HONG KONG — On Friday, 21-year-old Au packed a black duffel bag with a few changes of clothes and headed out to spend the weekend with a friend back at campus. The tensions between him and his father over the biggest protests in Hong Kong’s history had boiled over the night before over.
“He just blames everything on the protesters,” Au, a student at City University of Hong Kong, said of his father, who works as a border agent. “He thinks it’s totally OK to shoot the protesters.” Au’s uncle is also a police officer.
Despite family pressure not to participate, Au was one of around 2 million people according to organizers — more than a quarter of the city’s population — who took to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday to demonstrate against a deeply controversial extradition bill and to call for the city’s leader to step down.
The bill, originally proposed in February, would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China, which lacks human rights protections. Hong Kong’s leader, handpicked by Beijing, says that the law is necessary to close loopholes in its legal system because it currently has no authority to send a Hong Kong man back to Taiwan to face charges who confessed to killing his girlfriend there. But largely the bill has been viewed as an end to the “one country, two systems” principle that has allowed the city to maintain a separate legal system from China, stoking fears that Hong Kong would become just like any other city in the mainland.
Yesterday’s protest capped a stunning week of resistance in the city. The previous weekend, approximately 1 million people filled the streets of Hong Kong, calling for the bill to be withdrawn. When the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, declined to back down and likened protesters to spoiled children, another, smaller protest began to form Tuesday night outside the government offices where the bill was expected to be discussed Wednesday. The next day, things turned violent. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters trying to storm the Legislative Council building. Others were arrested on charges of rioting.
Au had been caught in the clouds of tear gas in Wednesday’s protest. He didn’t have any supplies to protect him and instead tried to use the neck of his T-shirt to cover his face from the tear gas that filled his nose and mouth.
Someone offered him saline to wash his face, he recalled, which helped dull the sting of the gas. Later, when he was stuck in Chater Garden, a public park opposite the Legislative Council building, with so many police patrolling the area, he texted one of the Telegram groups that protesters had formed to organize their efforts for help.
Since police originally classified Wednesday’s protest as a riot, Au said he was afraid of getting arrested. BuzzFeed News agreed to identify Au by his surname only for fear of reprisal from the authorities. “They were checking everyone.” A volunteer arrived in a car to drive him away from the park and get him to safety.
“When more than 1 million people protest, the government should fear the people,” Au said. That’s why the clashes happened on Wednesday. More and more Hong Kongers are getting angry.”
The violence shocked many Hong Kong residents because the amount of tear gas used far exceeded what was used in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which demanded more transparent elections. (The name came from how protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas.)
The night after the violent protests, Au’s father sent a message to the family WhatsApp group: “I would like to apologize to my younger brother and all of the police officers who have worked hard and felt humiliated. Sorry.”
Au didn’t write anything back. Instead he made plans to leave.
“The most pressure comes from my family,” Au said. “There’s been a lot of tension. I don’t want to argue with my father anymore.”
Au said his father, and his police officer uncle, simply adhere to the government’s positions. “My father doesn’t understand what we’re fighting for. He knows, but he doesn’t understand. He thinks it’s totally OK for China and Hong Kong to be integrated.”
The protests have stood out for their lack of centralized leaders. Groups on the messaging service Telegram popped up to share information and help coordinate efforts. The groups, which have thousands of members, stayed active all week, pinging constantly with news updates or tips like how to protect yourself from tear gas. Others have shared sign language about how to communicate danger if a protest gets out of hand, where police had been spotted, or places where volunteers could drop supplies like helmets and masks.
Michael Vidler, a local lawyer, posted on Facebook offering legal support to anyone detained in the extradition protests and set up an emergency hotline to call or text. The post also spread through Telegram groups of protesters.
“People are entitled to know there is some sort of legal advice they can turn to,” said Vidler, who also assisted with legal help when there were mass arrests in the Umbrella Movement protests. “Without any hesitation, the police have escalated this well beyond the accepted norm,” he said, speaking of this week’s violence.
Fears of the police have ramped up in the last week. One administrator of a Telegram group was arrested by police Tuesday, the New York Times reported. At least two protesters were arrested for rioting after receiving treatment for injuries at a hospital following Wednesday’s protest, local media reported.
