Featured image: A protest slogan referencing the Polish Solidarity protest movement
MO MING IS used to the acrid taste of tear gas. On October 1, China’s National Day, he zig-zagged across the Harcourt Road flyover in central Hong Kong while gas canisters rained down on us, trailing fumes like meteor tails. In a low running crouch, which he learned from the video game Counter-Strike, Mo picked his path through the thickening fog, kicking aside the occasional gas can that landed too close, all while holding his slingshot at the ready for a swift counterstrike of his own against the police and their water-cannon.
Avoiding a spray of blue, irritant-laced water fired just short of our position, he made it across to the far side, where other pro-democracy protesters had retreated to. These were the frontliners: black-shirted, gasmask-clad, knee-padded, umbrella-wielding, taking riot police on with makeshift weaponry as Hong Kong’s confrontations bled into their fourth month. I was following Mo all week, and neither of our masks fully filtered out the tear gas, a lachrymator agent banned in war that stings like hell. Pushed back behind a corner, the Braves regrouped. A gaggle of them tried and failed to light a Molotov cocktail brewed in a miniature-sized screwtop wine bottle; others hurled bricks and petrol bombs. A hard-hatted frontliner exchanged a few words in Cantonese with Mo, then sheltered him with an opened umbrella as the pair pressed forward, giving Mo cover to fire off a few marbles from his slingshot at the police line on a footbridge above.
The day had started so peacefully. That morning, I visited Mo’s flat in a southern harbor neighborhood of Hong Kong island. We drank tea with his wife while Mo burped their three-and-a-half-month-old son. We watched a live stream of the military parade in Beijing, marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which Mo mocked for its goose-stepping soldiers and giant Soviet-style portraits of Xi Jinping. (“Have you seen Ceaușescu’s last parade?” he asked, of the Romanian dictator executed in 1989. “I think the Communists need a kick up the arse.”) After his wife left to take the baby on a boat trip, Mo packed his backpack: gas-mask, eye goggles, black T-shirt, and face mask — uniform of the protests. His trusty Pocket Hammer a rubber bag catapult that fires projectiles at velocities up to 260 feet per second, was tucked into a military-style belt along with a pouch full of marbles that he had bought as ammo from his corner store.
Born in the mid-’80s, Mo Ming — a pseudonym literally meaning “No Name” — grew up in northern Hong Kong, across the bay from its semi-tropical islands that drip out of continental China. His home is nestled below Beacon Hill, a grassy contour that rises up to Lion Rock, a legendary symbol of Hong Kong identity. As a child, Mo would hike up the verge with his younger brother, firing a BB airgun at trees and rocks. Hailing from a well-off establishment family, he went to secondary school in England. After university he returned to Hong Kong — a city I have visited biannually from my base in mainland China over the last decade, for friends, family, and visas — and started to participate in peaceful democracy marches.
Mo’s infant child is the same age as Hong Kong’s latest uprisings: its Face Mask Revolution, as we might dub it for the anonymous, masked crowds openly defying the ban on face coverings. Beginning in early June as a series of marches against a proposed extradition bill, the protests — mostly on weekends — called for police and leadership accountability as well as greater democratic rights, before morphing into more openly anti-CCP demonstrations. (Songzhong, “extradited to China,” is a homophone for a phrase meaning “sounding the death knell”; the bill, now formally withdrawn, was merely a pretext to show anger at Hong Kong’s dying freedoms.) So how did events get to the point where a thirtysomething Hong Konger, a white-collar financier who manages Cayman Islands offshore accounts, became a slingshot-wielding guerilla fighter? And how did this metropolitan world city — a glistening skyscape cut into jungled hills — turn into a weekend war zone?
Hong Kong’s democracy movement heated slowly before it came to a boil. Candlelit vigils commemorated the Tiananmen massacre every June 4, and marches marked the July 1 anniversaries of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Ten years ago, the most dangerous projectile flung was hell money: fake cash for the departed used in ghost festivals, a symbol of the encroaching funeral of Hong Kong in 2047, when the system of “One Country, Two Systems” that preserved its autonomy was due to end, according to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration (a document China recently declared “no longer has any practical significance”). The mood at these marches was invariably polite, as is Hong Kong’s character: demonstrators would queue patiently in Victoria Park, filing out neatly onto the streets and recycling trash as they went. The city was — and remains for now — a haven for freedom inside China, where residents can talk uncensored and Twitter loads without a VPN.
