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Why Hong Kong protesters rage on, even though they cannot win

Protesters hang a Hong Kong colonial flag and deface the Hong Kong logo after they broke into the Legislative Council building on July 1.
Protesters hang a Hong Kong colonial flag and deface the Hong Kong logo after they broke into the Legislative Council building on July 1. (Vincent Yu/AP)

HONG KONG — When 27-year-old Yap entered Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, stepping over shards of glass and twisted metal into a chamber occupied by helmeted young protesters, the first word he saw spray-painted inside was “payback.”

He immediately understood what it meant. 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, he survives on less than $1,300 a month in a city more expensive than San Francisco and New York. He can’t choose his own leader, who is handpicked by and subservient to Beijing, and the young representatives he voted for were disqualified from the legislature. He participated in the 2014 occupation of Hong Kong streets, which lasted 79 days before it was crushed, its leaders jailed and its call for universal suffrage resoundingly denied.

“In this situation, I can do nothing but take a risk,” said Yap, who asked to be identified only by his last name for fear of retribution. “Maybe we have a 1 percent chance to win. Maybe it will draw the attention of Beijing and change something later.” 

And if not, he added: “At least I went to the front lines and helped. I will not regret it, since I have tried my best. And I am not afraid, since I have nothing to lose.” 

The unprecedented scenes of protesters breaking into Hong Kong’s legislature on Monday, after weeks of sustained demonstrations, have jolted many around the world and in this modern, skyscraper-studded global financial hub. 

But for the tens of thousands here who have aided, supported or directly participated in illegal acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks, there has simply been no other choice.

On July 1, thousands marched through Hong Kong, demanding the withdrawal of a proposed extradition law and the resignation of Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam. (Video: Associated Press)

For China, a growing conundrum: What to do with Hong Kong?

Despite the long odds of changing the course of the Hong Kong government — and Beijing’s solidifying grip — many protesters say the only way forward is to keep fighting, with the territory’s history of demonstrations and relative freedoms firmly in mind. 

“Hong Kong is at the edge of losing everything,” said a 24-year-old female protester. “People cannot judge what [actions are] worthwhile or not. We just simply want to struggle for the limited freedom and value of Hong Kong.” 

Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when the British handed the territory back to China in 1997, 22 years ago Monday. This arrangement, known as “one country, two systems,” was guaranteed until 2047.

This framework is also what allows countries such as the United States to treat Hong Kong as somewhat separate from China, unaffected by policies like the trade war. In a tweet Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he was watching Hong Kong protesters “exercise” their freedoms as America celebrates its own on July 4.

He tweeted that Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam “should remember Hong Kong’s special status is not guaranteed.”

In the two decades since China resumed sovereignty, attempts to erode Hong Kong’s freedoms — including a package of onerous sedition laws introduced in 2003, and a 2010 proposal for a national education syllabus praising Chinese communism and denouncing Western democracy — were derailed by mass protests. 

More recently, however, the failure of the 2014 protests against Beijing’s political involvement in Hong Kong left behind a disappointed generation of young activists who had been mobilized and invigorated by their fight for democracy.

This time — fueled by public outrage at plans to allow extraditions to China, and their government’s response to the discontent — many in Hong Kong felt they had to take extreme measures in defense of their territory. One of the graffiti messages scribbled on the walls of the vandalized Legislative Council building read: “You taught me peaceful protests are futile.”

Hours after the protesters occupied the legislature on Monday night, riot police moved in, shooting tear gas to send the demonstrators retreating in scenes of chaos.

Police on Wednesday vowed to “bring the culprits to justice,” raising the specter of mass arrests as they and forensic experts began documenting evidence.

Already police said they have arrested eight people who allegedly exposed officers’ private information online, leading to threats against them and their families.

Lam has suspended the extradition bill but not fully withdrawn it. She has declined to meet with protesters or pro-democracy lawmakers, or to step down as they have demanded.

Antony Dapiran, author of a book on protest culture in Hong Kong, says that while the spark for demonstrations has varied over the years, the bottom line remains the same. 

“The underlying anxiety and the tension that seems to be propelling all of them is this sense that Hong Kongers are not the masters of their own destiny and don’t govern themselves fully,” Dapiran said. “As that cycle of protest has recurred, we are starting to see a pattern of it getting more extreme.” 

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

Though Monday night’s actions ended with no injuries, some analysts argue that the protesters’ decision to storm the legislature will hurt their chance at winning greater autonomy for Hong Kong — and instead convince Beijing that Hong Kong must have even less space to operate. 

“It does show how thoughtless and nonstrategic the protesters are in what they are doing,” said Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute. The brief occupation may have provoked Beijing authorities into contemplating a scenario down the line where they would have to directly intervene, and that is “not in Hong Kong’s advantage,” he added.

Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have condemned the protesters’ actions. The Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in a statement backed criminal punishments for the protesters. Martin Liao, a member of Hong Kong’s cabinet and the leader of a pro-Beijing camp in the legislature, said the protesters had treated the rule of law as though it was “nothing” and branded them “thugs” who must be arrested. 

For protesters like 22-year-old Karl, who was in the building on Monday, this response was predictable — yet there was a more important consideration. 

“I was most afraid of losing my future, since I know that [storming the building] is a serious charge,” he said. But he heard that protesters inside needed food and water after hours spent smashing their way in. He was moved when he saw girls younger than him rush in to participate. “I was inspired by their courage, regardless of death. I thought I should do something for them.” 

Yap, the 27-year-old, added: “Maybe it is only blood that will help shape political power.” 

Cleanup begins in Hong Kong after night of anger against a government perceived as a puppet

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is facing the wrath of her people. Beijing may be even angrier.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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