Au said he’s worried, since he’s seen officers ramp up random inspections. If the cops knocked on his door, said Au, “I’m afraid my own father would turn me in to the police.”
Thousands of mothers gathered Friday night to protest the bill and condemned the police actions as well. Some held signs that said: “Don’t shoot our kids.”
As pressure mounted on Lam through the week, the chief executive held a press conference Saturday afternoon and said she would suspend the bill, but she sidestepped questions about apologizing or resigning and said she supported the police’s actions against protesters.
Memes spread across social media, comparing the suspension of the bill to a Trojan horse. A new flyer for the protest quickly popped up in Telegram groups as well, renewing calls for Hong Kongers to come out to the protest.
One part of Lam’s press conference ricocheted through several English and Cantonese Telegram groups with thousands of members. “Carrie Lam: No intention or wish to pacify. She is postponing the bill to prevent further casualties. She is not nervous about tomorrow’s protest,” said a message.
“Hong Kong, Stand Strong!” said one flyer with the slogan “No Retract, No Retreat” emblazoned across the bottom, which was soon distributed on social media.
“She is testing Hong Kongers’ reactions,” Au wrote in a WhatsApp message to BuzzFeed News on Saturday night, adding that Lam was trying to defuse anger in a “stupid way.”
Several people told BuzzFeed News on Saturday that Lam’s comments would not shift their plans to attend the march Sunday, instead seeing the concession as a possible opening to scrap the bill altogether.
“The number of people is actually really affecting the attitude of the government. If they’re still seeing a lot of people coming out, the government will have to react to the opinions of the public,” said Isaac Cheng, a 19-year-old vice chair of the pro-democracy group Demosisto.
“We won’t accept only pausing the bill.”
But as people filled the streets Sunday in what organizers said were unprecedented numbers, it became clear that the people across Hong Kong were rejecting Lam’s partial retreat on the bill. The demands expanded to call for a complete withdrawal of the bill, for accountability for the actions of the police, for the protesters arrested for rioting to be released, and for Lam to resign.
“Definitely from today’s turnout, the government has no way to govern Hong Kong. She lost all of her legitimacy,” said Wu Chi-wai, the chair of the Democratic Party and a Legislative Council member, referring to Lam.
Gesturing to the people behind him at Sunday’s protest, Wu added that the large, peaceful protests showed “people can manage themselves. That is the quality of this city. The majority of the people believe in peaceful demonstration and urge the government to listen to the people’s voices.”
Against the crowd shouting call-and-response chants of “Carrie Lam…step down,” Leung Kwok-hung, a former Hong Kong politician known locally as Long Hair who was ousted for his pro-democracy views, told BuzzFeed News that in the face of large-scale protests, Lam should step down.
“She showed her arrogance” at Saturday’s press conference, he said of Lam. “It seems like she does not care what the Hong Kong people think.
“I don’t think she can survive. Now it seems that the government is losing control, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
On Sunday evening, Lam released a statement apologizing and said she will “accept criticism in the most sincere and humble way.”
But protesters continued to march and to occupy the space around government buildings for hours after that.
The streets became so congested that for hours there was little movement. Protesters spilled onto the neighboring roads of the march route from Victoria Park to the government offices in the Central neighborhood. But Au, along with a friend he walked with, saw no other option than to be out there.
“If the bill passes, it might be the last chance for us. No one will dare to come out to take to the streets,” said Horace Wong, a student with Au at City University of Hong Kong.
“Everything is working together to provoke Hong Kongers’ anger,” said Au, referencing the week’s earlier violence, where police used rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters, as well as Lam’s move to suspend the bill rather than withdraw it. “We are just too disappointed in the government,” he added.
As the march began to wind down in the late hours of Sunday night and early Monday morning, the large crowds stayed peaceful. Some lay down in the grass or on the street, while others softly sang choruses of “Hallelujah.”
Meanwhile, Au had another WhatsApp message from his father, who said he was worried. He also sent a video. But for now, Au just took in the scene around him. Of the video, he said, “I haven’t watched it yet.”