That changed when Beijing brought forward its social and political assimilation of the territory. The Umbrella Revolution of late 2014 was catalyzed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s decision to pre-screen candidates for the election of Hong Kong's chief executive, sparking 79 days of street occupation. In 2015, a number of booksellers “were disappeared” in the mainland after publishing anti-China titles. Pro-democracy lawmakers were expelled in 2017 for insulting China in their vows of office, and two of them were briefly jailed. A pro-independence party was banned in 2018, its leader arrested the next year. Mainland investment stepped up in Hong Kong business; establishment media fell under Chinese ownership; transport links brought Hong Kong and mainland security infrastructures closer together; and new school curricula have subsumed Hong Kong history into the wider subject of Chinese history. The writing was on the wall.
Now that writing is anti-China graffiti, all over Hong Kong’s central thoroughfares. “Chinazi.” “Black Police: Death To Their Whole Family.” “Smelly Cunt Chief Executive: CCP Running Dog.” “I don’t need sex. CCP fuck me everyday.” “Rioting is the language of the unheard.” “If We Burn You Burn With Us.” Some reference other protest movements, in a linguistic melting pot of reclaimed sloganizing: “There is no freedom without solidarity”; “Vivre libre ou mourir #1789”; “I can accept corruption, but HK people are to run HK” (the wording a nod to former governor Chris Patten’s unfulfilled promise of democratization before the British left). On a Family Planning Association office: “No One’s Gonna Have Kids in this City!” On a poster for the new Joker film, four characters speech-bubbled from the chaos agent’s mouth: “Heaven Will Extinguish the CCP.” One simply read: “We’re Back.” Passersby take snaps on their smartphones, protest porn.
It’s not just words and phones, but sticks and stones. Bricks are torn out of the paving, wheelbarrowed to the frontline, and lobbed at police. Closed subway entrances are vandalized, trash upended, and fires struck up in front of the shutters. I saw one group dig up a road sign (“Drake Street”) and strip it with a cutter into metal rods, right outside Government HQ. Molotov cocktails are as common by the bar district as mojitos. Fireworks are weaponized, set off at close range. A makeshift catapult was made from bamboo scaffolding. Eyes have been lost to rubber bullets. Xi Jinping’s face is plastered in rows underfoot so that protesters can trample over him. Chinese national flags are burnt. Businesses seen as pro-China are smashed and spray-painted. Police have been doxxed and targeted off-duty; a severed pig’s head was delivered to one officer’s wedding banquet. Counterprotesters are beaten in the streets. The character for “Death” is scrawled on posters of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader widely perceived to be a puppet of Beijing.
Mo Ming radicalized along with the movement. Like other fighters, he is convinced that Beijing only responds to force, and points to the short lived “Fishball Revolution” in 2016 — when pro-democracy street food hawkers threw their fare at police trying to shut them down — as a turning point. I asked him about the damage inflicted on Hong Kong’s economy by the vandalism, and the negative image of protesters when they turn violent. “Do we look like we care?” he fired back. “It’s not hurting us, it’s hurting the establishment.” Mo believes Hong Kong’s status as China’s only international finance center, with a convertible currency and ability to draw foreign investment, is a key bargaining chip as protests bring the city to heel. “Hong Kong is like the testicles of China,” he told me once with malicious relish. “We are taking China by the testicles, we are squeezing it, twisting it, punching it, burning it. And you can see on Xi Jinping’s face how much it hurts him.”
The leaderless nature of the revolution also favors its extremism. In the Umbrella movement (which I unwittingly crashed in October 2014 when in town for a friend’s wedding), there were inspirational speeches and mass singalongs — thousands waving their phone back-lights like lighters at Woodstock — but student leaders exerted a restraining influence on the crowd’s more violent impulses. Yet these protesters are decentralized, largely because they saw all their old leaders locked up. Participants organize on messaging apps, primarily Telegram and the bulletin board LIHKG. Message groups (the biggest is called “Scott Scout”) report where police vans are in real time so frontliners can strike swiftly, evaporating before the police can respond (“be water” is a protest motto, borrowed from HK native Bruce Lee). This lends them an air of superherodom: once they remove their face masks and reenter public transit, their alter egos are complete. As Mo remarked offhand when he took off his black T-shirt after a protest: “I change like Superman.”
