Alec Ash

Brave front: The pro-democracy guerrilla fighters taking on Hong Kong’s riot police

The Braves argue that Beijing will only respond to force, but the leaderless nature of the protests also encourages extremism

Brave front: The pro-democracy guerrilla fighters taking on Hong Kong’s riot police
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 Hong Kong

Mo Ming zig-zagged through the tear-gas. He ran across a central Hong Kong flyover in a low crouch he learned from the shoot-’em-up video game Counter-Strike. It was 1 October, China’s National Day, and the confrontations in Hong Kong were in their 17th week.

I followed him as he picked a path through the thickening fog, slingshot at the ready for a counterstrike of his own against the police’s water cannon — their most formidable weapon, which sprays protesters with blue, irritant-laced water. It fired just short of our position, and we made it across to the far side, where other pro-democracy fighters had retreated.

These were the Braves: the frontliners taking on the Hong Kong riot police with umbrellas, gas masks, kneepads and the occasional Guy Fawkes mask. Next to us, a small group tried and failed to light a Molotov cocktail brewed in a miniature screw-top wine bottle; others hurled bricks and petrol bombs. One in a hard hat exchanged a few words in Cantonese with Mo, then sheltered him with an opened umbrella as the pair pressed forward, giving Mo enough cover to fire off a few marbles from his slingshot at the police on a footbridge above.

The day had started peacefully. In the morning, I visited Mo’s apartment in a southern harbour neighbourhood of Hong Kong island. I drank tea with his wife and met his four-month-old son. On my phone we watched footage of the 70th anniversary military parade in Beijing. Mo made fun of the goose-stepping soldiers and giant Soviet--style portraits of Xi Jinping, and asked if I’d seen the last military parade in Romania before the fall of Ceausescu. ‘I think the Communists need a kick up the arse,’ he said.

Once his wife and baby left for a boat trip, Mo Ming — his pseudonym, literally ‘No Name’ — packed his backpack: gas-mask, eye goggles, black t-shirt, and a rubber catapult tucked into a military-style belt along with the pouchful of marbles he had bought from a corner store. I have known Mo, who is 34 and manages offshore accounts for a living, since we went to school together in the UK. I did not expect that he would turn into a slingshot-wielding guerrilla fighter, nor that Hong Kong — once Britain’s foster child, now the unruly teenager of its biological father — would turn into a weekend warzone.

How did we get here? The protests started in early June as a series of marches against Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill (now formally withdrawn), but they have escalated and show no sign of abating. The demonstrators are calling for police and leadership accountability but also for universal suffrage, promised to them after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. A ban on face-coverings has done little to deter the anonymous crowds.

Hong Kong’s protest movement heated slowly before it came to a boil. Candlelit vigils commemorated Tiananmen Square every 4 June. Regular pro-democracy marches were slaps in the face of Beijing, but only in name. At first, the only projectile being flung was ‘hell money’: fake cash which is used to commemorate the departed during ghost festivals. It was intended to symbolise the encroaching funeral of Hong Kong in 2047, when the system of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ that preserved the region’s autonomy was hitherto due to end. The mood at these marches was invariably polite: demonstrators would queue patiently in Victoria Park, filing out neatly on to the streets and recycling their rubbish as they went.

That changed when Beijing brought forward its political assimilation of the territory. The Umbrella movement of late 2014 was catalysed by the Chinese Communist party’s pre-screening of candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, sparking 79 days of street occupation. In 2015, a number of booksellers ‘were disappeared’ in the mainland after publishing anti-China titles. Pro-democracy lawmakers were expelled in 2017 for insulting China in their vows of office; one of them, Yau Wai-ching, was jailed for four weeks. A pro-independence party was banned in 2018, its leader arrested the next year. The writing was on the wall.

Now that writing is quite literally all over Hong Kong’s central thoroughfares. The graffiti around the city says things like ‘Chinazi’, ‘Black Police: Death To Their Whole Family’, ‘I don’t need sex. CCP fuck me every day’. Some slogans are more referential: ‘There is no freedom without solidarity’, ‘Vivre libre ou mourir #1789’. On a Family Planning Association office, I saw: ‘No One’s Gonna Have Kids in this City!’ At government HQ: ‘We’re Back.’ Bricks have been torn out of the pavement, wheelbarrowed to the frontline and lobbed at police. Fireworks have become weapons, set off at close range. Counter-protesters have been beaten in the street. A severed pig’s head was delivered to one police officer’s wedding banquet.

The Braves argue that Beijing will only respond to force, but the leaderless nature of the protests also encourages extremism. In the early days of the Umbrella movement there were mass singalongs and inspirational speeches, but student leaders exerted a restraining influence on the crowd’s more violent impulses. The uprising is now leaderless, largely because all the old leaders have been locked up. The protesters organise on messaging apps, gathering for strikes then evaporating, as per their motto ‘Be like water’, taken from Bruce Lee. When the  face-masks come off, they reassume their civilian personas. ‘I change like Superman,’ Mo told me.

