In the second half of 2019, Hong Kong was shaken by never-ending protests. After peaceful marches of one million people in June, followed a week later by two million people, the Hong Kong government refused to withdraw the proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed the extradition of persons in the territory of Hong Kong to mainland China—visitors as well as local people. Instead of offering to negotiate with the protesters, the Hong Kong government permitted the police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets toward them. Hong Kong citizens were outraged by their decision, and more citizens chose to join the protests. The spirit of resistance is, once again, reactivated in these protests.
One of the unique facets of the 2019 Hong Kong protests is the coexistence of nonviolent and violent resistance. Instead of criticizing one another, protesters have mutual respect for different ways of resistance. Various slogans, such as “Brothers [and sisters] climb a mountain together, each has to make his [and her] own effort” (兄弟爬山，各自努力), “No snitching, no severing of ties” (不篤灰、不割席), and “Peaceful and valiant resistance are inseparable” (和勇不分), have emerged in order to promote solidarity among protesters. These slogans have generated guidelines for protesters to practice nonviolent and violent resistance simultaneously.
After the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred to China from Britain in 1997, the frequency of massive protests calling for democracy increased. In the fall of 2014, Hong Kong citizens engaged in a large-scale, pro-democracy occupy movement. Protesters occupied the main streets of three different busy commercial districts for 79 days. The media labeled these protests the “Umbrella Movement” because protesters used their umbrellas as shields to protect themselves from pepper spray and tear gas fired by the police. The practice of nonviolent resistance reached its peak.
While the movement was successful in illustrating the determination of the people in their fight for democracy, the lack of progress in the democratization of Hong Kong’s political system led to frustration and rendered it a failure. Protesters’ hard work that ended in futility caused many of them to question the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in the face of an authoritarian regime.
Meanwhile, the occupying of busy streets in the Umbrella Movement caused the Hong Kong government to militarize the police force gradually. The Special Tactical Squad (nicknamed “Raptors”) was formed amid the Umbrella Movement to handle protesters. Each member is well equipped with a helmet, respirator, armor, and various non-lethal and lethal weapons. The normalization of paramilitary task forces became the main physical force to suppress protesters in 2019.
After the first march of one million people on June 9, 2019, protesters gathered again outside the Central Government Complex (the headquarters of the Hong Kong government) on June 12 with a plan to surround the building, as they did during the Umbrella Movement. However, this time the police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds intensively to disperse protesters and discourage them from gathering. During this confrontation and chaos, 72 people were injured and sent to hospitals. Amnesty International published a report detailing 14 instances of excessive use of force by the police. It denounced “the use of force by police in the largely peaceful protest that took place on June 12 [that] violated international human rights law and standards.”
Considering the government’s response to the peaceful protest by firing rubber bullets and tear gas and declaring it a riot, the protesters were outraged and escalated their actions to a militant level. Frontline protesters adopted the black bloc tactic by wearing black and concealing their faces and hair with yellow hard hats, goggles, and gas masks. Yellow hard hats were used to protect protesters against baton attacks. The goggles protected their eyes from rubber bullets. And gas masks were used to filter tear gas. The uniformity of wearing protective equipment lowered a barrier for participation, making it more difficult for the police to identify protesters as they all were anonymous.
The protest on July 1 marked a high point of black bloc protesting. Hundreds of black bloc protesters stormed the Central Government Complex and successfully entered the Legislative Council. They damaged portraits of pro-Beijing lawmakers, trashed office and computer equipment, and vandalized walls with graffiti, saying, “Hong Kong is not China yet,” “China will pay for its crimes against Uighur Muslims,” and a stunning phrase in Chinese which describes their reason for militant protest: “It was you who told me peaceful marches did not work.”
The protest on July 21 in Sai Wan was the first day when confirmed protesters began to throw Molotov cocktails. That night protesters vandalized the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government (Beijing’s headquarters in Hong Kong) and set fires to retreat safely. Meanwhile, in Yuen Long in the northern New Territories near the border with the mainland, about one hundred men in white shirts physically attacked both protesters who were returning home as well as ordinary people not involved in any protests. They used sticks and metal bars to attack, at random, anyone in the Yuen Long train station. The police did not arrive at the train station until 39 minutes after all the attackers had left. The Yuen Long attack is believed to have been operated by gangs of triad members and led many to believe that the police were in collusion with them. The Yuen Long attack shocked Hong Kong, and it became a tipping point in the process of radicalization.