While deeply passionate about principles of self-determination behind the protests, for Mo and the Braves there is also an element of game to it all. Their battle tactics seem straight out of computer games: Age of Empires for formations and Brothers in Arms for combat. On the Sunday before National Day, we were marching down Queensway in the Admiralty district when we ran into a pitched battle on the expressway: a line of riot police roughly 50 meters ahead fired rounds of tear gas into a group of frontliners, who pushed forward in phalanx formation, interlocking umbrellas like Roman soldiers equipped for heavy rain. I ran up onto a bridge overlooking the scene, while Mo ducked into the tree line to the right of the battleground. There he took cover, sidestepping out to fire off marbles, while checking his three and his nine. I recognized the move from every shoot-’em-up I have ever played.
The police eventually retreated — a minor victory — and the frontline pushed down to Government HQ: the Harcourt Road flyover that sees the most intense battles on Hong Kong island, for its symbolic value when besieged and because police mass behind its walls. One Brave showed me a blue rubber bullet, surprisingly large, that had just been fired at them. Mo’s self-appointed mission was to take out the camera on top of the police’s water-cannon van, their most formidable weapon (those “smurfed” by the blue spray say the irritant — capsaicin, also used in pepper spray — burns exposed skin like a thousand biting ants). He darted out from behind a pillar, taking a few pot shots, but the enemy was too well fortified. When the cannon fired, a wide jet streamed directly in front of us, and it was all we could do to escape with a few blue splashes on the back of my chinos.
When Mo had retreated from battle for the day, back in civilian clothes and waiting for the bus to take him back home to his wife and child, I asked if he enjoyed these incursions — if he found it thrilling. “I have to say yes,” he admitted. “But mostly I’m just sad to see the bloodshed. But yes, I have to say I’m a little bit excited.” He paused. “I shouldn’t be. But I just like fighting so much.”
Mo’s wife describes this as “transference”: an anti-authoritarianism, whether toward his father or his bosses, projected onto the Chinese state. Mo himself attributes some of it to his ADHD as a child, and the lack of proper understanding in a school system which got him trouble rather than care. Either way, his anger at structures of power passed down to him reflects the protest movement at large. The angry youth are the first generation of Hong Kongers to feel truly native — born and raised, rather than migrants from mainland China as many among their parents’ generation are. They neither understand nor identify with the mainland: in a 2019 poll, just 3.1 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identified as “Chinese,” down from 30 percent in 2006, while a full two-thirds of them identify as “Hong Kongers” instead. Yet they are also the first generation to witness Hong Kong’s eroding freedoms firsthand, and the ones who will lose the most if fears of Chinese subsumation in 2047 are founded. It is no surprise that Hong Kong has daddy issues of its own when it comes to Beijing.
This generational struggle has a strong whiff of global Occupy movements to it, given protesters’ anger at housing prices and an establishment perceived to be hogging all the real estate and wealth. It is also splitting families apart, when parents are “blue” — pro-police — and children are “yellow,” after the yellow umbrella symbol of earlier protests. This is the case with Mo, whose father is high up in Hong Kong’s correctional services department. On the night before October 1, in an early hours exchange in his family WhatsApp group, Mo shared a video of a policeman getting beaten up, implying that his father’s friends could be next and that he knew where their offices were. His father responded angrily. Mo thumbed “You think you’re bigger than me?” and left the group. (He later told me it was nothing to be worried about: he uses access to his newborn son to “sanction” his father. He had been kicked out of his in-laws’ WhatsApp group the month before.)
