In Hong Kong, unity between peaceful and radical protesters. For now

During the more than 100 days of the anti-government protests, the various camps have generally avoided publicly criticising each others' actions.
During the more than 100 days of the anti-government protests, the various camps have generally avoided publicly criticising each others' actions.PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - One slogan in the Hong Kong protests has taken on new significance: "Don't distance yourself; don't snitch." The slogan is a call for the protesters to remain united, even as different factions emerge and their tactics diverge.

During the more than 100 days of the anti-government protests, the various camps - from the most peaceful to the most confrontational - have generally avoided publicly criticising each others' actions.

The approach has persisted despite the steady flare-ups of violence including this past weekend, when protesters threw bricks and gasoline bombs.

Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, complained about the solidarity when she announced this month that she would withdraw the extradition legislation, which originally incited the movement.

She called on peaceful protesters to distance themselves from "the really violent protesters who have been attacking our public infrastructure, blocking the roads, storming into buildings and disrupting the normal operations of the airport and the rail".

While the unity is continuously tested, many protesters consider it important for their success. The Umbrella Movement, the 79 days of sit-ins that began five years ago on Sept 28, ended when some groups of protesters denounced others' more aggressive actions and legal injunctions whittled away the protest sites.

Here is a look at the various camps, their roots, and how they're co-existing.


Hong Kong has had a long tradition of peaceful marches attended by hundreds of thousands of people. It dates back at least to 1989, when Hong Kongers turned out en masse to support the Tiananmen protests in Beijing and to mourn those killed in the crackdown. On May 21, 1989, organisers said one million people marched in the city.

Vigils held on the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown have continued ever since. Szeto Wah, a pro-democracy lawmaker and union leader, who helped organise the events, insisted they be peaceful, rational and non-violent, or woh-leih-fei in the Cantonese shorthand.


"This phrase is so popular because Hong Kong people have been quite allergic to any sort of violence or any physical clashes," said Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group that organised the large, peaceful marches during the current protests. "For a very long time, pan-democratic people and the general public think of woh-leih-fei as the general principle of how we protest in Hong Kong."

When half a million people marched on July 1, 2003, to protest against proposed national security laws, the government quickly backed down, a big victory for the strategy of woh-leih-fei.


But the government has been unmoved by peaceful protests in recent years. And a growing number of activists have criticised the approach as too conciliatory.

"Woh-leih-fei, the gist of it is to give pressure to the government sheerly through the number of protesters," said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "But since 2010 the government has been increasingly unresponsive to the turnouts, even if there are high numbers."

The past decade has seen the rise of a new group of more confrontational protesters known as the yuhng mouh, or "the valiant" in Cantonese. Unlike the peaceful group, they are willing to clash with police, though they argue the authorities use more force.

Sometimes they damage private property. But they tend to focus their aggression on symbols of the state, such as government buildings, police vehicles and recently the subway system, which has begun to close stations in neighbourhoods where protests are taking place.

The targeted nature of such destruction means it generally escapes widespread condemnation from the peaceful camp, but that could change if the damage were to become more haphazard.

"We had to upgrade our protests," said Peter Mok, a 26-year-old clerk, who was wearing a face mask and a rain jacket as he joined demonstrators repelled from the government headquarters by tear gas on Aug 31. "Peaceful protests weren't working. The government said they don't care."


The ongoing protests have also seen the popularisation of a scorched earth philosophy. It is sometimes identified by the phrase "laahm chau" in Cantonese, a combination of words meaning "to embrace" and "to fry". Its adherents argue that Hong Kong has created a deeply unfair system, and needs a complete overhaul.

"It exists in different degrees because people don't see themselves as benefiting, not just economically but also having a stake in the system," Yuen said.

A quotation from the Hunger Games series of books has been widely used to explain the idea: "If we burn, you burn with us." The slogan has been expressly singled out by central government officials, who criticise it as a suicide pact to bring down Hong Kong's economy.

An anonymous Telegram account, "I want laahm chau," published a widely circulated essay challenging the argument that the idea offered an apocalyptic vision for Hong Kong. It argued that the protesters' creativity showed the city's prospects if it was not dominated by powerful special interest groups.

"The end point of laahm chau is not a tragedy, rather it is filled with hope," it said.


The account helped organise a protest in August that called for the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, legislation that would impose sanctions against officials who undermine Hong Kong's autonomy. The protesters also called on Britain, the former colonial ruler of Hong Kong, to declare that China had violated the terms of the territory's handover.


During the final weeks of 2014's Umbrella Movement, dozens of protesters charged out of their camp near the government's headquarters, grabbed metal barricades and began smashing the reinforced glass walls of the legislature.

Police soon arrived and arrested at least six people. Student groups and pro-democracy lawmakers condemned the destruction.

This year, however, is different. When dozens of protesters grabbed metal bars on July 1 and again began smashing the entry to the legislature, the voices of restraint were quickly drowned out.

The protesters kept smashing, and eventually broke through. Dozens charged inside, damaging symbols of China's central government, smashing photos of pro-Beijing politicians and marring the walls with graffiti.

"It was you who taught us that peaceful protest don't work," read one message.

There was no barrage of criticism from the standard-bearers of non-violence. And they have largely held back even as violence has escalated and clashes with police officers and civilians have continued.

"The yuhng mouh and the peaceful, they fought with each other," Mok said of the Umbrella Movement. "Each thought they were right. But now we think both sides are important and we have to help each other."


Each camps' importance became apparent early on in the movement. The government pushed ahead with the contentious legislation even after the June 9 march, which organisers said had drawn more than one million people.

On June 12, protesters took a more assertive approach. They surrounded the legislature, clashing with the police and blocking pro-establishment lawmakers from entering the building.

"Without them risking their lives, the Bill would have been passed," said Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front. "This was a significant moment, a point for us to understand each other. The radical approach can be useful."

At the same time, peaceful protests have continued to show the breadth of opposition to the government, she added. On June 16, nearly two million people marched, according to organisers' estimates.


"This number is the spine of the whole movement and attracts the attention of the whole world," she said.

Brian Leung, the only protester to take off his mask and reveal his identity during the July 1 break-in of the legislature, said the escalation that night was the result of sustained support between the two sides.

"The key to that is the mutual trust and the recognition that the other part is also striving for what they're striving, that there is a common goal," he said. "Of course it has to be bounded by some kind of moral concern, that your escalation has to be justified."


At times, violent measures have tested the solidarity between protesters. Last month, after days of protest at the airport, demonstrators assaulted two men from mainland China. But protesters' decision to apologise helped convince people in the non-violent camp to remain aligned, Leung said.

"Because of their willingness to reflect and improve and willingness to apologise, I was convinced that in our movement, the radical protesters and the peaceful protesters, we are still heading in the right direction," she said.

That solidarity likely worries the central government more than the actual violence itself, Yuen said.

"They're not worried about individuals throwing rocks, because that's very easy to handle," he said. "But they are worried when everybody retreats at the same time. Or everybody appears at a place at the same time. If I am the ruler, I would be scared, because I cannot divide the group."