There is an element of play to it all. The battle formations come straight out of computer games: in particular Age of Empires for its battle formations and Brothers in Arms for combat. On the Sunday before National Day, I was following Mo Ming as he marched down Queensway in the Admiralty district, when we ran into a pitched battle on the expressway. A line of police ahead were firing rounds of tear gas into the mass of Braves, who pushed forward in phalanx formation, umbrellas interlocked like Roman soldiers equipped for heavy rain. Mo took cover among some trees, sidestepping out to fire off marbles, occasionally checking his three and his nine. I recognised the move from every shoot-’em-up I have ever played.

The police eventually retreated — a minor victory — and the frontline pushed down to the flyover at government HQ. This is where fighting concentrates, but on National Day the most shocking news came from the far north district of Tsuen Wan, where an 18-year-old was shot with a live round. The video, which circulated shortly after, shows a young protester carry-ing a pool kickboard as a makeshift shield and ineffectually swishing a thin rod at riot police. A policeman runs into the fray with his gun drawn (while holding a non-lethal rubber bullet gun in his other hand) and shoots the schoolboy in the chest at point-blank range. The bullet just missed his heart.

In the thick of the protests, it can feel as if the whole city has come out to support the cause. Onlookers in storefronts or apartment windows give the thumbs up, or hold up their palms in a five-fingered salute for the ‘five demands’ of the protests. I’ve seen babies in strollers; a man in a wheelchair taking videos from a long selfie stick; a couple in their forties handing out buns, because ‘we see the brave teenagers fighting and we have to come out to support them’. The tragedy is that these marches tend to begin non-violently. When the police fired tear gas at 4.25 p.m. on National Day, there had been a few bricks lobbed, and a 70th anniversary banner was being burnt on the roadside, but otherwise it was unprovoked.

Not everyone sees it that way. I was staying in North Point, a neighbourhood of Hong Kong island which is a stronghold of pro-Beijing views, and where counter--protest groups linked to the Fujian triads are known to operate. At a park, a retired civil servant in his seventies chided me for using the term ‘protesters’ when I asked his views. ‘What protets? All I see are riots.’ Among the pro-police ‘blues’, a paranoid refrain is that the rioting youth must have another nation’s power behind them (protesters do not help by waving American flags). The ‘yellows’ or demonstrators, in turn, believe counter protests are funded by the Chinese state. Undercover cops are known to join marches; suspected agents provocateurs have been beaten openly.

Other protesters favour more moderate tactics. I caught up with Joshua Wong, the 23-year-old face of the Umbrella movement, who had just had his application to upcoming district council elections disqualified. ‘Democracy is not only about street protests or international advocacy,’ Wong said. ‘Elections are the only institutional way to express our demands and our discontent.’ But he added that he ‘cannot blame the protesters’ for resorting to violence. Wong is no longer at the head of this leaderless movement and simply calls himself a ‘facilitator’. The Braves call him ‘outdated’.

Hong Kong has played host to various rebellions, from the last stand of Song rebels against invading Mongols in the 13th century, to the Cantonese pirate rulers who raided the Qing dynasty fleet in the 18th and early 19th centuries, before eventually surrendering under favourable terms. (‘Now we’re the pirates,’ Mo told me.) The territory was only under Qing rule for a few decades before it became British soil, as a forced concession at the end of the first Opium War in 1842. To the Braves, Hong Kong is continuing a historical legacy of being an island apart. More apt historical comparisons for the protests might be the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989, or Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014.

One lesson from earlier movements is that strategic non-violent discipline can be a powerful force in its own right, which helps keep the door open for negotiated compromise. The demonstrators I spoke to in Hong Kong all gave the same answer when I made this point: ‘We tried that.’ The failures of the peaceful Umbrella movement suggest that Beijing only understands the language of violence. And there is no Gorbachev in Zhongnanhai. As a famous protest slogan, spray-painted in the trashed chamber of the Legislative Council on 1 July, read: ‘It was you who taught us that peaceful protests don’t work.’

The other comparison with 1989 is more chilling. The last time a segment of China’s population revolted, its leadership made it abundantly clear that any human cost was acceptable for the maintenance of control. There are thought to be up to 12,000 Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong (double last year’s number). The PLA garrison headquarters in Admiralty — which looks like something out of Star Wars — has been watching quietly over the protests for months. Beijing does not want to cross the Rubicon by sending in troops, which would curtail Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre.

A military response is also exactly what the Braves would like to see. If Beijing sent in tanks, Mo told me, ‘that would be ideal. We would all go home and watch TV, then come back out after they have left.’ Yet I cannot shake the abiding horror that these are kids playing at war, flicking their fingers at the nose of a tiger and thinking they are drawing blood.

More likely, the protests will continue at an intermittent boil — bubbling over, then simmering down — while the CCP pursues its new modus operandi: silent, stifling control. Loyalty will be demanded from Hong Kong’s media, business and education sectors; the surveillance state will cross the border; and the internet may be censored. This slow throttle was already underway, but that can now be accelerated, bringing forward 2047 by a couple of decades. The protesters know this too. As one of them told me through his Guy Fawkes mask: ‘This is our last stand for freedom. If we lose now, it is over.’