This sense of mistrust in the police and justice system subsequently escalated the level of vandalism. Protesters became vigilantes and damaged specific shops and offices in pursuit of self-perceived justice. They vandalized subway stations and other businesses recognized as pro-Beijing, such as banks, restaurants, and bookshops. Protesters destroyed these properties by breaking windows, torching entrances, and throwing furniture and other items (albeit without looting).
To “stop violence and curb disorder” (止暴制亂), the government intensified their use of force to suppress the increasing vandalism by protesters. In addition to the regular use of pepper spray and tear gas, the police fired a wide variety of non-lethal projectiles and rubber bullets toward protesters in different parts of the city. More protesters moved away from nonviolence with these new aggressive tactics and used violent tactics in every clash without hesitation. Protesters considered throwing Molotov cocktails as a self-defense method to fight back in their asymmetrical power relationship with the police.
The most extensive use of Molotov cocktails was recorded during the siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in November. During these two extremely violent episodes of the protests, the police fired more than 1,000 canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets on both campuses. Students used Molotov cocktails, bricks, and arrows to fight back. In the siege of CUHK, more than eighty people were injured. In the siege of PolyU, more than 1,100 people were arrested in and around the university. These two sieges have been the most bloody and violent clashes throughout the protests.
In their book Contentious Politics, Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow predict that the struggle of autonomy between Hong Kong’s citizens and the Chinese government “will endure for years—perhaps generations.” Five years after the Umbrella Movement, their prophecy came true. Hong Kong’s citizens are demanding their political rights again. This time though the cycles of protests are even longer, and the scale of participation is even larger, from the past of peaceful and nonviolent means of participation upward to a violent and lethal level.
The standard assumption of civil resistance is that nonviolent campaigns are superior and more effective than violent campaigns. However, in the case of the civil rights movement in the United States, this notion is only partially correct. One of the most frequent misuses of the civil rights movement is that people tend to overemphasize nonviolence, mentioning it as the only driving force behind the movement, as well as to downplay violence (as a form of self-defense), neglecting it as one of the other kinds of activism that coexisted in the movement.
In light of local studies in the United States, civil rights scholars suggest that nonviolence and violence are not mutually exclusive but complement one another. The popular images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his normative argument of nonviolence were essential in giving the movement a certain higher moral stature at a national and international level. Some people were willing to defend themselves from the death threats of white supremacists in their local daily life.
Throughout the civil rights movement, some black people and organizations advocated and organized armed resistance as a form of self-defense, such as Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Stokely Carmichael, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, etc. Their affirmation of self-defense did not equally mean that they denied the strategical tactics of nonviolence. Malcolm X was famous for his quote demanding freedom, justice, and equality “by any means necessary,” but he never carried a firearm in public.
The history of their practices challenges the prevalent stereotype of the civil rights movement as solely nonviolent protests. It reminds people that armed self-defense is not the opposite of nonviolence. Armed self-defense is a response to racism as physical harm. Nonviolent and violent resistance both simultaneously serve in the broader context of the Black freedom struggle. The emerging Black Lives Matter protests continue this non-linear resistance tradition as protesters resist nonviolently/violently, civilly/uncivilly, and publicly/anonymously all at the same time.
When the 2019 Hong Kong protests are situated in the global history of freedom struggles, one might say that Hong Kong protesters are similar to other resistance movements, defending their political rights “by any means necessary.” The people of Thailand and Myanmar also have resisted their authoritarian governments in black bloc tactics and self-defense-based resistance. Like Hong Kong, their protests are still ongoing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is not my intention to create a new top-down approach of advocating for militant resistance nor glorifying Molotov cocktails. Hong Kong people have also resisted nonviolently and peacefully in many other ways, such as boycotting pro-government businesses and lobbying internationally. The coexistence of numerous means of resistance in Hong Kong underscores the limitations of the violent/nonviolent dichotomy, pointing out that achieving social change is not either peaceful or militant but can be both, depending on the context. It also raises questions to Christian theologians and ethicists regarding the justification (or perhaps critique) of coexistent ways of resistance in facing authoritarian regimes.