Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Protesters in Hong Kong are not afraid to use more violence in their campaign for democracy because peaceful rallies have had no effect on the government and its use of colonial-era laws to impose a ban on face masks showed its earlier offer of dialogue was insincere, pro-democracy campaigner Isaac Cheng told Al Jazeera.
The vice chairman of Demosisto, a political party that wants autonomy for Hong Kong and whose candidates have been disqualified from office and running for elections, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to invoke the Emergency Ordinance that had last been used 50 years ago had inflamed the situation.
“This is a violation of the Legislative Council and the rights of the Hong Kong people,”Cheng said in reference to Hong Kong’s political system. “This shows the true face of the violence being used inside the system.”
Following a forum in Kuala Lumpur, where Cheng’s participation was announced at the last minute, the 19-year-old campaigner stressed that most of the protesters were peaceful, but that some felt violence was the only way to show their disgust with the administration.
“This is the way we show that we do not agree with the points made by the government,”he said. “They (the government) could have ended it in a peaceful way, but they didn’t.”
Millions of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in June to protest against an extradition bill that would have allowed people from the territory to be sent to the mainland for trial.
Lam finally withdrew that bill last month, but amid the government’s perceived indifference to public anger – some 1.7 million people took to the streets at one point – and violent confrontations with riot police, protesters had already expanded their demands to include the right to elect their own government and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality.
“What we wanted to see the government do was something to de-escalate the situation, engage with the peaceful protesters or even those who are more radical,”MK Tam, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong told Al Jazeera, noting that the vast majority of demonstrators were still protesting peacefully.
The use of emergency legislation showed “a move towards suppression even worse than disengagement,”he added.
Isaac Cheng, vice chairman of Demosisto, a pro-democracy party in Hong Kong, speaks after the arrest of the pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, in Hong Kong, China. [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
The new law on masks was announced on Friday and triggered flash mob-style protests, as thousands of people donned masks in defiance of the ban.
There were also violent confrontations between police and protesters in some parts of the city.
Local media reported a 14-year-old was shot in the leg by an off-duty police officer during chaotic scenes on Friday night, and the first people arrested under the new legislation appeared in court on Monday. Those found guilty face a prison sentence of as long as one year.
Cheng said he started campaigning for democracy when he was just 12 years old and stressed that any violence was directed at buildings and what protesters saw as symbols of mainland China rather than ordinary people.
It’s the five demands or we keep on protesting
Isaac Cheng, Demosisto
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under the Basic Law or mini-constitution that guaranteed people in the territory rights not seen on the mainland including an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech for at least 50 years.
While the chief executive is currently appointed by China, having been chosen by a committee made up of a select group of 1,200 people, and the Legislative Council is partially elected, the Basic Law does say that the “ultimate aim” is for the city’s leader and the legislature to be chosen by “universal suffrage”.
Earlier, Cheng said that the current struggle and the greater willingness to adopt more violent methods were rooted in the failure of the Umbrella movement, where a 79-day occupation of the city centre failed to yield any concessions from the government.
Anti-government protesters took to the streets peacefully on Sunday despite heavy rain. [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
Lam last month held the first of what was expected to be a series of public dialogues in an attempt to find a solution to the unrest.
A group of 150 people, chosen through a lottery, attended the first session. As some in the audience told Lam to resign, the event revealed the seething anger of some people in Hong Kong.
Cheng dismissed the initiative and said there would be no end to the protests until Lam’s administration agreed to the movement’s five demands.
“I don’t think at this stage there’s any possibility for dialogue,” he said. “It’s the five demands or we keep on protesting.”
The five demands also include the retraction of the protesters being classified as “rioters” and an amnesty for those already arrested.
Cheng would not be drawn on how the protests might end but said that people on the streets were “not afraid” of possible intervention by China.
He called on the international community to do more to support the protesters, saying that the legislation being discussed in the United States that would require an annual review of Hong Kong’s trade and business privileges was the “first step” towards action.
“This should only be the starting point in looking into the situation of Hong Kong,” he said. “Other countries should do something similar.”