Escalating brutality has been at the heart of the long standoff between the citys authorities and its people

When Hong Kongs summer of protests began in June, the city was so shocked by police unleashing 150 canisters of tear gas and using their batons, it helped bring two million people into the streets to demonstrate again and denounce police brutality.

Four months of rolling protests later, they used nearly 10 times as many tear gas rounds in 24 hours in a futile bid to control the city as China celebrated 70 years of communist rule last Tuesday. That day police shot a protester with live ammunition for the first time, seriously injuring the teenager. Three days later another schoolboy was shot in the thigh.

There have been other serious casualties, including a journalist blinded in one eye, and more than 1,100 people have been treated at hospitals for injuries from the protests.

Water cannons laced with dye, beanbags, rubber and sponge-tipped bullets, pepper spray, baton charges and mass arrests have all become common. Gangs of thugs accused of triad links have also attacked demonstrators.

Deepening violence has been central to the long standoff between the citys authorities and its people. Police brutality has fuelled public anger, feeding the protest movement, and as both sides became more entrenched their tactics have escalated.

Police fire teargas to clear pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration on Hungry Ghost festival day in the Sham Shui Po district. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Protesters arms and armour are rudimentary compared to police, but they too have become more aggressive as the conflict has deepened, and their tactics have diversified.

They have thrown rocks, bricks and molotov cocktails, used poles and slingshots for fighting, set fire to businesses, street barricades, and metro stations targeted because the network closes to stop people gathering for protests. They have vandalised the citys legislature, and damaged businesses thought to be pro-China.

Protesters have also attacked police and people suspected of being undercover officers or mainland spies. On Friday night a group beat a plainclothes policeman, then threw a molotov cocktail that briefly set the man on fire.

It is a dramatic transformation for a city known for its civic values and commitment to peaceful, rational, non-violent protest, or wo lei fei in Cantonese shorthand. During the last major protests five years ago the umbrella movement some demonstrators even used their totemic umbrellas to shield officers from rain.

A pro-democracy protester throws a molotov cocktail outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

And hanging over this spiralling showdown are fears the Chinese authorities could lose patience and intervene.

Barely veiled threats of state violence issued from the mainland so far include parading paramilitary troops just across the border, releasing a video showing the Chinese garrison in Hong Kong in urban combat and denouncing protesters as terrorists.

Chinas ambassador to the UK said Beijing would not hesitate to intervene if it thought it was necessary. If the situation in Hong Kong becomes uncontrollable by Hong Kong government, the central government will not sit on their hands and watch, Liu Xiaoming told the BBCs Newsnight.

They might have to kill someone, or be killed

For now, both Beijing and Hong Kong authorities appear to be relying on the citys police, giving them greater powers by invoking sweeping colonial era laws, and easing constrictions on how they operate.

Leaked documents show they loosened guidelines on the use of lethal force on the eve of the student being shot. Changes including removing a line that said officers will be accountable for their own actions.

Even before that attack, a senior police commander told journalists officers were concerned that escalating violence would end in deaths on the streets, CNN reported.

Our officers are worried that violence has got to such a level that they might have to kill someone or be killed themselves, the commander said. This pressure has become extremely dangerous.

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Hong Kong police seen beating protesters during clash at metro station in August video

But protesters, far from being cowed by violence, arrests, or even the shootings, are promising to die if needed in what they see as a battle for the soul of their city.

There are bound to be deaths and injuries in every revolution. Were born into this era and if there is a crackdown, we would resist till the last moment, one demonstrator told the Guardian. He asked not to be named for fear of arrest or reprisals.

If you want to overturn a regime, its hard to stay peaceful. Not everyone has to fight, but everyone can use whatever means they have to help, he said.

Calvin So, 23, a resident of the rural town of Yuen Long, shows his wounds and bruises after he was assaulted on his way home by gangs of men who set upon demonstrators. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Determination and deadlock

Police brutality is not only strengthening protestors resolve, it has also swelled their numbers. Between the violent clashes, people have repeatedly turned out in their millions to protest heavy-handed policing; an independent inquiry has become a key demand at demonstrations.

The police have arrested more than 2,000 people, some as young as 12, the oldest in their 70s. The sight of injured protesters and mass detentions have spurred on others including many Hong Kong residents who say they previously shunned politics, to turn out in support.

Before when people were gathering and they deployed so many riot police, some people would try to leave. Now they dont, said Cathy Lam, 24, part of a crowd of local residents from West Kowloon who waited hours to support protesters being arrested on a bus there. You can see the conflict between police and citizens escalating day by day.

There is a risk that violence and the damage and shutdowns linked to chaotic protests may alienate supporters, both in Hong Kong and overseas, and provide pro-Beijing critics with ammunition. Chinese state media widely reports examples of vandalism and attacks by protesters.

A fire set by protesters burns at an entrance to the Central MTR subway station in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Yet so far, protesters have largely contained both the extent and focus of their violence, directing it at symbols of the government they are opposing. While authorities have denounced them as rioters, there is little of the random smashing and looting that characterises most riots.

The so-called vandalism they have done is really exceptional, because here it is only focused on targets related to injustice they see, said professor Lawrence Ka-ki Ho, a specialist in policing and public order management at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Most vandalism would have indiscriminate targets, but their targets are the metro stations, the police stations not the luxurious shops, not M&S.

For the police, by contrast, escalating violence has been disastrous, both sapping their support and bolstering opposition. Yet once authorities or protesters are locked into violence, it becomes difficult for either side to step away.

Negotiations to end the stand-off, which would always be fraught, are particularly problematic in Hong Kong, both because there are no real channels of communication between authorities and protesters, and also because the movement doesnt have any identified leaders.

This is in part because of sweeping round-ups of prominent figures during past protests, and part reflection of the grassroots nature of the movement which has taken as its motto be like water fast-moving, powerful, but hard to grasp or block.

So even if city authorities want to negotiate, it is not clear if there is anyone with power to call people off the streets.

Many protests do actually generate some kind of reform movement, and its notable in Hong Kong that they have repealed the extradition bill [which first sparked the protests], said Kristian Gleditsch, regius professor of political science at the University of Essex.

The problem could be that if mobilisation has gone quite far, and many activists are now ready to use violence, these kind of concessions will be seen as too little, too late. And if the protest groups are not strongly organised, there may not be a hierarchy or leadership figures who can control them or negotiate with authorities.

Anti-government protesters run away from riot police as they gather at Sha Tin Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station to demonstrate against the railway operator, which they accuse of helping the government. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Protesters in turn feel they have no option but to stay on the streets despite the escalation in violence. Hong Kongs unusual set-up offers civic rights and rule of law but the government is not democratically elected, so public protest is the only way the citys people can express their political will.

We have access to the internet, journalists can report on the situation live, we have rule of law. We are not totally autocratic. But at the same time our system is not totally democratic. We are not totally open or totally closed, said Ho. This hybrid [system] explains the dynamic and the deadlock we have seen.



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