic, but thousands were penned in Tamar Park north of the road. To the west of the park is a fairgrounds surrounded by a fence. Some demonstrators climbed the fence and ran off across the fairgrounds, but for most, the only place to leave is a space of pavement perhaps five or six meters wide between the fairgrounds fence on one side and the harbor on the other. There was a risk of a stampede.

I got others to tell the protesters to move slowly, and then I got as close to the police as I dared and told them everyone was leaving but they had to stop pushing forward so rapidly and give people time to get out; there were too many to go down that narrow corridor as quickly as the police wished.

Fortunately, the police we were dealing with were relatively reasonable compared to those I later saw in videos who appeared intent on terrorizing protesters. They relented, slowing their pace, and thousands of us cleared out of the park safely, moving down the corridor and ending up right in front of the observation wheel, much to the astonishment of the few tourists remaining there.

We were trying to get a sense of what the situation was like elsewhere and quickly realized the police had not managed to clear demonstrators off of Harcourt Rd as quickly as they had off Lung Wo Rd. But they were persisting and in all likelihood would eventually succeed. After resting a bit, most of us made our way to Central where we met up with the demonstrators who’d been pushed down there from Lung Wo Rd and Harcourt Rd.

I was dispirited. This was a major screw-up on our part, I thought. And it was precipitated by a tiny minority of demonstrators attempting to breach police cordons. All right, they were cheered on by many others, but still. They had jumped the gun, and now all of the people who would have come out after work wouldn’t have the chance.

But I quickly realized most others were not as dejected as I. They were defiant and angry. This was when I first started hearing reports of the violence perpetrated upon demonstrators by the police, none of which I witnessed first-hand except for the teargas. But apart from feeling sad about the injuries inflicted, most others were not so bothered. They had a different way of looking at things: For me, it was all about holding onto territory, and we had lost it all due to the tactical error of a few. But most of the others weren’t interested in any kind of long-term occupation. For them, it wasn’t about inspirational photos of hundreds of thousands on Harcourt Rd. They’d accomplished their mission: Legco couldn’t meet that day. And the police attack was of such scale and ferocity, that it was hard to imagine Legco would meet the next day. (And indeed it didn’t, and not the next either, or the next, or the next. At the moment of writing, it is scheduled to reopen on Wednesday, June 19, a full week after the protest.)

From this perspective, the police had lost by winning. First of all, as the images emerged of their brutality, they clearly lost the p.r. battle. Secondly, rather than them tricking us into Tim Wa Ave, we’d tricked them into bringing things to a fever pitch and essentially turning the government district into a war zone. Their victory was Pyrrhic. They had militarized the city and all but put the area surrounding government headquarters under lockdown. Now, not only was Tim Wa Ave closed to the public, so was Tim Mei Ave. Admiralty MTR was closed. Even, by the next day, the luxury shopping mall Pacific Place was closed. To what lengths would the government go to avoid interacting with the people? To what lengths would the police go to prevent people from getting in the vicinity of government headquarters? To what lengths would both go toward turning the people into the enemy?

I’d been thinking the protesters should wait until people got off work, but they wanted to provoke the police in broad daylight so the world could see the force’s brutality. They tricked the cops, who thought they were so clever with their military maneuvers. If the cops had waited til night, as they’d probably initially planned, there would have been fewer journalists around to observe and document their crimes. Their jackboot policing was symbolic of exactly what we were protesting against — an authoritarian regime — , and now it was there for all the world to see.

I began to think I was stuck in old-fashioned Umbrella Movement logic: You take territory, you hold onto it, and you negotiate from that position. Suddenly that seemed very conservative. In the Umbrella Movement, we put so much effort into maintaining the space we gained. There were all kinds of great side benefits to that, such as the creation of community that endures to this day and the projection of an entirely different vision of the sort of society HK could be. But didn’t it dull our edges? The occupations began on September 28, 2014 and it took until November 30 for an escalation to occur similar to what happened on June 12 in a matter of a few hours. And when it finally did, it was much too little too late.

Here, the strategy, to the extent that you could say there was a coherent governing strategy, was much more fluid. You take it, you escalate, you draw back, you let police shoot themselves in the foot with their sheer ham-handedness.

Thousands gathered in Central and remained there until the early hours of the morning. Police were so busy trying to clear out demonstrators who’d gone over to Queensway from Harcourt Rd that they never got around to clearing us from Central. We did it for them. The message started going around that it was time to pack up, go home, rest and ‘live to fight another day’. None of that camping out in the streets for these people. And so we went.

During the night and into the next morning, I was asking everyone I could think of, What’s up? What’s happening? And no one knew. That was strange to me too.

The next morning, there was a heavy rainstorm. In its aftermath, young people trickled back. I went to Admiralty just to see if anything was happening. I’d heard so much of it was under lockdown, I wanted to see if any part of it was accessible. I came down through Tamar Park from the footbridge from Admiralty Centre and saw, in the distance, towards the bottom of the park, people stooped over. What are they doing? I wondered. Well, of course, I should have known: They were picking up the rubbish left behind from when the police chased them away the day before. Others were restocking a supply station, partly with items that could be salvaged from the rubbish.

