(Bloomberg) — A Hong Kong police officer who fired a bullet into the chest of an 18-year-old protester may have inadvertently given new life to the months-long movement challenging Beijing’s authority.
Demonstrators hit the streets again on Wednesday following the release of videos showing the man getting shot at close range after striking the officer with a metal rod. The violent images, juxtaposed with a triumphant Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrating 70 years of Communist rule in Beijing, could now help drive momentum for the protests until local elections in November — the next big date on the political calendar.
“People were expecting that the government and Beijing would have loved to see the end of everything by National Day,” said Alvin Yeung, an opposition lawmaker. “And obviously, it was a failure — it was chaotic, and finally a real bullet has been shot at a student, which is a turning point.”
“People are very angry and you can imagine that the general public, especially the younger protesters, will take their anger and turn it into real action, physical revenge,” he said. “This unrest will continue and could escalate.”
Over the last few months, pro-democracy demonstrators have seized on violent incidents to rally supporters in a movement that began four months ago to oppose a proposed bill allowing extradition to China.
There was a high-profile suicide of a protester in June. A month later alleged triad members viciously attacked black-shirted demonstrators on the subway. Then in August a woman was reportedly hit in the eye with a non-lethal round, prompting other protesters to start wearing bloody eye-patches and spray paint “an eye for an eye” while storming the international airport.
The anger was palpable during a protest in central Hong Kong on Wednesday, even as reports emerged that the shot protesters was in stable condition and expected to survive. Police fire more than 1,400 rounds of tear gas on Tuesday — more than half of the total fired since protests began June 9 — and fired six live bullets, five as warning shots.
“The police force should be disbanded and get sanctioned for what they are doing,” said a man surnamed Lee, who declined to give his full name as he chanted slogans with dozens of others. “We will fight on.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the city’s largest peaceful gatherings over the past few months, pledged a “large-scale mobilization” as a result of the shooting.
“We will be even more united, even more determined in our resistance,” the group said in a Facebook post. “From now on, October 1st will be an anniversary for the suppression of Hong Kong people with live rounds.”
So far nobody has been killed in the protests, a fact that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam called “quite remarkable” last week. She has defended the police force and commended officers for using restraint in the face of attacks by some protesters wielding metal bars, hammers, bricks, and Molotov cocktails.
While Lam withdrew the bill that initially sparked the protests in June, she has refused to give in to other demands by the protesters — including an independent inquiry into police violence. That stance is backed by China, which has ruled out allowing Hong Kong to pick a ruler who will stand up to Beijing.
Samson Yuen, an assistant professor at Lingnan University who has conducted numerous surveys among protesters including on Wednesday, said demonstrators are consistently saying they are motivated by the inability to choose their own political leaders rather than economic factors, as the government insists.
“People are concerned about the illegitimacy of the system,” he said. “The shooting will have a huge impact on the emotion among the protesters. And the fact that the police have insisted it was a right and reasonable action, this will definitely lead to a backlash among the protesters.”
More recently, Lam’s Beijing-backed administration has set up town-hall style dialogue sessions, including one last Thursday. But critics have said she isn’t meaningfully engaging with the former colony’s populace, because she isn’t willing to make any further concessions.
That approach — digging in and hoping the protests die down — could eventually prove successful if there’s no major “intervening event” such as a fatality, according to Kevin Yam, a political commentator and member of the Progressive Lawyer’s Group.
“I tend to think the government’s strategy of waiting it out will work,” he said. “And I mean ‘work’ in terms of the protests ebbing away, though obviously not working in terms of longer term unresolved issues.”
At the same time it’s not even clear further concessions would achieve anything — particularly as resentment builds among police and protesters each time violence escalates.
“Even at this point, if you set up an independent inquiry or have elections, I don’t think that will solve the problem,” said Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “All the solutions are too late after three to four months of confrontations. If we had tried to use this in June or July, they might have worked. But doing them now won’t.”
–With assistance from Fion Li and Chloe Whiteaker.
To contact the reporter on this story: Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at email@example.com
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