Hong Kong was plunged into another weekend of violence. The smell of teargas choked the air on Sunday night after a relatively peaceful march in the Kowloon district during the day descended into mayhem and destruction.
Police responded to petrol bombs thrown by gangs of hardcore black-clad protesters by using teargas at Tsim Sha Tsui police station.
Mainland Chinese-owned shops in the popular tourist area were trashed and entrances to metro stations were set on fire.
Guard rails and fences were also ripped out and used as barricades as police moved in with water cannons.
Residents could only watch and take cover as the violence spiraled out of control. “[They] terrorized my neighborhood for approximately an hour and a half,” one eyewitness said.
Since the summer of discontent, Hong Kong has been battered by months of often massive and violent protests over concerns Beijing is tightening its grip on the city.
Paralyzed by seething protesters and intransigent bosses in Beijing, the local government appears to lack the power and experience to end the unprecedented political crisis in the city, according to analysts.
So far, all the major steps taken by Beijing-backed city leader Carrie Lam have failed to deal a decisive blow against the movement or dissuade protesters from hitting the streets.
Some moves have fanned the flames further.
A ban on face masks during protests, using colonial-era emergency powers, has triggered a wave of violence and vandalism, bringing much of the Special Administrative Region to a standstill during weekends.
“Hong Kong’s government is suffering from a profound legitimacy problem,” Ben Bland, a director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute, a policy think-tank, said.
“It has no democratic mandate but has not been delivering enough benefits for its people to justify the authoritarian path it is taking,” he added.
Like her predecessors, Chief Executive Lam was appointed by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
A life-long bureaucrat, she displays little of a politician’s feel for public opinion. And the Chinese government has refused years of calls for fully free elections.
China runs Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” model that grants the hub certain liberties but ensures the city’s leadership ultimately answers to Beijing.
In comments leaked last month, Lam said she “serves two masters” – Beijing and the Hong Kong people – and admitted she had been given “very, very, very limited” room to maneuver when it came to solving the crisis.
“Lacking legitimacy and the political skills that come with competitive elections, Hong Kong’s governing civil servants are clearly struggling,” Bland said.
Last week, she was heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers during the delivery and debate of a key policy address while her Facebook Live broadcast was inundated with angry emojis.
“Carrie Lam is now so widely hated that her every public utterance provokes irrational anger, regardless of the content,” Steve Vickers, of SVA risk consultancy, wrote in a report released prior to the speech.
The protests were sparked by huge public anger towards a now-scrapped bill allowing extraditions to mainland China. But it has since morphed into a wider pro-democracy movement rooted in fears the city’s unique freedoms are eroding under Beijing’s tightening grip.
China agreed to keep the “one country, two systems” model for 50 years under the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to China at the end of British colonial rule in 1997.
“The freezing of the political system in 1997 ensures there is no popular confidence that concerns and grievances will be addressed by an effective or responsible Hong Kong government, seen widely as a proxy for Beijing,” Jeffrey A Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a US think tank, wrote in a recent commentary.
“The Hong Kong government lacks the capacity, will, or trust to respond effectively to the demonstrations.”
Beijing has ramped up its rhetorical condemnation of the protests, portraying them as a foreign-funded plot and not a popular expression of rage.
But it has so far avoided direct intervention, a strategy that analysts say is based on trying to limit damage to its international image and hoping the protests will eventually peter out.
“The real issues are political and cultural,” Nigel Inkster, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a recent video commentary.
“What it boils down to is a fear by Hong Kong of coming under a Chinese system that seems ever more authoritarian, ever more repressive. That, of course, is a problem that Beijing does not know how to address.”
– additional reporting AFP