What started six months ago as relatively peaceful pro-democracy protests has now transformed Hong Kong – Asia’s financial hub – into a war zone. On one side is the Chinese government, doing everything in its power to retain control of Hong Kong. On the other, the protesters, largely made up of students in their teens and early twenties, who’ve become increasingly more violent in the face of alleged wide-spread police brutality.
Hong Kong — previously a British colony — was handed back to the Chinese government in 1997. At the time it was agreed that it would be governed on the principle of “one country, two systems”, which would allow Hong Kongers greater freedoms than in mainland China. Earlier this year, though, Beijing announced plans to introduce an extradition bill which would mean that criminal suspects could be extradited from Hong Kong to face trial in China. This sparked the first protests in June as many Hong Kongers feared that the bill would give China greater influence over Hong Kong and lead to unfair trials and violent treatment.
After weeks which saw millions of citizens taking to the streets in protest, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam announced in September that the extradition bill would be scrapped. By this point, though, front line protesters claimed that it was ”too little too late”. Having allegedly faced increasing levels of police brutality, they extended their demands to include amnesty for arrested protesters and an independent inquiry into the police’s use of force.
Photographer Stanton Sharpe has been covering the protests and the escalating violence since August. As he explains: “The protesters have the Five Demands, which haven’t been met. But if you talk to them now you rarely hear the words ‘Five Demands’ any more. Now the violence seems to have become more about the hate between protesters and police.”
Last Sunday, protesters occupied the sprawling campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University and battled with police for more than 12 hours. Since then, many have retreated, many have been arrested and it is believed that around 40 protesters remain trapped on the university campus. “I went and visited the campus before the battle on Sunday,” explains Sharpe. “They’d set up a medical center, a journalist center, different strategy rooms, sleeping rooms. They’d basically created a full army barracks. The average age was 19 or 20 but these are smart, internet-savvy young people. I remember when the protests started, back in the summer, I marvelled at how amateur it all felt – even down to how bad they were at throwing. But then at Pol U, they’d set up production lines for homemade bombs and had seminars on insurgency tactics. Still, I felt bad for them … in the morning after the battle I was talking to a 14-year-old kid. I was like,-09 ‘what’re you doing here? You’re so young.’ He was like ‘I’m not afraid of police, no Hong Konger is afraid’. This was after he’d been fighting all day and all night. He was like, ‘I’m not afraid of dying, I’m not afraid of police, I’m not quitting.’
You wouldn’t think an insurgency could happen in a place as developed as Hong Kong,” he continues. “But it feels like the dawn of a new world order, like everything’s going to change.”
Here Sharpe explains how Hong Kong became a war zone.
”When I first got to Hong Kong in August the protests felt unified and they were government-approved. There’d be someone speaking, there’d be thousands of people at a candlelight vigil and then everyone would go home. It’d be more like a meeting. At this point it still felt like a people’s revolution – everyone was hyped-up; there was still this naive rush. Protesters were singing Do You Hear The People Sing from [the musical] Les Mis.”
”This is one of the bigger protests I saw outside of Legislative Council. You can see how the protesters are protecting themselves with these traffic barricades. If you look behind, there’s another group, and then another behind them. I hadn’t seen this tactic before. I remember watching them that day and thinking that they must be studying. They’re smart kids of the internet and they looked up insurgency methods. They weren’t the strongest, they weren’t military people who’d been drilled to peak physical fitness, many were university students. But they were trying to protect themselves against rubber bullets and tear gas in any way they could. A lot of protesters around the world have been copying their methods. For instance, they’ve developed a method of putting out tear gas grenades using traffic cones and bottles of water.”
”This is the first time I saw police use effective but aggressive tactics. This was a day that many had been waiting for. 1st October is China’s National Day – a day that commemorates the founding the the People’s Republic of China. This year was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC and it was believed that the government would crack down hard on protesters this day, to prevent bad publicity. The days leading up to 1st October were violent, with massive numbers of protesters and police on the streets of Hong Kong. On 1st October the protests were some of the largest and most violent, and it was the first day where a protester was shot by a policeman. The protester survived.”
”After facing increasingly violent pressure from police, protesters had begun to build barricades along the roads to slow police progress. This woman was standing among the protesters when she began moving the barricades. There were hundreds yelling at her to stop but she continued to break down the roadblock. Then about 50 protesters circled her and one just hit her in the face. I was like, ‘oh shit.’ I never get involved in anything, but this time I grabbed a protester and pulled him back. I was worried she was going to be beaten to death. Another protester kicked her, another punched her. Then someone took a spraypaint can and sprayed her in the face. At this point she’d gotten away from them and I just jumped in to get this shot. This was one of many moments that signalled an escalation in the violence.”
“At 12am on 5th October, the Hong Kong government implemented an emergency anti-mask law. Protesters had masked their faces to protect themselves from the facial recognition abilities of surveillance cameras; they feared that the government would go after their families. However, this law was immediately ignored, and was recently deemed unconstitutional by the Hong Kong government. This guy was standing in the human chain rally on 18th October, looking pretty fashionable. He seemed to like having his picture taken.”
”This felt like a reawakening for the movement. After peaceful protests, frontline protesters broke into a Bank of China and set it on fire. They destroyed a Starbucks. This was the first day that the police called the bomb squad to respond to a suspicious box that was found. I’d say this was the first day that the protesters began to use more aggressive tactics. More recklessness in the buildings they were willing to destroy.”
”This was at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; this night it felt like an army barracks, but without guns. They were making Molotov cocktails (homemade bombs), practicing throwing javelins and shooting bows and arrows. They were using whatever weapons they could find and lighting a tonne of things on fire.”
”This was the main road outside Pol University. The police came into this intersection and they had these two big power hose tanks. They put irritants in the water so that it’s extra painful when you get hit. They were launching them all day, as well as tear gas but the police never physically came in on foot. This battle started at 1pm and went on until 7am. At one point, a van was going to ram through the protersters’ lines and ran people over. But they just stood right in front of it, throwing Molotovs at it. It was one of those huge tactical vehicles, built for ramming – with steel wheels – but they actually lit it on fire and got it to back off. They threw probably about 200 gas bombs. That night, I was like ‘wow, the protesters are in suicide mode.’”