(Bloomberg) — Of all the dramatic visuals to emerge from the protests that rocked Hong Kong in recent weeks, one stands out: the defaced city emblem left by demonstrators who stormed the legislature on July 1.
The image of Hong Kong’s iconic bauhinia flower covered in black paint has become a symbol of the frustrations that sent hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets and drove some to vandalism. The masked 20-year-old behind the graffiti, who would only give his last name as Lau, said he targeted the bauhinia because it would be “meaningful.”
As Hong Kong gears up for another round of demonstrations this weekend, interviews with Lau and others who broke into the legislature that evening suggest their anger with the government and its backers in Beijing is deeply entrenched. While Lau is wary of becoming a police target after images of him spray-painting the city emblem were broadcast around the world, he said he still believes what he did was right.
“Hong Kong people are very stressed,” Lau said. “The problems are endless.”
The protesters interviewed by Bloomberg spoke of the underlying frustration and dissatisfaction toward the government that have accumulated among young adults over the years — from wealth disparity to out-of-reach home prices in the world’s most expensive property market, and a sense of eroding democratic norms.
Read more: Why Hong Kong Is Protesting (and May Do So Again)
Lau’s lack of regret also underscores the persistent divide between protesters and Hong Kong’s government. Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, suspended the extradition bill that sparked the initial demonstrations last month but has refused to completely withdraw it or meet protesters’ other demands. This week, Hong Kong police began arresting suspects on charges related to the July 1 demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have mounted a campaign of criticism, describing the invasion of Hong Kong’s legislature as a threat to the rule of law. A front-page editorial in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, blasted the protesters as “extremists” whose actions threaten to “ruin Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business metropolis.”
A protest planned for July 7 illustrates how demonstrators are increasingly targeting China’s overall influence on the city, rather than just the extradition bill. Participants will march from Salisbury Garden, an area frequented by Chinese tourists, toward the high-speed rail station that connects Hong Kong all the way to Beijing.
People want to “protest against the regime,” said Wayne, a 29-year-old design freelancer who was among the first demonstrators to enter the legislature on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain. He declined to give his full name for fear of being targeted by authorities.
“Anti-extradition is only one of the trigger points,” he said. “Hong Kong hasn’t had genuine democracy in the 20 or so years since the handover of sovereignty.”
One of the reforms protesters are calling for relates to direct elections for the city’s top office. Hong Kong’s chief executives are currently chosen by a 1,200-member committee of mostly Beijing supporters. For Lau, that’s why a replacement for Lam — who started her third year in office this week — wouldn’t be enough.
“The next one would be the same,” he said. “We’ve seen how they’re like.”
The now-suspended extradition law, which if passed would allow such transfers to China, had added to a list of worries that Beijing is encroaching on the “high degree of autonomy” promised for Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Immigration Department in 2018 refused to renew a U.K. journalist’s work visa after he hosted a talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The government also banned Chan’s party after that speech. An exhibition featuring an artist critical of China was canceled due to what the organizer called “threats” by Chinese authorities.
K.T. Li, an unemployed 23-year-old, said he may escalate his own actions in future protests because the government has failed to address his concerns, which includes the fear that Hong Kong will be a city that’s highly monitored by Chinese authorities. At the same time, he stressed that he doesn’t want to harm anyone, including the police.
“If they want to name me a rioter, I accept that,” Li said. “But I’ve been forced to become one. Whether what we do is right? It’s for later generations to decide.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Shawna Kwan in Hong Kong at email@example.com;Natalie Lung in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at email@example.com, Tracy Alloway, Michael Patterson
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