HONG KONG — It was late on a Saturday night in August when Fernando Cheung found himself caught between a rock-throwing crowd and a hard plastic police shield.
“I was telling them to slow down. Not to arrest — they should disperse the crowd and don’t hit the protesters,” Cheung, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, said translating his polite urgings to the imposing column of riot police advancing toward the protesters. “They yelled back at me and told me to leave.”
Cheung, who wants more autonomy from Beijing, increasingly has been unable to pacify the police and is ignored by the youthful protesters who once saw him as an ally. Now he can only plead for calm as the former British colony’s worst political crisis in decades spirals out of control.
Cheung, 62, is effusive in his admiration for the youth activists. He said he was trying to be a “cushion” and maybe a means for the police and the protesters to communicate. But that is no longer working. At violent protests in Hong Kong airport on Aug. 13, he was forced to intervene when protesters assaulted a man they suspected of being a Chinese government agent.
“It’s getting more and more difficult because both sides are developing a stronger and stronger will to contact and engage,” Cheung said.
The movement, which began in the spring as a protest against an extradition bill has snowballed, gathering a mass of additional demands and supporters while remaining genuinely leaderless and, somehow, highly disciplined.
But those very virtues that make the protest so enduring and effective have also made it almost impossible to placate. Without representatives with whom to negotiate and no lodestar in Hong Kong’s Legislature — known as LegCo — it’s unclear if even the most well-intentioned government concessions can halt the chaos.
“I think the lawmakers are losing their role right now,” Ventus Lau, 25, a pro-democracy activist and politician, said.
“They are part of the establishment, and in fact they are part of the failed establishment,” he added. “I think people, particularly young people, won’t listen to them.”
Lau and other activist youths consider LegCo as a sham democracy. Of its 70 lawmakers, only 40 are elected by direct public vote. The other 30 are elected by professional and public interest groups, many of which tend to be pro-Beijing. In the past month, demands for “universal suffrage” to democratize LegCo have become central to the protest movement.
Lau’s considerable influence comes from his past support for Hong Kong’s independence from China — a position that disqualified him from LegCo’s elections in 2018. But he staunchly denied being a “leader” in the leaderless movement, which he said is managed through “consensus” eked out of a cacophony of voices communicating over the encrypted Telegram messaging app and the LIHKG forum, a Hong Kong-based website that has been compared to Reddit.
“We don’t obey any leader,” Lau said. “No one can tell the public what to do or what not to do.”
Ip Kwok-him, a member of the city’s Executive Council, which is a sort of an advisory body for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, told a press conference for local media that the protests must be coordinated because Hong Kong youth aren’t clever enough to operate on such a level. It’s a claim that dovetails with Beijing’s conspiracy theory that the protesters are organized by foreign, particularly American, saboteurs.
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But those in the know say protesters today learned from the failures of the 2014 pro-democracy so-called Umbrella Revolution, when stationary protests were easily “kettled” or hemmed in by police.
Now, protesters aspire to move “like water” — one of the demonstrators’ unofficial slogans and a quote from the Hollywood legend and Hong Kong’s own Bruce Lee, who used it to describe his own martial arts philosophy.
Indeed, the enormous mass of demonstrators often seems to bob and weave as one like a prize-fighter defending against a heavily armed opponent, turning Hong Kong into a massive seaside dojo, and using the city’s sophisticated infrastructure against itself.
Thousands march in unison through the deep urban canyons, then abruptly feint and walk in the opposite direction. Huge chunks of the march can break off before coalescing with the original herd blocks later, or suddenly duck into the city’s mass transit system only to re-emerge in a different neighborhood or across the harbor.
Though broad movements are largely coordinated through messaging apps, the street fighting seems to be the brainchild of a collective hive-mind. Once a flash mob has decided to occupy a location, demonstrators armed with pliers and plastic zip ties deconstruct metal sidewalk barriers and tie them together, turning them into battering rams or defensive ramparts.
Those who aren’t vandalizing are busy concealing it, lofting a movable roof of umbrellas to shield demonstrators from Hong Kong’s ubiquitous closed-circuit security cameras.
Much of this is arranged through conversations or hand signals. For example, a kind of “surf’s up” gesture — a fist with an extended thumb and pinky — is a request for pliers.
Who does what is also coordinated through individual Telegram groups for each speciality, Lau said.
“There are [Telegram] groups for first-aiders, some for cars with transport, some groups who make advertisements and propaganda to publish on the internet. We have groups for contact with the police or press, etc., ” he said.
When it comes to social media, Cheung says he’s still playing catch-up with Hong Kong’s cool kids. But even if he were to try to engage on Telegram, Cheung and his lawmaker colleagues were certain that the youthful protesters wouldn’t let them participate or even monitor their digital conversations.
But he’s still a fan.
“To me, it’s gospel. Their level of awakening is something that I’ve been wanting for years,” he said. “This kind of violence isn’t what I’ve been waiting for, but it’s the awakening, the awareness of the corruption of the current regime.”
Cheung’s self-awareness of his own station has helped keep him from being completely frozen out.
His posture stands in stark contrast to chief executive Lam, whose chiding and intransigence have only enraged the youth. In one example in a television interview in June, a tearful Lam compared her resolve in the face of protests to a mother disciplining her children.
“This is very mainland China authoritarianism and we don’t buy it,” said Wong Yik Mo, a member of the Civil Human Rights Front, an advocacy group that has organized some of the marches.
Cheung’s love for the protesters is at least partially requited.
“Some people, they go for peaceful movement, and some people — they are going for some bravery movement,” said Jacqueline Chen, a beaming master of ceremonies who introduced Cheung at a rally that preceded Aug. 3’s march through Kowloon. “He is an icon for the peaceful part and a lot of brave kids, they don’t like him.”
The rift between the violent and the peaceful protesters is difficult to detect at street level. But as police marched toward them Saturday night, Cheung said he was attuned to the quiet conflict inside the protester hive-mind – do we stay or do we go?
As many youths retreated, a masked group of young men emerged from the crowd and poured gasoline on Kowloon’s Nathan Road, igniting pieces of wood and cardboard.
That was the hardcore, Cheung said, hoping to communicate their resolve to the police even as they retreated.
Even more strident radicals like Lau said he doesn’t know the identity of the saboteurs, who wear masks and typically only show themselves at night. Lau said he doesn’t engage in violence, though he sees its utility.
“The government told us and taught us that we need to use more escalated means of protest so they will listen to us,” he said. “So, I understand why people are willing to use escalated measures.”
Lau placed all the blame for recent outbreaks of violence on police provocation — a charge city officials have consistently denied while blaming protesters.
Police and protesters are colliding with increasing frequency and force. Clashes at Hong Kong’s airport have been widely seen as a turning point because they showed how protesters were also engaging in violence, although many later apologized for it.
While no protester or police officer has died, it is widely acknowledged that the situation would deteriorate dramatically if someone on either side died.
For one thing, Cheung fears the city might “give permission to the youth to revenge.”
But while Hong Kongers like Cheung seem certain what would cause tensions to explode, they are far less clear about how to make it deescalate.
“We can’t teach them a lesson. They won’t listen. It is time for us to listen to them,” he said. “I don’t control and I wouldn’t even start to control what they do. I observe. I listen.”
Matt Bradley is a London-based foreign correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.