More people trickled in. There was a heavy police presence, groups of 10 to 20 officers patrolling the park in their helmets. Demonstrators followed them in a kind of parade. The police would turn around and look to see who was behind them. The demonstrators would stop and stare at the police in silence. The police would start walking again, stop, and turn around. The demonstrators stopped too. The police would then say, Pass by, and wait for the demonstrators to walk past them, but they were a little spooked. Picking up the trash, following the officers — it was the demonstrators’ way of reclaiming the space and insisting on their rights. I felt very encouraged again. Even though at that time, there were far more police in the vicinity than demonstrators, even after what the police had done the day before, the demonstrators showed no fear. They had won.

I didn’t know what would happen with the extradition bill, but I was quite certain in that moment that the Carrie Lam administration was doomed. June 12 had shown, as the Umbrella Movement and so many other events since HK came under Communist rule, that there is no way to impose authoritarian governance structures upon a society with a modicum of freedom and a citizenry willing and able to stand up for its rights. To attempt to do so is merely to create a perpetual governance crisis. And that is Hong Kong in a nutshell. And has been for years.

The Carrie Lam administration is the third out of four since the handover that attempted to foist upon Hong Kong people something that Hong Kong people didn’t want. In 2003, it was Article 23 ‘national security’ legislation. 500,000 people marched. The pro-Communist, pro-business Liberal Party bolted, dooming the government’s effort. In 2005, Tung Chee-hwa stepped down ‘for health reasons’. In 2014, it was fake suffrage, which the Communist Party saw as key in its game plan to checkmate HK. It was defeated in 2015. In 2017, CY Leung announced he would not be serving a second term due to ‘family reasons’. Both times, the HK people triumphed.

Who knows whether we will this time too. On June 15, three days after the June 12 protest, Carrie Lam announced the government was “pausing” the extradition legislation indefinitely. It did not appease Hong Kong people: On June 16, two million marched.

Xi Jinping might be so enraged at the second mass HK rebellion during his rule that he’ll insist on giving Carrie Lam a second term, but that would merely be self-defeating. The Carrie Lam administration won’t recover, and Communist Party-style one-country two-systems in HK is by this point irreparably broken. That’s the big dirty little secret. Everyone knows that but the international community. The Communist Party knows it and the Hong Kong people know it. The struggle is over what will replace it. The Party wants full control and assimilation. Hong Kong people want self-determination.

The future of HK will be determined not by the Communist Party but by the young people who came out on June 12, and whatever the Party tries to do to Hong Kong, it will have to face them again and again. True, we’re as far as ever from getting our basic human rights of genuine universal suffrage and self-determination, but when HK people’s backs are up against the wall, we’re damn good at saying NO.

Police Commissioner Stephen Lo labelled the June 12 protest a ‘riot’. Several injured protesters were arrested in their hospital beds. As of June 17, 32 people had been arrested in connection with the June 12 protest, including five on suspicion of ‘rioting’ and 11 others for violent crimes.

At her June 15 press conference, Carrie Lam backed the police in declaring the June 12 protest a ‘riot’.

By holding the press conference a day before the scheduled June 16 protest, the government hoped to take the wind out of its sails and “calm society”. But Lam’s speech and demeanor had just the opposite effect and were a main reason for the enormous two-million-person turnout, the largest protest ever in Hong Kong, and one of the largest in the world, especially considering that it represented about 27 percent of the entire HK population.

The June 12 protest was the main catalyst of that large turnout. Videos of indiscriminate and excessive police violence, injured protesters, and targeted attacks on journalists went viral. The June 9 protest’s demands were already that the extradition legislation be completely withdrawn and that Carrie Lam step down to take responsibility for the fiasco. By June 16, in addition to these, there were other demands: namely, that the police release and drop charges against all protesters, that the government and the police stop labelling the June 12 protest a ‘riot’ and apologize for the false accusation, and that there be an independent investigation into police actions on the day. Many marchers carried signs that said, ‘Don’t shoot our kids!’ and ‘We are not rioters.’

As of June 17, the government and police have failed to respond to any of those demands. But on June 17, some members of the Executive Council began to say that not all June 12 protesters were ‘rioters’, and in a press conference on the evening of June 17, the police commissioner also walked back the ‘riot’ label, admitting that only a few protesters had acted violently toward police and it was only these who were liable to be charged with ‘riot’. But he continued to defend police actions as ‘appropriate’ even though what police had done was label the protest of tens of thousands of almost entirely peaceful protesters a ‘riot’ and use this designation as justification for carrying out a shock-and-awe-style clearance of all demonstrators. The police use of force was indiscriminate, disproportionate and excessive, and at this point, nothing less than the resignation of the police commissioner is called for.


Kong Tsung-gan is the author of “Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong” and “As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle in the post-Umbrella Movement era, 2014–2018".

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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