Mo’s wife knows that he goes out to join the protests, which Mo told her he acts “like a peaceful Buddha” during, while winking at me. Her expression when he said this I can only describe as performative suspicion. A tai chi and martial arts student who owns two swords, three wooden staffs, and a set of curved hand-blades, Mo is far from naturally peaceful. Her inklings were first raised when he brought home a large box of mooncakes (a sweet treat eaten at mid-autumn festival) but stored it in his hobbies room rather than in the fridge. When she opened the box, she found the mooncakes had been cleared out and inside were three vicious-looking metal slingshots. She is sympathetic to the movement if not the violence, and has three rules that Mo must abide by: don’t put yourself in danger; don’t show your face to cameras; and don’t get arrested.
Shortly after the tear gas fired on October 1, it became clear that retreat was the only option. The police were using new tactics: instead of getting mired in street-level battles, they had positioned themselves defensively on footbridges strategically overlooking streets. We had passed under them earlier during the peaceful march, where Mo flipped the bird at one cop, who beckoned come-on-up-here-and-do-that with his fingertips. A brave phalanx of frontliners did attempt later to force up one of the stalled escalators to get at the police, who fired tear gas shells directly down at their umbrellas and forced them back. For now, advance was impossible. “Our position is too exposed,” Mo said after his short-lived forward sally. “My range is too short.”
The street fell eerily silent at just this moment, while everyone saw the same news pop up on their Telegram or Twitter: in the far north district of Tsuen Wan, where fighting had been heavy, an 18-year-old had been shot with a live round. The video, posted shortly after, shows a young protester kitted out in black, carrying a pool kickboard as a makeshift shield and ineffectually swishing a thin white rod at riot cops. There is a brief melee underneath a shuttered dumplings store, and at one point the protesters are kicking a policeman on the ground. Another cop runs in with his gun drawn (while holding a non-lethal rubber bullet gun in his other hand) and shoots the schoolboy, Tsang Chi-kin, at point blank range in the chest. The bullet missed his heart by three centrimeters, and he is recovering. (A 14-year-old was shot in the leg the following weekend, and a month later a university student died after falling from a car park roof while fleeing tear gas.)
As Mo and I read the news, the stakes suddenly jumped. The crowd ran east, as a sporadic drum beat and Cantonese calls of “one, two” tried to give a semblance of order to the retreat. Behind us the heavily kitted Special Tactical Squad, dubbed “raptors,” were making arrests — running toward stray protesters, anyone they could find, and forcing them to the concrete with a knee pinning their chests. Fires had been set off in the road as barriers against police, plumes of black smoke adding to the apocalyptic feel as disarray toppled into chaos. Nearing the Wan Chai district, Mo looked at me with a frown and said, “We’re being kettled.” I could see immediately he was right: riot cops in front of us were firing tear gas, driving the crowd south down Lee Tung Avenue (a glitzy commercial strip formerly known as Wedding Card Street). I was protected by my press vest and badge, but Mo had a bagful of weapons. We had to escape. Local businesses were opening their doors to shelter protesters. Instead we slipped down a side-street, fleeing east until we were out of danger. A human supply chain, formed along the tramway, was carrying saline solution and umbrellas up to the frontline, and Mo bought a bubble tea to recuperate.
The tragedy is that these marches generally begin nonviolently, before police try to disperse protesters and in the process enrage them. In the brilliant sunshine that autumn afternoon, it felt as if the whole city had come out to peacefully support the cause. Onlookers in storefronts or apartment windows gave thumbs up, or held up their outstretched palms in a five-fingered salute for the “five demands” of the protests (the last demand, snuck in after more plausible concessions, is universal suffrage). There were babies in bassinets; a man in a wheelchair took videos from a long selfie stick; a couple in their 40s handed out buns, because “we see the brave teenagers fighting and we have to come out to support them.” Marchers called “liberate Hong Kong”; the crowd responded “revolution of our times.” (The word for liberate, guangfu, has historical connotations of territorial restoration after invasion; in China, it has been used both as an anti-Qing slogan and in celebration of Republican China’s recovery of Taiwan from the Japanese.)
