The authorities say the territory has been pushed to the brink of total breakdown and with parts of it now resembling a war zone where both sides refuse to back down even worse might lie in store writes Foreign Editor David Pratt

Six months ago it was all so very different. Back then it was not uncommon to see church groups gathered in the streets rendering peaceful choruses of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”

In those early days of June when the protest movement was gathering steam, there was a certain quaintness and feel good optimism about Hong Kong’s mobilisation.

“We were well within Martin Luther King Jnr and Gandhi territory,” was how one local journalist summed up the peaceful protests that had stirred in response to government plans to allow, under certain circumstances, extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China.

That people had taken to the streets in vast numbers was understandable, worried as they were that such moves could undermine judicial independence and endanger pro-democracy dissidents opposed to Beijing rule.

But all that seems an age ago now. For last week the streets of Hong Kong at times resembled a scene from the movie The Hunger Games, as some protesters brandishing bows and fire dipped arrows launched the projectiles at the army of riot police who have become their enemy. For both protesters and police alike, this has increasingly become a no quarter contest.

For their part the protesters have set cars alight, dropped heavy objects from bridges, thrown makeshift tyre spikes on the road, built barricades and attacked anyone suspected of working with the authorities.

Not to be outdone the riot police have fired 5,100 round of teargas, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, sponge grenades, rubber bullets, chemical-laced dye shot from water cannons and of course have now used live ammunition.

Some surveys suggest that more than 80 per cent of Hong Kongers may now have been exposed to tear gas. Alongside this, ever since those early days of June, police have now arrested at least 2,580 people including a 10 year old.

In that timescale too there has been a death in the protests that increasingly resemble outright insurrection, turning parts of the city into a veritable war zone.

In some neighbourhoods, the fight between police and protesters now resembles a battle for territory.

“Over the past two days, our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” senior police superintendent Kong Wing-cheung, told a press conference last week.

“Rule of law has been pushed to the brink of total collapse as mass rioters recklessly escalate their violence under the false hope that they can get away with it,” the police chief added.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee agreed, warning too of “unthinkable” consequences if the violence continued.

Right now though far from the turmoil abating it seems only to be getting worse with the crisis moving towards a new and more dangerous phase. The escalation too appears reciprocal.

While no one knows how all this will end, there is a growing sense in Hong Kong that the city will never be the same again.

“Thus far, the government has not addressed the most important issue fuelling the whole protest movement: a sense of unfair behaviour, a lack of understanding that people here are fighting for their freedom,” says political scientist Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University Hong Kong.

“I believe that this is a kind of end game for the protesters. Actually, they don't have a great deal of hope. What they're doing now is saying, “We'll fight to the end,” Ortmann was quoted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle as saying last week.

While Ortmann noted that most of the student protesters were not violent, there are some who he says are allegedly stockpiling weapons and incendiary devices in order to go through with the fight led by more radical protesters.

Inevitably the escalating violence is also reigniting a debate among demonstrators over the best strategy to achieve their political goals. Such debates over tactics in the pro-democracy movement is nothing new of course. There are still those who insist that the peaceful sit-ins during the Occupy movement in 2014 were next to useless and failed to achieve anything.

The proof of just that they say in arguing their case, is that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam back in June this year simply ignored those tens of thousands of peaceful protesters when they called on her to drop the bill that would allow extraditions to China. For her part though Lam has made it clear that in the eyes of the authorities the protests have already overstepped the mark.

“The violence has far exceeded the call for democracy and the demonstrators are now the people's enemy," Lam said in a defiant televised address a few days ago.

“If there’s still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence, the Hong Kong ... government will yield to pressure, to satisfy the so-called political demands, I'm making this statement clear and loud here: that will not happen.”

Lam also confirmed that the city would push ahead with local elections on November 24th that are the first big test of public opinion since the anti-government protests began.

More than 100 public figures including Hong Kong’s former finance secretary had signed a newspaper advertisement demanding that the elections went ahead to prevent further divisions in society.

