The optimism that once defined Hong Kong’s pro-democracy rallies has been replaced by desperation and foreboding as young protesters flood the streets again, this time ready to fight in what feels like a last-ditch battle for the territory.
When police cleared protesters from the center of Hong Kong after the two-month “Umbrella movement” occupation in 2014 calling for the right to elect the territory’s leader, demonstrators hung a sign from a bridge saying: “We will be back.”
This week they did just that.
On Sunday they massed in record-breaking numbers calling for the government to scrap a deeply unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to China.
When the territory’s leaders refused, they hit the streets again on Wednesday, but this time clashing with police in unprecedented scenes of violence as officers discharged tear gas and rubber bullets during hours of running battles.
Yu, a 24-year-old protester wearing a mask to hide her identity, told how it had come to this.
“Those who did 2014 know that peaceful methods are not working,” she said, referring to the failure of the movement to win any concessions from Beijing.
“Even a million go on protest and nothing happened,” she added, referencing the government’s refusal to be swayed by Hong Kong’s largest protest since its 1997 handover to China.
However, she was not keen on the confrontations either.
“Violence is not working,” she said. “What can I do?”
This week has seen a profound shift in the attitudes and tactics of police and protesters.
The 2014 “Umbrella movement” protests were much more peaceful. Apart from some clashes between protesters and police at the start — and occasional outbreaks of violence at night for a short period — the demonstrations were a largely peaceful occupation by a movement pushing non-violent, civil disobedience.
Protesters were famously courteous, recycling their waste, doing their homework at night and apologizing for the inconvenienced caused.
However, the movement failed and in the years since, several protest leaders have been jailed.
Many who went into the streets this week were also very young, but there the comparison ends with 2014.
On Wednesday, armed with bottles, bricks and metal bars, a hard core of masked protesters battled police outside the legislature. They donned helmets, masks and goggles, some of them taping thick magazines to their arms as makeshift body armor.
The police responded in kind by escalating their response in a place that had never seen rubber bullets fired before.
After seeing off the hardcore protesters, officers turned their crowd control weapons on the masses of largely peaceful protesters elsewhere, ensuring any occupation would end.
“The level of violence by protesters and the lethality of the weapons used by police cannot be compared to 2014,” political analyst Dixon Sing (成名) said.
Hong Kong’s police chief has defended his officers’ conduct saying they faced a “riot” and “mobsters,” but complaints of excessive force have flooded in.
Videos of police attacking retreating protesters, bystanders and media have also gone viral.
“I was very surprised by the use of force,” said Catherine, a 20-year-old communications student who was at Wednesday’s protest. “There was no warning — they shot at us suddenly.”
“The police could choose to shoot to the sky, not on the bodies,” she added.
Mrs Ng, a 38-year-old housewife, said that she attended the protest with the future of her two young children in mind and was terrified by the police response.
“I was in front, I was one of the first to be sprayed,” she said. “There was no warning.”
Many of those protesting spoke of a feeling of helplessness, that their protest probably would not achieve its goals, but they had been left with no choice.
“I think the younger generations feel the freedoms and human rights of their own home are fundamentally threatened,” Sing said. “They see this as their last battle.”
Inoch, a sports teacher, said that he had no illusions about the future.
“I am sure HK will get worse,” he said. “Our life will get worse, our society, our freedoms... We don’t know what to do. What can we do?”
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