How Tear Gas Attack Ignited Hong Kong Democracy ProtestsMehul Srivastava, Jonathan Browning, Natasha Khan and Fion Li
Eighteen months before the first tear gas shell hissed through the crowds of students in central Hong Kong, the city’s police began training on how to keep control of one of the world’s largest financial centers.
Not since riots in the 1960s had Hong Kong’s cops had to worry about the messiness of mass political unrest. Now, with China asserting its hold over the city, a new breed of pro-democracy activists was threatening to take over the central quarters.
And so, they trained.
They practiced breathing through respirators. They tasted the bitter sting of British-made CS gas and its effects on their tactical and emergency units. They called it Operation Solar Peak, a code name inspired from a popular novel about martial arts warriors protecting a mountain hideout.
It wasn’t enough. They were caught off guard on Sunday Sept. 28, when tens of thousands of people flooded the streets, demanding the right to choose their own leader in a free election. Faced with the prospect of losing control of the city’s administrative heart, Hong Kong’s police let loose 87 rounds of tear gas into a swirling mass of people.
Their actions that night were a turning point over 10 days in which the future of Hong Kong rested in the hands of inexperienced students, pro-democracy campaigners with memories of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and a China-picked government with little idea of how to defuse a public insurrection.
The police said that the gas was used only after protesters charged a police cordon. While it cleared the area briefly, thousands more outraged citizens flowed into the streets within hours. Images of the students, armed with no more than umbrellas and enveloped in clouds of smoke, stunned the world and presented China’s leaders with the biggest crisis over Hong Kong since Britain gave back sovereignty in 1997.
In the end, the students’ movement was a reminder to China that its accession of Hong Kong was only partially complete -- Hong Kong people would be harder to win over.
The demonstrations, which still block parts of the city as talks between the government and leaders stall, transformed a group of students -- one weeks shy of official voting age -- into formidable adversaries of both China and its chosen emissary in Hong Kong: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Nicknamed “The Wolf” for his political acumen, Leung denied in a 2012 debate that he once said the government would need to use tear gas against protesters.
The ability of a group of rag-tag students to bring Hong Kong’s government to the negotiating table heralds a new era of civil disobedience in this orderly city, and presents a formula for pro-democracy activists to press their case far more effectively than they had in the past. The public’s -- and the world’s -- response to the gassing showed an intolerance for a heavy-handed approach to peaceful dissidence and, for now, gives the polite students the upper hand.
This account of the events that rocked Hong Kong is compiled from dozens of interviews with protesters, police and officials and eyewitness accounts by Bloomberg News reporters. Some declined to be identified, citing an unwillingness to be seen criticizing the city government or the confidential nature of the events. Leung’s office declined to comment.
The authorities had been on high alert -- on Tier Three of a five-tier system -- and 7,000 officers had already been called up by Sept. 28. Three student leaders -- Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Lester Shum -- languished in detention after having been arrested during the previous two days.
Hundreds of protesters were cordoned off by police in an avenue outside Civic Square, a fenced-off plaza at the entrance to the government’s main offices that students had occupied two nights before. They were separated from thousands of protesters flooding the Admiralty district, the site of a former British naval base. The newcomers spilled onto the surrounding streets, uncontained.
Two older pro-democracy campaigners, Martin Lee, a 76-year-old lawyer, and Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon, stood on barricades and exhorted protesters through a megaphone to stay calm. Lee said he was awed by the crowds chanting for democracy, a sight he’d dreamed of for 30 years. He carried goggles and tucked a damp towel into his pants in case of tear gas or pepper spray.
He addressed the jittery lines of police.
“We will resist you but we won’t fight you,” Lee said. “So please don’t use pepper spray. It’s not necessary. You have these peaceful crowds.”
The police weren’t entirely in control. The commander of a backup group, Emergency Unit Hong Kong Island, was separated from his team. Police headquarters, hundreds of yards away, was about to be surrounded by protesters.
Just before 6 p.m., a police officer from the X-Ray Tactical Unit walked up to a line that separated the smaller group of students in Civic Square from the thousands of protesters clamoring to be let in. He unfurled a black banner with English and Chinese lettering, and held it up high.
“Warning, Tear Smoke,” it read.
A line of officers faced the crowd, respirators on, oval shields on their arms.
Pop. Pop. Pop. The hiss of gas sent the crowds rolling back. Among the first to be hit were Lee and Lai. Lee reached for his towel, only to find it had dried out in the heat. Others dragged him off. People rushed away, some forced against cement barriers on the highways.
More came the other way. Bernard Li, a Hong Kong native who lives in Shanghai, returned to the scene soon after midnight after attending the protest with his family earlier.
“I was about to go to sleep, but then saw on TV that tear gas was being used and policemen were pointing guns at students and citizens,” he said. “I just had a feeling I needed to come back out.”
Assistant commissioner Cheung Tak-keung said the police had used “minimum force” to keep a distance between protesters and officers, exercising the “highest degree of professionalism and restraint.”
The gas was used only after protesters “violently charged” and refused to disperse, police said in a separate statement. A spokeswoman on Oct. 9 declined further comment.
