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Inside the Hong Kong protesters’ anarchic campaign against China

Unlike the 2014 Occupy or ‘Umbrella movement’ protests, the demonstrations that began in April against a proposed extradition bill have been a rudderless rebellion

By James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim and Anne Marie Roan  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Illustration: Yusha

Ah Lung spends his days working as a clerk for a Hong Kong shipping firm. At night, he dons a mask, black helmet and body armor, and heads out into the streets to face off against the territory’s riot police.

The 25-year-old activist has been a constant presence at the often violent protests that have rocked Hong Kong this summer, rallying comrades, building barricades and rushing from district to district in a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with police.

Ah Lung, who would only identify himself by his nickname, which means “dragon” in Cantonese, is representative of a growing number of discontented young Hong Kongers who are fueling a protest movement that, unlike its predecessors, is taking aim directly at Beijing.

It is a movement without clearly discernible leaders or structure, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively target — and increasingly hard for the protesters themselves to manage.

While it has the support of established pro-democracy groups, the amorphous movement is fueled by activists like Ah Lung — young Hong Kongers who operate independently or in small groups and adapt their tactics on the run.

“We’re not so organized,” Ah Lung said. “Every day changes, and we see what the police and the government do, then we take action.”

“My dream is to revive Hong Kong, to bring a revolution in our time,” Ah Lung said. “This is the meaning of my life now.”

Through interviews with dozens of protesters like Ah Lung and reporting from dozens of protests, Reuters has pieced together a picture of how this movement functions and the mindset driving it.

The protests, which started as a peaceful rebuke of the Hong Kong government in April, have evolved into a direct challenge to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule over the former British colony.

With slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is not China,” Ah Lung and his fellow protesters have made clear they reject a future in which Hong Kong is inexorably absorbed into the mainland giant, eventually becoming just another Chinese city.

Protesters are provocatively calling the demonstrations an “era of revolution,” a formulation that has infuriated a CCP determined to crush any challenge to its monopoly on power.

Scenes once unthinkable in Hong Kong are now commonplace: The Hong Kong International Airport being shut down last week after a prolonged occupation by protesters; a Chinese official publicly suggesting that aspects of some of the protests were terrorism; the Legislative Council stormed and ransacked by protesters; police officers repeatedly baton-charging crowds of protesters and unleashing torrents of tear gas in famed shopping districts.

On Tuesday last week, protesters who managed to shut down the airport also attacked a Chinese man for being a suspected undercover agent. He was identified as a reporter for the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by Beijing, highlighting how activists are making the Chinese government the target of their protests.

It also brought another issue into focus: the risks of waging a leaderless rebellion.

Demonstrators later apologized for the disruptions at the airport, apparently concerned that their chaotic protests might alienate broader sections of the Hong Kong public who had been supporting them.

“The movement has a large degree of self-restraint and solidarity, but of course that’s very conditional,” said Samson Yuen (袁瑋熙), a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has conducted surveys of protesters to understand their motives and support base. “If certain actions spin out of control, if say someone dies from it, then that might be a game-changer.”

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