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Why There’s No End in Sight to the Hong Kong Protests

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Hong Kong has never had a summer like this one. For more than 11 weeks, the whole territory has been shaken by protests, counter-protests, and daily shocks.  

Just five years ago, during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, 78 rounds of tear gas against a peaceful protest was seen as so traumatic that students launched a mass occupation of some of the main roads of Hong Kong, which lasted for 79 days. Now, tear gas has become such a habitual occurrence that on Sunday, August 18, people counted to midnight as if it were New Year’s Eve, celebrating the first weekend in nearly three months with no tear gas fired at demonstrators.

Hong Kong seems forever changed. The most visible rift is with the Hong Kong Police Force, which until just a few years ago was routinely described as “Asia’s Finest.” They not only stand accused of using excessive force to quell the protests, but they have also been undermining their relationship with the citizenry more broadly. They have fired tear gas in densely populated neighborhoods, with the noxious fumes penetrating people’s flats through the windows. Angry residents have been shouting at the police force into the night, as young children cry from the gas, pets develop allergies, and the elderly, including those in retirement homes, learn how to deal with the dangerous consequences of this type of crowd-control measure. In spite of manufacturers’ recommendations, police have also fired tear gas inside enclosed areas of the subway and inside shopping malls.

As if tear gas were not enough, the police have also been shooting bean-bag rounds and sponge bullets at demonstrators. A novelty on Hong Kong’s streets this June, it has now become a common topic of conversation. Many protesters, arrested and released on bail, have been denouncing their maltreatment while in custody, and while some investigations have been launched, these cases have been receiving relatively little attention.

Then, on August 20, a video released by Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting shocked even further a population already under heavy stress. The surveillance recording shows a man, tied to a hospital bed in an isolation care room, being horrendously abused by two police officers. The man, 62, had been arrested for drunken misconduct, and the policemen in the video are seen taunting him, hitting him with their hands and batons on his chest, legs, and genitals, and forcing his eyelids open as they point their flashlights at him. Users of social-media networks have been posting the video and related news articles, asking, If this is what happens to an elderly man, what about protesters in detention? (Keeping a tally of the arrested, and those released on bail, has not been easy. Some people have been keeping manual counts, but they are then contradicted by confusing police figures. In either case, estimates run from a minimum of 700 to more than 1,000.)

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