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Violence in Hong Kong escalated further July 19-21 as extremists on both sides engaged, or attempted to engage, in attacks. On July 19, police arrested a pro-independence group member and accused him of making the explosive TATP. While protests planned for July 20 and July 21 went off peacefully, after the Civil Human Rights Front rally the evening of July 21 a group of several hundred protesters continued on to the building housing the Beijing government's Liaison Office in western Hong Kong and vandalized the facade with spray paint and eggs. Shortly afterward a mob assaulted anti-government protesters returning home on the opposite side of Hong Kong from the earlier demonstration. Images from the scene shared on social media showed men attacking protesters with wooden rods as they arrived at the Yuen Long railway station. The assault injured dozens, leaving at least one in serious condition.
Hong Kong's mounting street protests against a proposed extradition law have resurfaced fears over the city-state's position within mainland China, as any erosion to Hong Kong's autonomy would risk its current status as a key business hub. The issue also risks getting wrapped up in broader U.S.-China tensions.
The incidents marked a continued deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong, which began in April with peaceful protests against a government effort to pass reforms that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. Those small protests swelled, and began seeing limited clashes with police in June.
The escalating violence raises questions about whether the central government will eventually intervene, and if it does, how it might do so. Beijing has been mostly quiet on the unrest, leaving the response to Hong Kong authorities. An overt response such as sending in security personnel from the mainland would risk fanning the flames of protest, galvanizing public opposition to Beijing in Hong Kong. For this reason, Beijing is unlikely to react with force any time soon.
Instead, it is seeking to divide radical elements of the anti-government protesters from the majority of the population. The more radical the protesters become or are portrayed as being, the less public support they will have. Protests haven't reached this point — more peaceful elements continue to support the more radical student protesters — but if demonstrators start using lethal weapons such as explosives, this will strain public support for them and perhaps create an environment for Beijing to get involved in any crackdown.
Bombs and Beatings
The more violent protesters include members of small, pro-independence groups such as Hong Kong's National Front, which claims 20 to 30 members. The group's leader acknowledged that the person arrested July 19 was one of its members, but he distanced the group from the manufacturing of explosives. The suspect had reportedly synthesized up to 2 kilograms of TATP and was making more.
TATP (triacetone triperoxide) is a volatile explosive mixture that can be made from the commonly accessible materials acetone and hydrogen peroxide. The material is often associated with jihadist groups and is rare in Hong Kong. It is notoriously difficult to work with and has a short shelf life, suggesting that the suspect intended to use it sooner rather than later — perhaps even during the weekend protests. The National Front leader has noted that he and other members are under regular surveillance, which helps to explain how police were able to intercept the suspect before the explosives could be used. However, other fringe individuals also considering more violent tactics may not be tracked so easily among the 1 million-plus people in the anti-government movement.
The assault, along with criticism that authorities aren't doing enough to stem organized criminal violence against protesters, is in fact likely to add to the protesters' grievances with the government.
The July 21 assault on protesters is the kind of incident that will further radicalize anti-government protesters. The dozens of men who carried out the assault are associated with local organized criminal groups linked to pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians. It remains unclear who ordered the assault — its timing and targeting rule out spontaneity — but anti-government protesters have blamed Hong Kong Legislative Council member Junius Ho, who represents the extreme side of the pro-establishment camp and has advocated violence against pro-independence protesters in the past.
Criminal groups in Hong Kong's New Territories near the border with Guangdong province are known to use violence and extortion to resolve local business and political disputes, but they rarely engage in the sort of public violence seen July 21. The motive was likely to intimidate local residents from joining anti-government protesters. On July 22, many shops closed in Yuen Long out of fear of further violence, showing how serious residents take the threat of politically motivated criminal violence. Attackers also may have been trying to goad anti-government protesters into greater violence, thus making them look more radical. The assault, along with criticism that authorities aren't doing enough to stem organized criminal violence against protesters, is in fact likely to add to the protesters' grievances with the government.
Move and Countermove
The anti-government fringes meanwhile are trying to provoke a crackdown from the police (or even Beijing, considering the protest targeting the Liaison Office), which will help to reinforce their point that Hong Kong's government is increasingly oppressive and that the population's only hope of maintaining guaranteed freedoms is to demand independence through a popular uprising. Meanwhile, the establishment is appearing to show restraint and arguing that anti-government protesters are threatening public safety by engaging in increasingly violent acts — including the potential use of explosives synonymous with transnational terrorist groups.
Essentially, protesters and officials in Hong Kong are playing a game of chicken with public sentiment. Protesters will continue to try to provoke a government overreaction that will further alienate Hong Kong's population, and the authorities are gambling that by giving protesters the space to grow more radical, they will eventually become estranged from the greater population. Either way, Hong Kong is headed toward more violence.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this analysis incorrectly stated that the Hong Kong National Front had been banned.