In some scenarios, tear gas is preferable to batons and pepper spray because it reduces the risk of protesters and police coming into contact in tense situations, a police official said.
The police plan to review their failure to contain protesters, he said, declining to be identified because the matter was confidential. The last time Hong Kong police used tear gas to face down demonstrators was in 2005, when Korean farmers armed with steel rods laid siege to the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting.
The night police tear-gassed the students, hundreds of demonstrators wearing plastic goggles formed a human chain to pass bottles of water, plastic wrap and damp towels to the others in the front of the dirty-white cloud. The students also shielded themselves from pepper spray with umbrellas, which became the symbol of the movement worldwide.
At 3 a.m. on Monday Sept. 29, about two dozen police backed by two vans moved down a major boulevard clearing barricades, plant pots and garbage bins. Then, as the riot squad took a rest, a screeching sound filled the air. The protesters were back on the road, dragging metal barriers to form a new barricade.
The trail leading to that night, and the days of protest around it, goes back 30 years, to terms agreed to by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping for the 1997 return of the British colony. The declaration held out the prospect of an election for the city’s chief executive -- without specifying how it would be done.
The students’ tactics were honed in 2012, when Wong, then 15, won a surprise victory, leading mass protests that forced the government to reverse its plan to introduce patriotic Chinese national education in schools.
Wong, leader of a group called Scholarism, became an icon for many teenagers. In the weeks before the current rally started he slept five hours a night, awoke early to go on radio programs, and headed from school to meetings of pro-democracy groups.
That brought him to the attention of Lee, the veteran lawyer and pro-democracy politician who faced tear gas with the students. Earlier this year, Lee invited Wong and some of his friends to the Hong Kong Club, a members-only establishment in the center of the city. Sitting near a three-lane bowling alley in the basement, eating apple filo tart with vanilla ice cream, the unlikely allies bonded.
“Joshua and I became friends, an old guy and a young guy,” said Lee. “If there is anything they wanted to know, I would tell them. I didn’t want to influence them but I would offer whatever help I could.”
All through 2013, two academics and a preacher had been mulling a plan inspired by Occupy Wall Street. The idea was to use Central, the main business district, as the locus. Benny Tai, a constitutional scholar, even researched the legal consequences of occupying central Hong Kong -- a $620 fine.
Tai had used the threat as a negotiating ploy with leaders in Beijing during discussions over the city’s leadership election, scheduled for 2017. In response, the police secretly started Operation Solar Peak.
Tai’s tactics didn’t work. While the plans announced on Aug. 31 allowed 5 million people to vote for the first time for the city’s top official, voters would only be able to choose from a vetted list of candidates, ensuring their obedience to China.
As Tai and other leaders of Occupy Central With Love and Peace debated a start date for their protest, the initiative was seized by Wong and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a union headed by 24-year-old Alex Chow. College students started a week-long boycott of classes on Monday Sept. 22 to demand the decision be reversed.
More than 13,000 people took part. By the end of the week, high school students joined the boycott; about 3,000 people gathered outside Civic Square that Friday night. Wong had expected 100.
“The square belongs to us,” he yelled from a small stage. “Tonight we are going to reclaim it.”
As the students climbed fences to get into Civic Square, police used pepper spray in a failed attempt to stop them. About half-a-dozen policemen grabbed Wong and arrested him.
Authorities moved Wong between police stations and procured a warrant to search his home. They seized a laptop and hard drive. They checked the seams of his shirt and the insides of his brother’s socks, according to Michael Vidler, one of his lawyers.
Wong spent the Saturday night in an eight-foot by eight-foot cell, sleeping on a concrete ledge and using a hole in the ground for a toilet in view of officers. He wasn’t let go until after the tear-gassing began, when his lawyers got a judge to release him at an emergency hearing in a courthouse just a block from where police faced off with students.
“They treated him as if he was a major triad kingpin,” said Vidler, referring to the city’s organized-crime gangs. “Given his age and given the offense he was charged under, there was absolutely no justification whatsoever that he was treated that way.”
Wong only found out about the tear gas when his lawyers showed him some of the images. Wong was horrified. “I thought, ’Are we at war?’” he asked.
Wong’s treatment brought Tommy Lam, 19, to the streets. A university student, he hadn’t been boycotting classes.
That changed the night Wong was arrested. “I was shocked by some of the photos I was seeing on Facebook,” said Lam, wearing a yellow ribbon, a symbol of the protest, pinned on a faded black button-down shirt. “Joshua is younger than me, and yet he was out there, being pinned down by cops, injured, fighting for all of our futures.”
Thousands more felt the same way. So many showed up in the ensuing 24 hours that Tai declared that Occupy Central had begun. By 4 p.m. Sunday Sept. 28, tens of thousands of people spilled over into nearby Gloucester Road, a major thoroughfare. They were still there when the tear gas shelling began.
For the week after the gas was used, Hong Kong’s central districts came to a standstill. At the protests’ peak, as many as 200,000 demonstrators occupied three key intersections in the city, demanding that Leung step down and China’s election plan be withdrawn.
