Violence Erupts in Hong Kong on China’s 70th Anniversary National Day

Student shot by police in first use of live fire against protesters.

Large anti-government protests took place again in Hong Kong on October 1, China’s 70th anniversary National Day. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets in defiance of a police ban. Some of the protesters marched peacefully. Others, however, resorted to violence, including the use of bricks, petrol bombs, acid bombs and sticks against police officers, which prompted harsh police responses across the city. The police fired six live rounds of ammunition, some of which were aimed at the protesters. The most serious incident occurred when one policeman, who was allegedly hit with a rod as he tried to help a fallen officer, shot an 18-year-old student protester in the chest at close range after reportedly issuing a verbal warning to the student and another rod-wielding protester. The critically injured student protester was taken to the hospital where he underwent life-saving surgery. He is reportedly in stable condition. In addition, as reported by South China Morning Post, “police revealed that they had fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets, 190 beanbag rounds and 230 sponge-tipped rounds” at the protesters. Scores of people on both sides were injured. South China Morning Post also reported that the police “arrested 269 people, aged 12 to 71, for various offences, including rioting. Among them were 93 students.” Other charges included attacking police officers and possessing offensive weapons.

The police defended their actions. “The police force really did not want to see anyone being injured, so we feel very sad about this. We warn rioters to stop breaking the law immediately, as we will strictly enforce the law,” said a police spokeswoman. Opposition lawmakers condemned the police in a joint statement. “The policeman’s close-range shooting seems to be an attack rather than self-defence ... Many police officers have gone out of control and rudely treated demonstrators, the public, medical staff, journalists, social workers and lawmakers,” they said in their statement.

As Hong Kong endured a virtual lockdown during the turbulent day of protests, with retail activity and Mass Transit Railway service seriously curtailed, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam was out of town. She had decided to join her comrades in Beijing for the official National Day celebrations. Indeed, she joined President Xi Jinping on the rostrum of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. President Xi delivered a televised speech for the occasion, during which he referred to Hong Kong but not explicitly to the protests. “We need to maintain the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and Macau,” he said. He also declared the intention to uphold the principle of “one country, two systems” that was supposed to guide China’s policy towards the semi-autonomous enclave since the British turned over sovereignty of Hong Kong to China. The Hong Kong protesters, however, claim they are trying to defend their freedoms from increasing encroachment by China’s central government that is undermining the original intent of the "one country, two systems" policy.

The New York Times described what it called the “split-screen contrast of tightly choreographed goose-stepping military formations in Beijing to celebrate the National Day versus the chaos of firebombs and rubber bullets in Hong Kong” as “jarring, and almost certainly infuriating to President Xi Jinping.” Fending off foreign criticisms of the Hong Kong police’s handling of the protests, Chinese authorities condemned the protesters not worthy of support, calling them “black mobs.” China’s Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said of the “mobs” that “there is no evil they will not commit.” The office defended the police shooting, declaring that “Hong Kong police were forced to fire at the attackers to save themselves and their colleagues, after being attacked, encircled and having their lives threatened by mobs.”

So far, President Xi has not ordered direct action by Chinese military or security forces already inside Hong Kong, or stationed nearby, to quell the protests by whatever means necessary. But any patience he has tried to display to date may wear thin as protesters’ challenges to order and stability in Hong Kong continue. Although much smaller in scale than the Tuesday protests, disruptive protests broke out on Wednesday in reaction to the shooting of the student protester the day before. A crowd chanted “Hong Kong police, manslaughterer,” and “stand with Hong Kong.” Later in the day, angry protesters “dug up bricks, blocked roads, started fires, vandalised train stations and targeted mainland Chinese-linked businesses,” according to a South China Morning Post report of the latest developments in which it too used the term “mobs” to describe some protesters. It should be noted that, while South China Morning Post describes itself as Hong Kong’s “newspaper of record” and has correspondents on the ground to report first hand on unfolding developments, the newspaper has received some criticism for becoming more pro-China since its acquisition by Alibaba Group. Nevertheless, according to the Media Bias Fact Check website, it found evidence that South China Morning Post covers “both sides by being critical of China as well as praising them.”

In light of the police’s expanded use of force, including the shooting of the student protester with live ammunition, as well as more arrests, the protests are likely to intensify. Protesters continue to demand greater police accountability for alleged brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters, and greater freedoms including direct elections. Beijing and its apparent puppet Chief Executive Carrie Lam have dug in their heels against these demands. They have the tools at hand to up the ante against the protesters if they so choose.

China's garrison stationed in Hong Kong is reported to have doubled in size (to a level estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000) since the protests began, according to Reuters. It reportedly includes members of a paramilitary force specially trained in riot suppression under President Xi Jinping’s personal control, as well as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops. The garrison could legally assist in “the maintenance of public order” if the Hong Kong government asked the central government for help, according to Article 14 of the Garrison Law of The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of The People's Republic of China. Moreover, Article 6 of the Garrison Law provides that “the Hong Kong Garrison shall perform its duties in accordance with the provisions of national laws decided to be applied in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by the Central People's Government” if there is “turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” The same would be true if the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress “decides that the Region is in a state of emergency.”

While President Trump did not mention the Hong Kong protests in his tweet congratulating President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, he said during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week that the U.S. would be “carefully monitoring the situation” in Hong Kong. He added, “The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honor its binding treaty made with the British and registered with the United Nations in which China commits to protect Hong Kong's freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.”

High-level trade talks between China and the United States are expected to resume next week in Washington. Discussing the potential impact of the most recent Hong Kong protests on the trade talks during Fox Business News’ "Varney & Co.," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, “It probably will have some impact on the Chinese side, even despite whatever it has on ours, because this is a sign of domestic dissent within their community and Hong Kong is quite important for the international trading activities of China.” How much of an impact the current turbulence in Hong Kong will have on the trade talks remains to be seen.

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