The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong protesters are using lasers to distract and confuse. Police are shining lights right back.

Protesters use lasers after a protest in Hong Kong on July 27. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — One of the tools used by both protesters and police on the streets of Hong Kong are high-powered lasers and blinding lights, shined through thick clouds of tear gas to confuse each other and as an additional tool to conceal their identities and activities.

Protesters armed themselves with lasers early on in their nearly three-month-old movement, pointing them into windows during a protest outside the police headquarters to distract and annoy officers. In recent weeks, the demonstrators have used the lasers to keep pace with a widening dragnet by authorities.

Front-line protesters — who always cover their faces and sometimes even the brands of their shoes to prevent identification — have fixed the strong beams at surveillance cameras to stop themselves from being easily spotted and identified. As night falls, when peaceful rallies tend to turn chaotic and sometimes violent, protesters point the laser beams at police cameras and riot officers’ shields and faces, turning streets into surreal theaters of colored, flashing lights.

The lasers are one of the identity-masking efforts by those protesting that reflects widespread suspicion that the lines between China and Hong Kong no longer exist. The protests were sparked by fears of a widely unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to China, which many believed would end a crucial firewall between the two territories’ legal systems.

The movement has since grown into something that encompasses wider fears that Beijing exerts ultimate control over Hong Kong. On the streets, there is widespread suspicion that policing efforts from the mainland, including high-tech surveillance, have been adopted by Hong Kong’s police.

But it’s not just protesters relying on dizzying, high-powered lights for help.

While riot police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and water cannons on protesters in recent weeks, they, too, are using lights and beams as tools to easily identify protesters and confuse them — even after tear gas has turned the streets foggy.

Masks, cash and apps: How Hong Kong’s protesters find ways to outwit the surveillance state

Some officers pointed high-powered beams at television crews and photographers trying to capture the action as it unfolded — leading to questions about their commitment to the media’s freedom to openly cover the clashes without interference.

On social media, interest in the use of lasers during the political upheaval in Hong Kong has been widespread. Hypnotic videos showing the bright lights streaming through walls of thick smoke have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter — with many likening the action to scenes straight from a science fiction movie.

The protest movement kicked off in early June, with an estimated 1 million people taking to the streets to protest the extradition bill. The bill has been suspended but not withdrawn by lawmakers, who have also declined to meet other protester demands such as independently investigating police use of force.

Scenes from Hong Kong’s angry streets

At the heart of the Hong Kong protests is the belief that Beijing, which was handed back control of the former British colony more than 20 years ago, is increasingly stripping the territory of its cherished freedoms and autonomy.

More than 100 people have been charged in connection with the political unrest, including more than 40 who have faced riot charges that carry up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted.

After weeks of massive sustained protests, the demonstrations show no sign of abating. A protest planned for Saturday will go ahead even though police have declined to authorize it. Trade unions and other groups are also advocating for a general strike Monday.

Hassan reported from London.