The latest Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme released recently showed Lam’s approval rating had slumped below 20 per cent, as her status as the most unpopular chief executive in the territory’s history fell to a record low.

But Lam is still talking tough and there is a growing sense that her determination to clamp down on the protesters along with the Chinese authorities are far from idle threats.

Tell-tale signs of this were evident last month when a Hong Kong court banned people from publishing a wide range of personal details about police officers and their families, including photos, in a bid to halt ‘doxxing’ by pro-democracy demonstrators.

The injunction, uploaded on government websites, was criticised by some for its broad wording and for further shielding the identity of officers as they clash with protesters. The injunction also bans ‘intimidating, molesting, harassing, threatening, pestering or interfering’ with any police officer or family member. The current wording left no exceptions, including for the media, making it unclear how it will be applied and whether it will restrict work by reporters.

But its effect overall is clear in that it will create a two-tier system providing more legal safeguards for police than ordinary citizens, turning Hong Kong’s legal environment into an arbitrary, unequal one. And for many observers such moves are just warning signs of what might yet be about to come.

“A shift in Beijing’s approach to governing Hong Kong is about to start. We do not know precisely what form it will take. But it appears the central government is preparing to further tighten its grip on the city. There is a danger it will opt for measures which cause further discontent,” observed South China Morning Post (SCMP) columnist Cliff Buddle recently.

“The communique issued after the Communist Party’s plenum… suggests Hong Kong is about to be reined in. The party said it would “establish” a sound legal system system and enforcement mechanism for the safeguarding of national security in the special administrative regions,” in a reference to Hong Kong and Macau,” noted Buddle.

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks throughout the unrest, but it has vowed to crush any attempts at independence, a demand made by a very small minority of protesters.

Opposition activists argue that’s it precisely because of this bearing down of China’s authoritarian Communist Party that peaceful protests aren’t working and they will not give up without a fight.

Part of the problem too in the way the crisis is developing is that the protest movement is deeply decentralised and its leaders, who have repeatedly called for a commitment to nonviolence, have no power to control or discipline individual extremists.

That’s not the case with the police says James Palmer, a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine and China specialist, who points our that police accountability “is a significant part of the protesters remaining demands.”

While the government seems to be betting that the chaos will turn the public against the protesters, as police brutality spreads, the opposite seems to be happening.

Right now polling shows that Hong Kongers are more likely to blame the police than the protesters.

While around 41 per cent of respondents as of October said protesters had used excessive violence, 69 per cent said police had done so. Eighty-eight per cent backed an independent inquiry into police violence. As with the government as a whole, the police’s reputation is at historic lows in polling.

One of the most popular chants in Hong Kong is “Five demands, not one less.” These include the full withdrawal of the anti-extradition bill, which originally sparked the protests in June; an independent commission to investigate police misconduct; retracting the riot charges against protesters; amnesty for arrested protesters; and, crucially, universal suffrage.

While polls suggest the protesters still have public support on some or all these issues the violence of their tactics isn’t without its critics.

“Demanding five things or we will burn down your railway stations on a regular basis is not going to end happily anywhere in the world,” says Steve Vickers, the former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.

“This movement has come off the rails and is really out of control. And the violent element, the sharp end of it, is really destroying the message that the rest of them had established through large demonstrations, which were peaceful,” Vickers added.

Others also point to another reason why the protesters are becoming more violent.

“There’s also a harder edge to the movement. Hong Kong nationalism is becoming a potent force, and the early days of new nations, even ones that may never materialise, are always bloody,” observed James Palmer of Foreign Policy magazine.

“There’s always been racism toward mainlanders and a contempt from mainlanders for Hong Kongers’ sense of identity. Today, the divide is sharper than ever,” Palmer says.

But just how much this explains the motivation behind the increased violence by the protesters remains open to question. Many observers are still convinced that the crisis has deepened because of cyclical and reciprocal violence by both sides

The more aggressive tactics by protesters lately could also be an attempt to reclaim international attention, says opposition activist Edward Yiu.

