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IN THE past few weeks, large-scale protests in Hong Kong have become almost routine. But they have largely avoided direct challenges to the Communist Party in Beijing. Another massive one on July 21st, involving hundreds of thousands of people mostly clad in black, initially followed the typical pattern. Participants marched peacefully through central Hong Kong, chanting slogans denouncing a recently shelved law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. But this time there was a difference. At the end of it, thousands kept marching to the central government’s headquarters in the city. The party is clearly enraged.
Remarkably, there was no sign of police outside the harbour-front building on the west side of Hong Kong island when the demonstrators arrived after dark. As word spread that police were preparing to deploy in the area, the protesters soon moved back towards the central business district. In one location police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, but groups of protesters, many wearing goggles and gas-masks, remained scattered across a wide area. Some erected barricades and wrote slogans on walls.
The slogans left on the central government’s building, in large black characters, included “Down with the Chinese Communist Party,” and “f--k Zhina”—Zhina being a derogatory way of referring to China because it was the word that was used by Japan during its occupation of swathes of the country in the 1930s and 1940s. Paint was also spattered on the central government’s emblem at the front entrance.
Central-government officials were quick to respond. A statement on the office’s website said the slogans “insulted the country and its people” and accused the demonstrators of going “well beyond the scope of peaceful protest”. It said they had “seriously challenged the central government’s authority” as well as tested the “bottom line” of what China calls the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which it has ruled Hong Kong since Britain handed the territory back in 1997.
This is not the first time that the party in Beijing has been alarmed by the behaviour of some protesters. After another large demonstration on July 1st, the anniversary of the handover in 1997, a smaller group smashed their way into the Legislative Council building and briefly occupied the chamber. Clashes between protesters and police have erupted in towns near the border with the mainland.
Some of the anti-government protesters had argued, however, that demonstrating outside central-government offices in Hong Kong would be pointless and possibly counter-productive. They fear it would anger the party and stiffen its resolve to tighten control in the territory. Better, they said, to keep up pressure on the local government to scrap the extradition law entirely and launch an independent investigation into police violence against protesters. Tactics, however, appeared to shift at the protest on July 21st—a sign, perhaps, of demonstrators’ frustration with what they see as the Hong Kong government’s failure to offer satisfactory responses to their demands.
Some want the chief executive, Carrie Lam, to step down. She has indicated that she plans to stay on. And the party does not appear willing to sacrifice her—at least not yet. The central government office’s statement expressed “resolute support” for the Hong Kong government and its police force in their efforts to protect social stability. The local authorities also criticised the protesters for straying beyond the permitted route for the march and for challenging the central government. On July 20th groups in Hong Kong sympathetic to the party held their own rally calling for calm; organisers said more than 300,000 people took part.
Temperatures are running high. At one station on Hong Kong’s mass-transit railway, people wearing the black shirts favoured by protesters were attacked by stick-wielding men in white shirts as they emerged from their train on their way home from the latest protest. Pro-democracy activists said they suspected triads (organised criminal gangs) were behind the violence and accused police of being slow to respond. Hong Kong’s stability is being challenged as never before since the British departure.