‘It’s going to get messy’: Beijing’s liaison office targeted, tear gas fired as protests roll on

Protesters spray paint graffiti on the wall of the liaison office, the headquarters of the Chinese central government in Hong Kong. Photo by Stuart White.
Protesters spray paint graffiti on the wall of the liaison office, the headquarters of the Chinese central government in Hong Kong. Photo by Stuart White.

Protesters defaced the facade of the Hong Kong liaison office, the local bastion of China’s central government, pelting it with eggs and spattering it with black paint as yet another anti-government rally escalated beyond its strictly peaceful origins.

Today’s march, organized by the Civil Human Rights Front — the organization behind past record-breaking nonviolent marches — was originally intended to start at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and terminate at the Court of Final Appeal, a symbolic destination intended to emphasize protesters’ demands for an independent investigation into police use of force at past protests.

Police, however, fearing clashes at the sites of previous unruly protests, told the CHRF that the march would have to end in Wan Chai, a boundary protesters blew through without a second thought as they continued first to the Legislative Council, which they trashed earlier this month, and then through the crowded Central district to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, the seat of Beijing’s authority in Hong Kong.

“This is the center of the power of the Chinese government,” one 19-year-old protester told Coconuts HK outside the liaison office, as others erected makeshift barricades. “It’s going to get messy.”

The CHRF, for its part, had urged protesters via loudspeaker to disperse after passing the officially sanctioned endpoint, telling those who wished to continue: “Remember to be nice.”

Hong Kong’s long-running protest movement was sparked by a deeply unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland. But despite leader Carrie Lam’s insistence that “the bill is dead,” the movement has since evolved to include demands for greater oversight of the police following heavy-handed dispersement tactics, and calls for universal suffrage.

The liaison office appeared to serve as a physical embodiment of many Hongkongers’ fears that the territory’s special freedoms enshrined in the “one country, two systems” framework are eroding as Beijing tightens its grasp.

A man wearing a black mask and bicycle helmet outside the building tonight read out a list of demands on a loudspeaker.

“There is no violent protesters or rioters, there is only tyranny, we will protect our homeland by any means,” he said. “We urge the government to stop leading Hong Kong towards the brink of destruction.”

The young protester who had predicted things would get “messy” at the liaison office said the local authorities’ decision to set the official endpoint of the march so close to the start was “unprecedented and unreasonable.”

As for the recent escalation of tactics, which has seen protesters clash with police on multiple occasions, he said the wider protest movement appeared to be taking a live-and-let-live view.

“If you want to be peaceful, so be it. If you want to be forceful, so be it,” he said. “We won’t condemn each other’s actions.”

Citing a Cantonese saying, he added, “We all climb the same mountain.”

Most of the protesters who spoke to Coconuts HK today said nothing short of the government acquiescing to all of the demonstrators’ demands would bring an end to the unrest.

“Personally, I want the protests to end as soon as possible,” said one protester, who gave his name as Alex, and immediately noted that that outcome was unlikely if the government didn’t give in to the movement’s demands.

Without that, he said, “a thousand thousand people will keep coming out.”

“It’s the only way.”

Still, the weeks-long movement was taking a toll, said Fred, 29.

“Obviously it’s tiring, but I feel like it’s our responsibility to come out,” he said. “The government hasn’t responded to our demands.”

What’s more, the leaderless approach to the recent demonstrations — many of which are orchestrated by consensus via messaging apps and online forums — hasn’t given the government a focal point for negotiations.

“I kind of expected a representative to come out,” said John, 27, as he milled around outside the liaison office, while also acknowledging that the lack of a contact point made it difficult for one to do so.

Still, he said, “The government should respond to all the people, not just one.”

“If the government still hides behind the walls, there will be no progress for the demonstrators,” he added. “Everyone here is trying to find some progress.”

Riot police later flooded the streets around the building and protesters retreated, setting off a series of cat and mouse confrontations, with a large contingent of protesters marching back towards Central.

“You taught us peaceful marches are useless,” read one of the slogans sprayed onto the Liason Office walls.

Few see a political solution to the crisis on the horizon. Steve Vickers, a former head of the police’s Criminal Investigation Bureau before the handover who now runs a risk consultancy, said the public order situation would likely “worsen” in the coming weeks.

“Polarization within Hong Kong society and intense acrimony between protesters and police are deepening,” he wrote in a note to clients.

Tensions have been further stoked after police on Saturday said they had discovered a homemade laboratory making high-powered explosives.

A 27-year-old man was arrested and pro-independence materials were also discovered.

Still, there is little sign that either Lam or Beijing is willing to budge, and as of press time, police had just fired tear gas at crowds in Sheung Wan, and protesters remained in the streets.

Reporting by Stuart White, Vicky Wong, and Iris To.

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