Hong Kong protests: The evolution of a movement

In recent weeks, Hong Kong‘s protests have been characterized by tear gas and angry confrontations. But it wasn’t always like this.

In March, when residents began protesting against a controversial bill that would enable China to extradite fugitives from the city, the weekend rallies were relatively small and peaceful.

However, since the start of June, protesters and police have clashed on multiple occasions. In August, a city-wide strike brought parts of the territory to a standstill, and almost 1,000 flights were canceled as protesters occupied the airport for two days.

Here’s how peaceful demonstrations against an extradition bill have grown into a large, occasionally volatile pro-democracy movement.

A sea of white

The Hong Kong government proposed the extradition bill earlier this year to close what it said was a loophole that prevented alleged criminals from being extradited to Hong Kong from other Chinese territories, including Macao and Taiwan.

Lawyers, pro-democracy activists and the business community quickly denounced the bill, and it even provoked scuffles between Hong Kong lawmakers in the city’s main government building, known as the Legislative Council, during an early debate.

But it wasn’t until June that the anti-extradition protests kicked off in earnest.

On June 9, days before the bill was due to have its second reading, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Hong Kong’s central streets. There were families, young people, and elderly, many wearing white to represent justice.

Organizers estimated the crowd size to be more than 1 million, while police said put the number at 240,000.

Some thought the impressive turn-out — Hong Kong’s biggest demonstration in at least a decade — would force the government to back down. But the following day, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said she was sticking by her controversial bill.

The first occupation

Frustrated that the government wasn’t listening, protesters began gathering around the Legislative Council on June 11, the night before the bill was set to have its second reading.

The following day, tens of thousands of protesters joined the occupation on the streets outside the governmental complex, hoping to block lawmakers from being able to debate the bill. This time, they wore black — and they were prepared for a face-off.

The vast majority were young, and many came with umbrellas, hardhats and face masks.

They built barricades, completely closing off roads to traffic. With the authorities caught on the back foot, the Legislative Council meeting was rescheduled.

To some, the occupation — which began peacefully — brought back memories of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, when pro democracy protesters occupied parts of the city for 79 days. “At the end of the Umbrella Movement we said we would be back,” said lawmaker Claudia Mo. “And now, we are back!”

As the afternoon wore on, the protest became tense. Police called on protesters to disperse — but more and more continued to arrive.

Starting from mid-afternoon, police fired rounds of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bags — and at least 81 people were injured.

The 2 million march

Three days later, Lam backed down and suspended the controversial extradition bill. But if she thought that would stop the protests, she was wrong.

On June 16, even more people flooded Hong Kong’s city streets, spilling over the planned route and at least three additional streets on either side. Overhead photos showed a far larger crowd than the previous weekend’s march, or a march in 2003, which had been the city’s largest protest since the former British colony came under Chinese rule in 1997.

Organizers estimated that around 2 million had taken part — just over a quarter of the city’s population of 7.4 million. Police said 338,000 people had followed the original protest route.

The protesters demanded that the bill be withdrawn — not just suspended. But they were also angry about other things too: The alleged police brutality on June 12, and the death of a protester in an apparent suicide the day before.

A government break-in

Marches and occupations continued throughout June, but the next turning point came on July 1, the anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China which has always been marked by pro-democracy demonstrations.

Dissent started early in the day. Protesters arrived on the streets in the early hours, and clashed with police as they tried to prevent the annual flag raising ceremony from taking place.

That afternoon, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through central Hong Kong. But this time, the demonstrators were split. As peaceful protesters marched, hundreds of masked, mainly young demonstrators attempted to break into the Legislative Council building.

At night, more radical protesters stormed the building and occupied it for hours, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Pro-democracy lawmakers watching the chaos tried to stop the demonstrators, but were shouted down and ignored by protesters, many of whom felt desperate and bleak.

Many protesters weren’t just thinking about the bill anymore — they were calling for universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Mob attack in a subway

As protests continued in July, they began to follow a familiar pattern: A peaceful march in the day, followed by a violent face-off with the police as the day wore on.

And the level of violence and weaponry continued to escalate. In July, police seized 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of high explosives, 10 petrol bombs, corrosive liquids, weapons and metal poles at a suspected bomb-making factory.

On July 21, as protesters and police clashed on Hong Kong island, a mob of people some 31km (19 miles) away were carrying out an unprovoked attack on subway passengers using iron bars and bamboo sticks.

Forty-five people — some of whom were returning home from the protests — were injured in the attack.

The police took up to an hour to respond to emergency calls, prompting accusations that there was collusion between the police and the mob — and leading to further distrust of authorities among protesters.

A city-wide shut-down

By August, protests had spread to neighborhoods around Hong Kong. The government though showed few signs that they were willing to respond to the protesters’ demands, which included greater democracy and an inquiry into police brutality.

It was time to try something different.

On August 5, protesters led widespread strikes around the city.

More than 2,300 aviation workers joined the strike, leading to the cancellation of 224 flights to and from the airport — the 8th busiest in the world. Major subway lines were suspended, and key roads and highways were blocked. Protests took place in seven districts. In five districts, clashes broke out between police and protesters, prompting police to fire tear gas.

Experts said the strikes were likely the biggest to have rocked the city since at least 1967, when Hong Kong was still a British colony.

Shutting down the world’s 8th busiest airport

Next, protesters turned their attention to Hong Kong’s airport.

On the nights of August 12 and 13, the airport was brought to a standstill as demonstrators occupied parts of the building, prompting hundreds of flights to be canceled and leaving passengers confused and angry.

Scenes of chaos erupted among the mainly young demonstrators, who detained and beat several people they suspected of being undercover police.

In one confrontation, a police officer was attacked from behind as he held down a protester. His baton was then taken and used against him, before the officer drew what appeared to be a pistol and aimed it at the crowd.

The scenes demonstrated the depth of anger and frustration among the protesters. But it also showed the fragmentation and leaderless nature of the movement, which had no central person to turn to for direction.

The next day, some protesters apologized, perhaps an acknowledgment that the violent scenes could damage support for their cause. “We apologize for our behavior but we are just too scared,” one graphic shared on social media read.