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Saturday, 30 November 2019

Protests in Hong Kong get innovative – and dangerous too

Ashraf Qureshi.

I am not getting into the debate of who is right in the battle of ideas in the streets of Hong Kong – for now. And whether China is right in extending its, now recalled, extradition law to the self-governing region or if the protesters are right in making their voice heard by resorting to disruption.

I am going to explain how protests get innovative when they happen in one of the most high-tech regions of the world and when those protesting are one of the most educated.

An Evolution from Low-Tech Methods

The protests in Hong Kong started like they do in any other part of the world. People started voicing their demands through rallies and large congregations. With time, thinking that the authorities were not hearing them, they became violent.

Hong Kong protesters set up barricades on roads
Hong Kong protesters set up barricades on roads

First it was the disruption of road traffic by setting up barricades. On police’s intervention, streets started transforming into battlefields as bricks and stones started flying.

With the intensification of clashes, incidents of physical beatings surfaced. All forms of authority and all those connected with mainland China appeared legitimate targets. Journalists, police officers and some regular folks felt the rage of the protesters first hand.

Not stopping at that, vandalism broke out against businesses and facilities that the protesters thought connected with or sympathetic with the mainland. People broke into restaurants, shops, outlets, and transport stations and set many of them ablaze.

Things took a dangerous turn with the surfacing of petrol bombs. News outlets have reported cases of people getting significant burns after falling victim to these rudimentary devices. Likewise, a couple of protesters also attacked police officials with weapons like knives where, in one case, an officer got his neck slashed.

A journalist is hit by a petrol bomb (Reuters Photo)
A journalist is hit by a petrol bomb (Reuters Photo)

To disperse the crowds, the police resorted to tear gas early on. The success rate was high. Protesters were using the regular face masks to hide their identities – despite a mask ban by the government – that proved inadequate in protecting from the gas.

Gas Masks

Tear gas has been the biggest problem for the protesters. To overcome it, the masks got an upgrade. Instead of surgical and cloth masks, people started wearing gas masks that could filter out the tear gas and let them stay put.

Ever since gas masks arrived at the scene, the effectiveness of tear gas has significantly reduced. Although the infrequent participants continue to use the regular face masks, the regular and hardcore protesters at the frontlines with the police are the ones preferring the gas masks.


Most of the protesters are young and university students. Many being engineering students put their skills to use by introducing makeshift catapults. They tie a metallic cross together with elastic strings, attach it to a safety helmet and the catapult is ready.

Initially, the catapults were used to hurl bricks at the riot police. But a worrisome development has been the hurling of petrol bombs. This, once again, tempts me to wade into the debate of taking a side on what’s right and what’s wrong but I’ll keep it for the end of this post.

Protesters fire from rooftops using improvised catapults
Protesters fire from rooftops using improvised catapults


The protesters have been using handheld laser pointing devices for quite some time. They claim to use it to distract the police and blind the security cameras. Though there is little evidence that these devices can achieve the two objectives, there definitely is evidence that they are harmful to eyes when pointed directly.

The city police came down upon the protesters for using these lasers and even demonstrated the fire-igniting power of some lasers. Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) has issued guidelines that advise wearing of tinted goggles to protect eyes against laser pens and strobe lights while covering the Hong Kong protests.

Lasers have raised safety concerns among the journalists covering the protests in Hong Kong (Getty Images)
Lasers have raised safety concerns among the journalists covering the protests in Hong Kong (Getty Images)

Identity Protection

Hong Kong citizen identification cards come with embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips. Despite the detection range of this RFID chips being extremely limited, a paranoia among protesters forces a section among them to fold their identity cards in tinfoil.

In addition to their faces, some are even hiding their ears to avoid tracking by the authorities. Many take one-way tickets when going to protest areas so that they cannot be traced back to their homes. The extent of Hong Kong authorities’ tracking ability is not known with certainty but the protesters are taking no risks.

Protesters are extremely cautious in revealing their identification (SCMP Photo)
Protesters are extremely cautious in revealing their identification (SCMP Photo)


And then came the arrows. Although not too high-tech but they are something not seen elsewhere in the global protest spree. After the protesters somehow realized that occupying the streets was not enough, they went on to occupying universities. When all but the Hong Kong Polytechnic University remained under siege by the protesters, a dramatic scene erupted during its clearance.

A protester shoots a fire-wielding arrow (Getty Images)
A protester shoots a fire-wielding arrow (Getty Images)

While many students were attempting to escape through sewers, those who were holding their ground started firing arrows towards the approaching police from the university’s rooftops. And an official did get hurt. He was a police media liaison officer who received an arrow in his calf and was taken to hospital for treatment.

Since then, arrows have been a common sight in the hands of the protesters. This is the first lethal weapon they are using. If it results in any unfortunate eventuality, consequences will definitely not be good for the pro-democracy camp.

A police media liaison officer was hit by one of the arrows (HK Police Photo)
A police media liaison officer was hit by one of the arrows (HK Police Photo)

Is All This Helping the Pro-Democracy Camp?

Most Western nations supported the Hong Kong protesters vocally when they were voicing for democracy related reforms by peaceful means. As soon as violence seeped in, support started to wane – though as Beijing believes, the support still exists under covert means.

With each passing week, new methods of violence are popping up in the largely leaderless movement. It has had its chance to make its voice heard by legal means in the recent elections where the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

What started as a protest against an extradition law proposed by Beijing to send suspects for trials to the mainland has transformed into a call for greater autonomy and human rights in Hong Kong. The violations of human rights there are, however, not one-sided, to say the least. If the protesters continue to resort to violence, the world will decreasingly consider their voice to be legitimate.

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