HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s extradition bill demonstrations have mutated into a much bigger and more complex animal, ripping open old wounds and expanding a political fight as the city battens down for a summer of protests.
The demonstrations pop up almost daily, often with little notice, as activists spread word of their cause with handwritten notes on so-called Lennon Walls across the territory and through Telegram and other messaging apps.
What started as an angry response to a now-suspended extradition bill now includes demands for greater democracy, the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and even keeping mainland tourists out of Hong Kong.
“I’m afraid there will be more confrontation further down the road,” said Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who has tried to mediate between activists and police.
“The protests will continue,” he added. “I would expect sizeable protests on and off continuously throughout the summer.”
On Wednesday, organizers of a “silver-haired” march said 9,000 mostly elderly people, some in wheelchairs, took to the streets in support of younger protesters. Police put the number at 1,500 at its peak.
“The whole turmoil is caused by the missteps of government,” said Margaret Yu, 59, a retired accountant. “As an elderly person, at least, I have to stand out and voice out how unjust our government is.”
Wednesday’s rally was the latest in a series that have rocked the Asian financial center for more than two months, plunging the city into turmoil and posing the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Lam has said the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, is “dead.” But opponents say nothing short of officially withdrawing it will do.
They fear the bill would leave Hong Kong people at the mercy of Chinese courts, where human rights are not guaranteed, and have voiced concerns over the city’s much-cherished rule of law.
In addition to Lam’s ouster, protesters are demanding the word “riot” be withdrawn from the government’s description of demonstrations, the unconditional release of those arrested and an independent investigation into complaints of excessive force by police.
The next big protest is scheduled for Sunday, with demonstrators marching from Victoria Park near the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to the Court of Final Appeal in Central.
Other protests are planned over coming weekends in areas including Mong Kok, a gritty working-class district across the harbor from the financial center, as well as in Tseung Kwan O and Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s poorest areas.
“Protesting in locales such as Mong Kok ... only adds to the threat of violence, given the population density and the presence of triad societies,” said Steve Vickers, a risk consultant and a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
Triad gangs, he said, “may act as agitators for either side, or simply take actions to protect their own interests.”
Under the terms of the handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.
But for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
Deep-seated anger with the government has seen scores of smaller groups protest in the streets and sparked grassroots initiatives such as crowdfunding drives and newspaper ad campaigns.
Millions have taken to the streets since June in Hong Kong’s largest and most violent protests in decades, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists, and protesters storming and ransacking the Legislative Council.
The protesters have adopted a “be water” strategy, inspired by a maxim of the city’s home-grown martial arts legend, Bruce Lee, that encourages them to be flexible or formless.
Some activists say it’s a very different approach from that of the democracy demonstrations in 2014, when protesters occupied major roads in the city for 79 days.
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in the streets, we shall fight in all districts of Hong Kong, we shall bring the fight from local arenas to international fronts, whatever the costs may be. We shall never surrender,” the Students’ Unions of Higher Institutions in Hong Kong said in a statement.
The movement’s fluidity makes it difficult to police, taking a toll on officers who have fought pitched battles with protesters and leading to a crisis of confidence on the force.
The protests have at times paralyzed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city.
Hong Kong retailers warned that July and August sales could drop by double digits from a year earlier because of the unrest, while tourism numbers and hotel occupancy rates are slumping.
Activists have seized on support for the protests to bolster the democratic opposition’s prospects in the November elections, with the hope it can recapture its veto bloc from pro-establishment rivals.
“There are obviously political forces which would like to maintain enthusiasm among protesters. This is the driving force for some people to mobilize and motivate protesters,” said veteran pollster Robert Chung.
Lawmaker Regina Ip, in a letter to the South China Morning Post on Monday, said the protests were likely to continue in all 18 districts until the polls in late November.
Others are digging in for a longer stretch.
“What we’re experiencing is an infinity war,” said Joshua Wong, who was one of the leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests. “I am still optimistic.”
Additional reporting by Vimvam Tong and Greg Torode; Editing by Gerry Doyle