(Ben Green) #1

12 Time December 2–9, 2019


or almosT six monThs, The unresT in
Hong Kong has followed a rhythm. On week-
ends, the Chinese-ruled enclave would con-
vulse with pro-democracy protests. During the
workweek, the acrid haze of tear gas would clear and life
moved on, though the revolutionary graffiti haranguing
the Communist Party of China lingered.
But in November, the struggle took a sudden and dan-
gerous new turn. After a student demonstrator died on
Nov. 8 of complications from a fall during a protest, the
weekly schedule surrendered to daily urban warfare. The
demonstrators say normality cannot be restored. “We
can’t just protest on the weekends anymore,” says Ezoe, a
20-year-old medical student. “If we are going to win this
fight, people need to stop their jobs. The gov-
ernment needs to see the economy will hurt.”
The latest escalation eventually centered on
the city’s universities, where students like Ezoe
holed up to resist arrest. That places of learn-
ing have become battlegrounds strikes at the
symbolic heart of the freedoms and values that
Hong Kongers believe distinguish their semi-
autonomous city from the rest of China. While
Beijing has tried for years to push patriotic edu-
cation here and state media have suggested that
changes to the curriculum might solve the crisis,
faculty, students and staff have resisted attempts
to infringe on their academic independence.
With on-campus lectures canceled, students’ en-
ergies went into stockpiling medieval- style weap-
onry like fencing blades, slingshots and bows and
arrows and fortifying blockades in preparation
for showdowns with police. After some of the
bloodiest confrontations since the unrest began,
demonstrators filtered into one last holdout:
Polytechnic University.

Protesters bunkered inside the campus
for a week, using it as a base to disrupt traffic
and block the adjoining Cross Harbour Tun-
nel, a vital artery linking the city’s most popu-
lous region to the commercial and financial
districts on Hong Kong Island. Police encircled
the area, and a days-long siege began in earnest on
Nov. 17. Students returned a hailstorm of rubber bul-
lets and tear-gas volleys with gasoline bombs, fiery
arrows and barricades set ablaze. Some managed to
evade the police in daring escapes, including rappel-
ling down makeshift ropes to waiting motorcycles, but
many more were detained. By Nov. 19, police said they
had arrested or taken down the details of 1,100 people

in and around “PolyU.” As TIME went to press, dozens
remained inside, refusing to surrender.
Although the size of the demonstrations has dwin-
dled in recent weeks, it is no longer only student provo-
cateurs squaring off with police. Amid a growing sense
that peaceful protest is futile, the city’s financial district
is now regularly shrouded with tear gas in the middle of
the workday. At lunchtime, bankers have joined street
brawls, facing off with police against the backdrop of
Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores. Amid a general strike,
transportation has snarled and public schools were
forced into a six-day shutdown. “This is no longer just a
protest movement,” says Yu, a 21-year-old student. “We
are at war for Hong Kong’s future.”
Yet as the frontline protesters have grown more
radical—committing arson, vandalizing subway sta-
tions and even dousing one detractor in flammable liq-
uid and setting him on fire—they continue to retain pub-
lic support. A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion
Research Institute published on Nov. 15 found 83% of
people faulted the government for the spiraling violence,
while fewer than half blamed the demonstrators.
“Whatever they do, I will support the protesters,”
says Tim, 30, a hotel worker who says he stopped
joining the protests after they became more vio-
lent. “If we don’t support them we will have a
worse future with no more rights.”
While the students at PolyU camped out,
ordinary Hong Kongers came to their aid. Some
traveled hours to bring supplies, while a group of
teary-eyed relatives and friends staged a sit-in in
front of police, who refused them access to the
university. Other demonstrators staged a “blossom
everywhere” campaign to draw police away from
the institution.
This protracted unrest has taken a toll on work-
ers like Tim. As tourists stay away, almost 8 in 10
hotel staffers have been asked to take a few days’
unpaid leave, according to a union poll. Hong
Kong has fallen into recession as its upscale hotels
and glitzy shopping malls become backdrops to
bloody duels. Many outside Hong Kong now fear
what will befall Asia’s world city. On Nov. 19, the
U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong
Human Rights and Democracy Act, which aims to
safeguard the territory’s autonomy from any incur-
sions by Beijing. But China sees the bill as an in-
fringement on its sovereignty and already blames the
current crisis on meddling foreign forces.
For all the protections and declarations of sup-
port the world may try to offer, many Hong Kongers
say they cannot afford to lose this fight because the
alternative would mean an end to the city’s unique
set of freedoms. And so for all the disruptions, chaos
and danger, they would still rather live by the fits and
starts of the protests than the dictates of Beijing. “I am
much more afraid,” says Bryan, a 30-year-old protester,
“of what will happen if we don’t stand up.” •

TheBrief Opener

‘They have to
stop violence,
give up their
and come out
Kong’s chief executive,
to reporters on Nov. 19


A siege in Hong Kong

heralds a new phase

By Laignee Barron/Hong Kong


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