Hong Kong is an extremely safe city.
Darkened streets don’t harbor the same dangers that might be found in other major cities, but in recent years, simmering tensions over the city’s political future have created an underlying sense of unease.
While any metropolis of seven million will have some crime, violence is incredibly uncommon — around 2,600 violent crimes were recorded by police in the first four months of this year, compared to over 70,000 cases of violence against the person in metropolitan London, a similar-sized city.
During the same period, there were just 29 robberies in Hong Kong, while London saw more than 12,500.
Even amid mass protests and marches, which are a key part of Hong Kong’s political culture, the mood has almost always been peaceful and safe. The 2014 Umbrella Movement was the exemplar of this attitude, with protesters setting up recycling stations, internet cafes and art installations in the main occupied areas, and parents with small children and businesspeople visiting them during lunch hours and on weekends.
The use of tear gas and pepper spray by Hong Kong police in the early hours of the 2014 protests in an unsuccessful attempt to clear the crowds caused shock and outrage, and inspired more people take to the streets. Police handling of the rest of the three-month occupation was far more measured, and protesters were not fully cleared until time and fatigue had thinned their ranks.
Wednesday’s scenes could not have been more different.
Police fired round after round of tear gas, much of it without warning, and deployed pepper spray and rubber bullets at protesters who would not move. Videos showed police on several occasions pulling unarmed protesters to the ground and beating them with batons, and CNN saw police point guns which fire rubber bullets at journalists and retreating protesters.
Police and government officials described Wednesday’s protests — which broke out as a highly controversial extradition bill with China was due to have its second reading in the legislature — as a riot, and said they were handled accordingly, by officers in heavy protective gear and gas masks.
“These acts of rioting, which damage social peace and disregard the law, are intolerable in any civilized society that respects the rule of law,” said Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam.
Descent into violence
For several hours early on Wednesday, it seemed like a repeat of the Umbrella Movement. Protesters had seized control of the main roads around the legislature and were bedding in, setting up first aid stands and distributing food, water and anti-tear gas supplies.
Lawmakers made speeches to the crowd, congratulating them for standing up to the government and police — who appeared to be completely wrong-footed by the speed in which protesters took over roads and blocked off the legislative complex.
“(This) boils down to a display of people power in Hong Kong, a display in particular of young people power,” opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told the tens of thousands who had gathered, to huge cheers.
“You have every right … the young have every right to express their feelings, their anger, their frustration, their resentment in any way they want, because this is their Hong Kong, their future.”
As she made that speech, the density of the crowd and determination of protesters meant that only a high degree of force would be sufficient to clear them, something the experience of the later days of the Umbrella protests made seem less likely, with police less willing to force a confrontation by attempting to clear the roads.
But police tactics this week were completely different to five years ago. Far from retreating, heavily armed riot squads converged on the downtown district of Admiralty, as protesters attempted to push barricades further towards the legislature and central government buildings.
After protesters rushed Tim Wa Avenue, the road leading to the building’s entrance, police fired their first tear gas canisters. More quickly followed, though protesters were able to occupy the street and trap many officers inside the government complex.
Reinforcements came in hard, firing tear gas and pepper spray before charging protesters with batons. In public statements Wednesday, government officials said protesters threw bricks and sharpened poles, but CNN only saw umbrellas, plastic bottles and plastic protective helmets used as projectiles.
Clearance operations continued for hours into the night, bringing much of the city’s center to a grinding halt, with major subway stations and roads either closed or off-limits owing to clouds of teargas.
At least 79 people were injured in the clashes, several seriously, compared to around 40 in the first night of the 2014 protests, none of whom were seriously hurt.
At a press conference Thursday evening, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Steven Lo Wai-chung said 11 people had been arrested over Wednesday’s protests on charges of disorderly conduct in a public place, unlawful assembly, and assaulting a police officer.
He said 22 police sustained injuries during the protests, although it is not clear whether the 79 injured includes the number of police who were hurt.
Lo said that protestors acted violently in an organized manner using bricks and sharpened metal poles to attack police. “We had no choice but to escalate the use of force,” Lo said. “We strongly condemn the violent behavior of the rioters.”
Break from the norm
The violence seen on Wednesday has shocked Hong Kong, particularly videos of police firing rounds at point blank range and beating protesters on the ground, a visual reminder of the fears many have about what could happen if the city loses what freedom it has to Beijing.
However, the more aggressive tactics of young protesters compared to 2014 — nearly all of whom came masked and wearing protection against tear gas and pepper spray — have also attracted some criticism, especially from pro-government sectors, and reinforced Lam’s claims that they had started a riot.
Undeniably, protesters took the fight to the police more than they did in 2014, but compared to scenes from Paris or Catalonia, where demonstrations have also faced very heavy policing, they were far less destructive and aggressive towards officers.
While the Hong Kong government accused protesters of “setting fires (and) damaging nearby public facilities,” CNN reporters throughout the protests saw no evidence of this. No cars or tires were burned, and protesters were careful to keep sites clean, even setting up recycling stations.
Peace was restored Thursday, but with the government refusing to back down over the extradition bill and protesters determined to stop it, it remains to be seen how long that will last.