The night before, I had witnessed a human chain formed from the Avenue of Stars in Kowloon, across the harbor, all the way up to Mong Kok, where candles were laid out underneath the police station. It echoed the Baltic Way of August 1989, where two million people linked Estonia to Lithuania over 600 kilometers — only in this chain the students also linked hands with cuddly toys of Pepe the Frog (a creation hijacked by the American alt-right before being curiously reclaimed by Hong Kongers as a symbol of freedom). Protest crowds spontaneously break into renditions of “Glory to Hong Kong,” the rousing anthem of the movement, sung during marches and in shopping malls. As described in Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong (Penguin, 2017), the last violent uprisings in Hong Kong were the anticolonial riots of 1967, underwritten by Communist China. Since then, resistance has been largely civil.
Not everyone sees it that way, and given the vandalism and vigilantism of extreme protesters, that is understandable. During my reporting trip in Hong Kong I was staying in North Point, a neighborhood known as a stronghold for pro-Beijing views. At a park there, a retired civil servant in his 70s chided me for using the term “protesters” when I asked his views. “What protests? All I see are riots.” Many Hong Kongers are deeply distressed at the damage done to their home and its international standing; one Bank of China worker who was stripping off posters defacing his offices simply muttered, “There’s no need.” The view is common, and China’s propaganda efforts to paint the protests as a violent mob only fuels it. (Mainland views, however, are far from monotone — I met one Beijinger in Hong Kong who had come down for the National Day holidays to participate in the democracy march, because “after this, maybe I’ll never get the chance again.”)
Counterprotest groups linked to the Fujian triads also operate in North Point, tearing down the “Lennon Walls” that have sprung up all over Hong Kong: posters and Post-it notes plastering underpasses in colorful support of protest, modeled after Prague in ’89. In early August, one of these groups, the Hong Kong First Youth Association, clashed with protesters — long poles versus umbrellas — across the traffic barrier in the middle of King’s Road. One morning I visited their offices, where two bulky Fujianese men with buzzcuts were playing cards on a mahjong table next to a shrine of Guan Di, a Chinese military god. I laid on my thickest Beijing accent, and their leader Qiu Zongyuan (tattoo of a tiger on his right shoulder, dragon on his left) poured me a cup of oolong tea, explaining how Hong Kong youth were ungrateful to the mainland for the business opportunities that cooperating with mainland interests afforded. “I don’t like the police because they used to beat me up,” he said, referring to his hooligan days, “but they’re so pitiful now.”
Both camps are paranoid about the enemy having secret agents of influence in their ranks. Among pro-Beijingers, a common refrain — fed by Chinese media disinformation — is that the rioting youth are paid, supplied, or encouraged by another nation and its anti-China agenda (protesters do not help this view by waving American flags at rallies). Protesters, in turn, believe counterprotests are funded by the Chinese state. Fake news abounds on both sides, with rumors circulating of police officers who speak Mandarin or Guangzhou-inflected Cantonese (not damning if true: one million mainlanders have immigrated to Hong Kong since 1997), possibly People’s Armed Police from across the border. With undercover cops known to join marches, there is also constant fear over agents provocateurs — I was asked to tuck my shirt in, to prove I didn’t have a gun hidden underneath it — and suspected Chinese agents have been beaten openly.
Other supporters of the cause favor less violent tactics. I caught up with Joshua Wong, the 23-year-old face of the Umbrella movement, as he submitted his application to upcoming district council elections. “Democracy is not only about street protests or international advocacy,” Wong told me. “Elections are the only institutional way to express our demands and our discontent.” His candidacy was rejected before the November elections, in which a 70 percent turnout gave a resounding majority of their vote to pro-democracy candidates who will wield only symbolic power. Yet Wong is no longer at the head of this leaderless movement, and simply calls himself a “facilitator.” Mo calls him “outdated.”
In the end, just like Mo’s perspective, these are single voices among a multitude. While wargames may appeal to a certain male restlessness, women frontliners are on the streets in numbers too, some of them lobbing bricks with just as much vigor. The city has become polarized, and the middle ground has vanished. Even peaceful protesters are loath to condemn violence as it keeps the pressure on Beijing. Most of all, I got the impression that nobody knew where this was all heading — a whole city dressed in black colors of mourning, walking in a circle of escalation, unsure if the spiral leads up or down.
