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Hong Kong's tough strategy against protests — and how it could backfire



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Participants hold up signs with the inscription, "Power to the People," on Aug. 16 at a protest rally in front of the Chater Garden in the Central District in Hong Kong. In recent weeks, authorities have ramped up pressure on protesters in Hong Kong, calling their demonstrations "terrorism" and hinting at Chinese military intervention. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Robyn Dixon
Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — In recent weeks, authorities have ramped up pressure on protesters in Hong Kong, calling their demonstrations "terrorism" and hinting at Chinese military intervention.

With Chinese troops hovering just outside Hong Kong, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton has warned Beijing to avoid a new Tiananmen Square moment, a provocative reference to the massacre of Beijing protesters 30 years ago.

What are the tough tactics and could they backfire, locking authorities and protesters in a cycle of violence?

Police use of force

As Beijing has increased its intervention warnings, Hong Kong police have grown increasingly tough. They have grabbed protesters out of crowds, fired nonlethal projectiles at people just a few feet away and hurled tear gas into subways. Last week, a young woman was struck in the face with a beanbag round — a small pillow containing lead shots – rupturing her eye. The same night, undercover police dressed like protesters arrested a young demonstrator named Chow Ka-lok, and knelt on his neck, twisting his arms and grinding his face into the road as he wept.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern about the level of violence. Her spokesman, Richard Colville, cited evidence that police employed anti-riot measures "prohibited by international norms and standards."

Activist organizations including Amnesty International and Hong Kong's Progressive Lawyers Group have condemned excessive use of force, and dozens of medical staffers from Hong Kong hospitals have staged sit-ins to protest police brutality.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for her part, has repeatedly endorsed police actions and dismissed calls for an inquiry. Beijing has also supported the toughened approach.

Threats of military action

Early last week, People's Daily and the Global Times, state-run Chinese publications, aired video of paramilitary police armored personnel carriers and military trucks in Shenzhen, just across the Chinese border, preparing for what was described as major exercises. The People's Armed Police is a crack unit trained to put down terrorist attacks, rebellions and riots. Satellite photos emerged Wednesday of the vehicles parked in a stadium.

On Aug. 13, President Donald Trump cited U.S. intelligence sources as saying that China's military was moving toward the Hong Kong border.

And Global Times Editor Hu Xijin tweeted the same day that if Hong Kong failed to control the protests, intervention was "inevitable."

Action by Chinese military stationed at a garrison in Hong Kong or an anti-terrorism police force in Shenzhen could result in a high number of casualties and undermine freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong by China until 2047, including autonomy, the right to protest, free speech and a free press.

Officers in protest garb

Hong Kong police undercover officers dressed as protesters were filmed Aug. 11 arresting Chow. The police said undercover officers rounded up only core "extremists."

The strategy fed protesters' fears, and two days later, demonstrators at the Hong Kong airport confronted the men they suspected of being mainland police: Fu Guohao, who wrote recent Global Times articles suggesting that protesters have lost support internationally and in Hong Kong; and Xu Jinyang, whose ID, protesters said, showed that he is a mainland China auxiliary policeman, a claim denied by Chinese officials.

Images and video of Fu, tied to an airport trolley, went viral in mainland China, triggering a swell of social media outrage. He became an instant hero on Chinese social media for telling the protesters, "I support Hong Kong police. Now beat me."

Contradictions in media

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities and Chinese state media have sought to portray the protesters as a small group of radicals.

China's media have grown increasingly vitriolic, condemning demonstrations as "riots" and "terrorism" and dubbing them as a "color revolution," a reference to Beijing's warnings it will never tolerate protests such as those in Eastern Europe and the Middle East that toppled governments.

Beijing also blames the protests on the United States and other nations, accusing them of using Hong Kong to attack China's sovereignty.

Amid outrage over police use of beanbag rounds, Chinese state media reported that the young woman was actually injured by protesters, a claim contradicted by witnesses.

Other reports not backed by evidence include claims that protesters were paid and that some fired on police with grenade launchers.

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