Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Hong Kong, Moderate And Radical Protesters Join Forces To Avoid Past Divisions

Students and others gather during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Thursday.
Vincent Yu
Students and others gather during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Thursday.

The protests that have rocked Hong Kong for much of the past three months have followed familiar patterns.

First, hundreds of thousands of people, including families with babies in strollers, pack the city streets. Then the sun goes down, the families head home, and the young men and women in black come out. They come ready to confront the "popo," as they call the police.

One of them is a 20-year-old woman surnamed Chan. She does not want her full name used because she fears reprisal from authorities. She and her crew are dressed head to toe in black clothes and use tactical gear including helmets, gas masks and arm protectors. They carry walkie-talkies.

Chan says she has been on the front lines of violent clashes with the police since June.

But on a recent night, things were different. After converging on government offices after a big rally, some of the protesters in black convinced their comrades to pull back. Chan says at first, she disagreed.

Anti-government protesters wear gas masks to protect themselves from possible tear gas and pepper spray on Aug. 17.
SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images
LightRocket via Getty Images
Anti-government protesters wear gas masks to protect themselves from possible tear gas and pepper spray on Aug. 17.

"I was the one standing there, saying we need to keep fighting," she says.

But protest organizers said their strategy was to show the world that, after weeks of violent clashes across the city, the protesters could also be peaceful. Chan said her decision later to pull out was a simple, on-the-fly calculation: She and her fellow hardcore protesters were outnumbered and sandwiched by riot police.

Asked why it was acceptable to use violence against police, she replies: "Because they used violence to us first."

One of the Hong Kong protesters' key demands is an independent investigation of charges of police brutality against demonstrators.

The protests started in the spring, channeling public anger at a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The movement has evolved to include broader calls for democracy and government accountability.

Chan says Hong Kong's youth are fighting for their future. Their city will go back to the same political, legal and economic system as mainland China in less than two decades, and if young people don't fight for themselves now, "They will be the ones to suffer in, like, 20 years," she warns.

"I just want to say to the people who criticize us, don't say youngsters or teenagers can't do anything," she says. "Because they're also fighting for you guys, not just themselves."

"If either one gets hurt, we feel the other's pain"

During Hong Kong's 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, the government adopted a strategy of attrition and let competing camps within the protest movement undermine each other. This time, moderates and radicals have agreed to cooperate, collaborate and tolerate each other's methods.

Protesters like Chan are allied with moderate pro-democracy politicians like 36-year-old Ray Kwong, a Democratic Party lawmaker.

Kwong has negotiated between protesters and police at the front lines, and protected injured demonstrators. He does not condone violence. But he says protesters are his friends, whether they are peaceful or not.

"Our relationship is like hands and feet," he tells NPR at his Legislative Council office. "If either one gets hurt, we feel the other's pain."

He says Hong Kong's moderate and extreme factions are an indispensable and integral part of a unified movement that shares the same goals.

"Sometimes Hong Kong people are courageous, sometimes they're more rational," he says. "Only when these two aspects work in conjunction with each other can our movement achieve its aims."

Edmund Cheng, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, has surveyed protesters and says the majority are moderate.

"Most of the moderate protesters understand and tolerate some sort of more militant actions, as long as they didn't really hurt the ordinary citizens," he says.

This idea is summed up in a slogan popular among protesters: "Two brothers climb a mountain, each making his own effort." They may take different routes and use different techniques, but their goal is to reach the same summit.

Cheng argues that now, as in 2014, the city government is neither able to suppress the protests by force nor willing to make concessions.

That leaves only one response: a war of attrition. Wait them out and wear them down.

A show of unity

To wear them down, now and in 2014, Cheng notes, the government has used court orders to deny protesters spaces to demonstrate, and used pro-Beijing counter-protesters to divert demonstrators' energies away from the government.

The protesters' response this time has been to maintain unity among moderate and more extreme camps.

"They somehow understand why, when the government didn't really listen to the public, they must escalate," Cheng says.

This is not to say that moderate and extreme camps within the Hong Kong protest movement are static. Police action has radicalized some moderates, while some militant protesters have grown more pacifist.

Police have reportedly deployed undercover agents to find and arrest a few hundred suspected radicals at the forefront of the violence. More than 700 protesters have been arrested since June, but law enforcement so far has not succeeded in seriously depleting the ranks of front-line protesters.

Cheng says that the movement has become more peaceful in recent days as moderates and radicals have debated the way forward in online forums and messaging apps. For the moment, at least, the moderates have prevailed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.