It has escalated to a battle for the soul of the city. Following five months of upheaval, Hong Kong city is on edge after a day of unprecedented violence. Tuesday morning’s firing of teargas at a university campus is bound to exacerbate the tension in China’s protectorate. The offensive against students has followed Monday’s shooting of a protester and the immolation of a man in the worst violence to rock the island nation in more than five months of anti-government demonstrations.
The immediate provocation of the extradition bill appears to have been overshadowed in the rising tide of brutality. In Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam’s reckoning, the latest spurt in violence has exceeded the protesters’ demands for democracy and demonstrators are now the “enemy of the people”. The nub of the matter must be that protesters are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula that had been put in place when the territory returned to China in 1997.
Beijing denies interference and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. The situation has spiralled beyond control if a middle-aged man can be doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire after arguing with protesters. Both the student and the man are in critical condition, according to Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority. The two incidents on Monday have happened after last Friday’s death of a protester who succumbed to injuries sustained after falling from a car park building during a police dispersal of demonstrators. It was the first death directly linked to police action, just as the shooting and immolation are the first such incidents.
Indeed, the shooting and the man being set on fire, following closely after the death, could mark a turning point in five months of protests, which have grown increasingly violent, most particularly after China stepped up the policing. Monday’s incident is the third time police have shot demonstrators with live rounds. In the two previous cases, officers claimed they fired in self-defence and the demonstrators, both teenagers, recovered. Some demonstrators have also grown increasingly violent, mobbing and beating critics and others they believe to be mainland spies.
On closer reflection, it is the offensive and the counter-mobilisation that has kept Hong Kong on the boil in recent weeks. Not many will concur with Ms. Lam’s caveat ~ “If there is still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the government will yield to pressure, I am making this clear and loud here. That will not happen.” With every such warning between Saturday and Monday, the mayhem has become still more resonant within Hong Kong and in the echo chambers of Xi Jinping’s China. Exceptionally robust has been the defiance of the Dragon, and verily to the point of death. Hong Kong bears witness to a bonfire of sanity.