“For such a small city trying to fight against an authoritarian regime, we need international support… which probably can explain why in the past four days protesters in Hong Kong insist to have a stronger say and would like to have more severe actions as to arouse international concern,” said Yiu.

Many pro-democracy activists admit the violence can be counterproductive but insist the background to it must be fully understood.

“When people get angry, they get radical,” says pro-democracy politician and leader of the Civic Party Alvin Yeung.

“This government has to face reality and understand that only a political solution can resolve everything and calm everybody down.”

For the moment though that political solutions is as far away as it’s ever been. After six months of unrest a vicious cycle of mistrust is now firmly in place.

Whatever else is happening Hong Kong’s authorities and unelected government isn’t winning any hearts and minds among its citizens, believing instead that outright intimidation will work in quelling their dissent. For their part meanwhile the protesters are bunkering down for a long struggle.

“Like it or not, we now have a whole generation of youth skilled in fighting security forces, subverting the government, making weapons, intimidating people, and conducting information warfare,” warned well known South China Morning Post columnist Alex Wo last week.

And therein lies the problem. For both Hong Kong’s authorities and its protesters, there may be no going back. This crisis may yet be heading for an even worse place than it is already in.

Hong Kong Protests Timeline

February 2019 – Hong Kong’s Security Bureau submits a paper to the city’s legislature proposing amendments to extradition laws that would provide for case-by-case extraditions to countries, including mainland China, beyond the 20 states with which Hong Kong already has treaties.

March 31 - Thousands take to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the proposed extradition bill.

April 3 – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s government introduces amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition laws that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.

April 28 – Tens of thousands of people march on Hong Kong’s city assembly building, the Legislative Council, to demand the scrapping of the proposed amendments to the extradition laws.

May 11 – Scuffles break out in Hong Kong’s legislature between pro-democracy lawmakers and those loyal to Beijing over the extradition bill.

May 30 – Hong Kong introduces concessions to the extradition bill, including limiting the scope of extraditable offences. Critics say they are not enough.

June 9 - More than half a million take to the streets in protest.

June 12 – Police fire rubber bullets and tear gas during the city’s largest and most violent protests in decades. Government offices are shut for the rest of the week.

June 15 – Lam indefinitely delays the proposed extradition law.

July 1 - Protesters storm the Legislative Council on the 22nd anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, destroying pictures and daubing walls with graffiti.

July 21 - Men, clad in white T-shirts and some armed with poles, flood into rural Yuen Long station and storm a train, attacking passengers and passers-by, including members of the media, after several thousand activists surrounded China’s representative office in the city earlier in the day, and clashed with police.

July 30 - Forty-four activists are charged with rioting, the first time this charge has been used during these protests.

Aug. 14 - Police and protesters clash at Hong Kong’s international airport after flights were disrupted for a second day. The airport resumed operations later that day, rescheduling hundreds of flights.

Sept. 4 - Lam announces formal withdrawal of controversial extradition bill. Critics say it is too little, too late.

Sept. 8 - Security forces fire tear gas to disperse protesters in upmarket Causeway Bay shopping district.

Sept. 17 - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam pledges to hold talks with the community to try to ease tensions.

Sept. 26 - Hong Kong protesters trap city leader Carrie Lam in a stadium for hours after she holds her first “open dialogue” with the people.

Oct. 1 - City rocked by the most widespread unrest since the start of the protests, as China’s Communist Party rulers celebrate 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

Oct. 4 – Protest the mask ban. The day the ban was announced, residents took to the streets across the city to voice their dissent.

Nov. 8 - A student dies. Chow Tsz-lok, a 22-year-old student, died several days after falling from a parking garage near where the police clashed with protesters.

Nov. 12 - Battle at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Citywide protests erupted again after riot police stormed one of the biggest university campuses in Hong Kong.

Nov.15 The heads of nine universities in criticise the government for its “ineffective” response to the political unrest that moved to the city’s campuses last week.