Protesters turned Hong Kong into a tinderbox. But it’s the government that holds the matches

Updated 11:32 PM EDT, Sun September 1, 2019
HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 31: A protesters walks in front of a burning barricade  after clashing with police at an anti-government rally on August 31, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued rallies on the streets of Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill since 9 June as the city plunged into crisis after waves of demonstrations and several violent clashes. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologized for introducing the bill and declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 31: A protesters walks in front of a burning barricade after clashing with police at an anti-government rally on August 31, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued rallies on the streets of Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill since 9 June as the city plunged into crisis after waves of demonstrations and several violent clashes. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologized for introducing the bill and declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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Hong Kong CNN —  

The young protesters who have thronged Hong Kong’s streets for three months warned the city’s leaders from the beginning: “If we burn, you burn with us.”

That threat seemed all the more real on Saturday, as black smoke poured into the sky from a huge bonfire set by protesters following violent clashes with police outside the city’s legislature. Petrol bombs and bricks were thrown during that standoff, as police replied by firing a water cannon and round after round of tear gas.

Violence continued late into the night, as police officers surrounded by protesters let off warning shots and riot cops were later seen charging into a subway station and attacking alleged protesters on a train. On Sunday, it was protesters who targeted the subway, shutting down and vandalizing several stations after an hours-long standoff which paralyzed transport to and from the city’s airport.

As the violence continues to escalate, Hong Kong’s leaders have made clear they will not negotiate on any of the movement’s key demands, despite calling for “dialogue.”

A flight attendant sprints past a burning barricade in Tung Chung on the way to Hong Kong international airport during protests on September 1, 2019.
Joshua Berlinger/CNN
A flight attendant sprints past a burning barricade in Tung Chung on the way to Hong Kong international airport during protests on September 1, 2019.

The government’s message to protesters seems to be go home empty-handed or risk a major crackdown – which, at its most extreme, could involve the military.

But there are signs that gamble could backfire. Protesters have shown no hesitation to causing disruption to the city’s economy and daily life.

As the mood becomes more nihilistic and angry, some may even welcome a crackdown.

The mood is shifting

The past week has seen a clear escalation in how the authorities handled the protests.

On Friday, several leading pro-democracy activists and politicians were arrested and charged with a variety of offenses, including the vaguely worded “Inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly,” which carries a maximum five-year jail term, in what appears to have been an attempt to fulfill an impossible task, taking the head off a leaderless movement.

Also on Friday, a rally and march planned by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group which arranged previous mass peaceful protests attended by hundreds of thousands of people, was banned by police. Although CHRF represents the moderate, non-violent wing of the protests, and has demonstrated support from a broad swath of Hong Kong society, police had no intention of risking an escalation.

That escalation came regardless. Demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday in wildcat demonstrations that eventually coalesced around the legislature, where an hours-long battle broke out between more extreme protesters and police, and spread to other parts of the city. Protesters threw petrol bombs and bricks at police, and aimed laser pointers at them.