Two days after the tear-gassing, he met with his executive council for a regularly scheduled 9:45 a.m. meeting, according to two cabinet members present.
They met in a room with a circular table, studded with computer monitors and microphones. Leung sat calmly with his deputy, Carrie Lam, to his right, and Financial Secretary John Tsang to his left. For almost two hours, they discussed their options before Leung called the meeting to an end.
Later, Leung was unable to get to his office and meetings moved to his residence, a colonial-era building overlooking the city center. Aides worked till 11 o’clock each evening and returned the next morning.
Michael Yu, a spokesman for the chief executive’s office, declined to comment yesterday, referring to Leung’s previous statements. Leung said Sept. 28 he had “full confidence in the professionalism” of the city’s police.
The next day, Oct. 1, he traveled by boat to a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China, avoiding the chanting protesters. Wong joined members of the public at the event, turning his back as Leung watched the Chinese flag being hoisted. At an indoor reception, Leung drank champagne with China’s top official in Hong Kong.
That night saw the biggest crowds yet. The students owned the streets of Admiralty and crowds had taken over Causeway Bay and a major intersection in Kowloon, across the bay, in an area called Mong Kok.
Wong, Chow and the other leaders set up a makeshift command center in offices of the legislative complex, donated by pro-democracy lawmakers. Nine floors below was Civic Square.
Bleary-eyed student leaders huddled around a rectangular table in a windowless conference room. The floor was littered with backpacks and take-out boxes. Two computers streamed local news footage of earlier clashes across town.
With nonstop meetings, most of the leadership slept there, waiting for trusted intermediaries to get word from Leung’s office about whether he would negotiate. They set a deadline for his response.
Twenty minutes before midnight on Oct. 2, Leung told reporters he’d appointed Lam, his deputy, to talk with the students.
Inside the students’ nerve center, the jubilation was tinged with caution. The next day brought a setback.
In Mong Kok, demonstrators had blocked a major intersection, set up tents and barricaded the roads. Residents weren’t pleased. Shops were losing business, the media was crowding out pedestrians and the students kept being dragged into arguments with groups of men who wanted to rip out their tents and clear the barricades.
At about sunset, crowds of men attempted to cross a thin line of police officers in Mong Kok to get at the protesters. They taunted the students and challenged them to fights.
“A bunch of useless youths! Get out of my way!” a man wearing a blue vest shouted repeatedly, gesturing with his middle finger raised.
By evening, the students were facing a baying mob of hundreds of men. Women and girls were intimidated and some harassed and molested in front of police, Amnesty International later said. The next morning, 37 people were taken to hospitals. An uneasy calm was enforced by police as officers with riot shields showed up to manage the swelling crowds.
The street battles further frayed what little trust the students had in the government’s sincerity to negotiate. The students shelved talks, blaming Leung for the violence and saying police stood by during the assault. Eight men arrested later were suspected to be linked to the triads.
With negotiations suspended, another deadline loomed. Leung had demanded that government workers be allowed to return to their office on Monday Oct. 6, warning he would authorize any necessary measures to make it happen.
Inside their nerve center on Oct. 4, the student leadership decided on a massive show of numbers and a call went out to supporters on Facebook, WhatsApp and by phone to congregate again at Admiralty. That night, as many as 200,000 demonstrators showed up, protest leaders estimated.
People filled the roads and bridges running past the city’s government offices, holding up their illuminated mobile phones, and singing protest songs. Late in the evening, Wong took the stage.
“They say we’re chaotic,” he said. “Look around -- are we chaotic? I see you all here and I know that what we’ve worked toward has not been for nothing.”
Behind these scenes of unity, the student leadership’s hold on the situation was fraying. It had become clear that their immediate demands for Leung’s departure and an end to the restrictions on the 2017 elections wouldn’t be met.
Worse, they were increasingly concerned about discord among their ranks. The corps of volunteers and stewards were stretched thin, tending to three different protest sites.
That worried Chow, the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. At 5 p.m. on Sunday Oct. 5, with hours to go before Leung’s deadline, he sat down for a chat in the pantry on the ninth floor of the legislative complex. He was worried about the leaders losing touch with their supporters.
Wearing a black t-shirt that read Freedom Now, his fingernails were grimy, his hair unkempt.
“We have only partial influence, to be frank,” he said. “But there are radicals, they are more autonomous, and of course some of the people in the movement, they don’t wish for a leadership.”
Then, at 11:30 p.m., the students made an announcement. At the University of Hong Kong, away from the crowds at Admiralty, Shum, Chow’s deputy, sat in front of a bank of microphones and announced that the talks were back on. The government yesterday suspended the discussions, which had been scheduled for today, after student leaders called for more demonstrations.
It’s not over for Matthew Lam, 30, a social worker. Lying under the bridge of one of the main occupied roads, Lam said he had been protesting for a fifth day.
“I will see what the government offers,” said Lam, clad in a black singlet and lying on a black mat, with snacks around him. “The students may be facilitating the process now but it doesn’t mean I will leave if they ask me to.”
(A previous version of this story corrected the location of the executive council meeting.)