Historically, Hong Kong has not been an integral part of China for long. It has played host to various rebellions, from a last stand of the Song against invading Mongols in the 13th century, fought on Lantau Island, to the Cantonese pirate rulers — Ching I and his wife-slash-successor Ching Shih — who raided the Qing dynasty fleet throughout the 18th and early 19th century, before eventually surrendering under favorable terms. “Now we’re the pirates,” Mo told me over dim sum, after safely getting home on the evening of October 1. Under his pen name, Mo writes essays for the Hong Kong New Historian Society, a website he and classmates founded in 2017, where he notes that Hong Kong was only under Qing rule for a few decades before it became British soil as a forced concession at the end of the first Opium War in 1842. To him and the other Braves, Hong Kong is continuing a historical legacy of being an island apart.
When it comes to more contemporary civil resistance, the more apt comparisons might be the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989, or the Arab Spring, or Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014 (a parallel explicitly drawn by marchers waving the Ukrainian flag). One lesson of earlier movements, drawn out in the collection of essays Civil Resistance and Power Politics (Oxford University Press, 2009), is that strategic nonviolent discipline can in fact be a force more powerful — and keep the door open for negotiated compromise. As Adam Roberts, one of the editors of the collection, said in a September lecture at the City University of Hong Kong: “[C]ombining [civil resistance] with the use of force is often deeply problematical.” When I put this to Mo, his response echoed that of all other resistors, civil or uncivil, whom I spoke to in Hong Kong: “We tried that.” The Umbrella movement and its aftermath — arrested leaders, expelled lawmakers, banned parties — suggest that Beijing only speaks the language of violence. And there is no Gorbachev in Zhongnanhai. As a famous slogan, spray-painted in the trashed chamber of the Legislative Council on July 1, read: “It was you who taught us that peaceful protests don't work.”
For those of us who fear for Hong Kong, the other comparison to 1989 is more chilling: the last time a segment of its population revolted, China’s leadership made it abundantly clear that human lives are an acceptable cost for the maintenance of control. There are thought to be up to 12,000 Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong (double last year’s number). The PLA garrison headquarters in Admiralty — a red-starred, inverted pyramid-base building like something out of Star Wars — has been quietly watching over the protests for months, although soldiers once came out for a photo-op to clean up trash. Beijing does not want to send in the troops, which would curtail Hong Kong as a financial center, and invite international censure. A military response is also precisely what the protesters would like to see. If Beijing sent in tanks, Mo told me, “That would be ideal. We would all go home and watch TV, then come back out after they have left.” Yet by then the Rubicon would be crossed, and there would be no coming back for Hong Kong.
More likely, the protests will continue at an intermittent boil — sometimes bubbling over, other times simmering down; hibernating over winter and reborn in spring — while the CCP exerts its new modus operandi: the silent control that kills without guns. In this respect, the escalation of violence plays right into Beijing’s hands. Loyalty will be extracted from Hong Kong’s media, business, and education sectors. The internet may be censored, and the territory will be brought into China’s surveillance state; already, facial-recognition software has been found inside street cameras. Protest slogans reference “Xinjiangization,” frontline of China’s internal colonization, as a future vision for their home. This slow throttle of freedom in Hong Kong was already underway, but can now be accelerated, bringing forward 2047 by a couple of decades.
After six months on the streets, there are signs of fatigue — certainly of hopelessness — yet a December 8 march still drew almost a million participants, an eighth of Hong Kong’s population. When the Hong Kong government banned face masks at public gatherings, Mo sent me an application form to join the Islamic Union of Hong Kong so protesters could wear the burka. “Everyone should now be carrying petrol bombs,” another frontliner told me. Yet for all of their enthusiasm to continue the fight, I cannot shake the abiding horror that these are kids playing at war, flicking their fingers at the nose of a tiger and thinking they are drawing blood. As to how this will all end for Hong Kong — once Britain’s neglected foster child, now the unruly teenager of its control-freak biological father — the Braves know their prospects are bleak. As one of them in an all-black outfit and a Guy Fawkes mask said through the tear fog, this is “our last stand for freedom. If we lose now, it is over.”
All photos by the author.
Alec Ash is a writer based in China. A shorter version of this article also appeared in The Spectator.