Authorities and pro-Beijing groups have employed a whole host of tactics to break up the peaceful pro-democracy rally in central Hong Kong, including spreading rumors to foment distrust among the ranks of protesters.
At the peak of the movement, tens of thousands gathered to call for free elections in Hong Kong, but after a week of occupying major streets in the city, the size of the crowds in each protesting zone is shrinking day by day. Smears are dampening organizers and protesters’ spirits.
The city government has switched its strategy against Occupy Central, as the sit-in demanding genuine universal suffrage is called, from trying to deter protesters using tear gas to waiting them out by withdrawing police from the scene. Today, October 3, pro-Beijing groups were mobilized to confront the protesters.
In the past few days, Hong Kong's government has held several press conferences to report the impact of the sit-in on emergency medical services. Deputy Chief Fire Officer Joseph Leung Wai-hung said the emergency services’ rate of meeting their performance standards had fallen from 92.5 percent to between 60-75 percent due to road blockage, with the most serious delay being 43.5 minutes.
However, anonymous sources from within emergency services rejected the official account as “partial truth” that aimed to mislead the public.
An emergency services officer wrote to citizen media platform inmediahk.net to point out that the performance rate always falls when there is an incident with multiple injuries. In an ordinary day, there are about 40 emergency services cases in the whole of Hong Kong Island. However, because the police deployed pepper spray on September 26, there were more than 20 emergency services cases in Central area alone, and on September 28, the fire department had to deploy more than 30 ambulances to help those injured by pepper spray and tear gas. The performance rate inevitably dropped.
A firefighter also disclosed the details behind the case of the 43.5-minute delay to inmediahk.net:
根據消防控制中心的錄音記錄，當天早上0915時，一部救護車從中環消防局出發，但在美國領事館對出上橋時，被一名警務督察阻截，即使是表明是去應付召喚，亦不得放行。其後救護車被指派先去中環等指示，其後再指示步行前往，是救護車主管自己決定乘坐港鐵前往 […]我們政治中立的公務員，尤其負責救火救援的，為什麼要涉及政治？[…] 我們不想繼警察後，另一不受歡迎的部隊。
According to the fire department control center's taped record, at 9:15 a.m. [on September 30], an ambulance was deployed from the central fire station. When it approached the highway near the US embassy, an inspector stopped the ambulance and refused to let go, even though it was an emergency. Headquarters instructed the ambulance to drive to Central then proceed on foot to pick up the injured. But the officer decided to get there by taking the subway. […] As a civil servant, we should be politically neutral. Why involve us into politics? […] I don't want to follow in police footsteps and become an unpopular law enforcement force.
On October 2, the Food, Environment and Hygiene Department told the press that their workers were obstructed by protesters and could not collect the trash at the sit-in sites. A group of volunteer garbage collectors in the sit-in sites explained their version of events:
The truth is, the protesters were willing to let the vehicle enter the sit-in areas and collect the rubbish, but the workers insisted on sticking to their usual route and refused to enter the sites.
In addition to pressure coming from the government, rumors and smears are spreading on social media and through word of mouth to undermine the credibility of protest organizers and major activists.
One target is the so-called volunteer duty team, who help protect participants from potential harassment from pro-government counter protesters as well as keep an eye out for weapons on site. On October 1, the volunteer duty team found a large bag of stones and iron rods at the Admiralty sit-in site; the next day, rumors that Chinese Communist Party workers had infiltrated the team flooded social media and began to undermine their credibility:
The Chinese Communist Party printed 100,000 duty team uniforms under the titles of the Federation of Student Union, Occupy Central with Love and Peace and Democracy Party OCLP. The uniforms passed Lok Ma Chau border control and a large number of security maintenance workers infiltrated the sit-in sites. Using the duty team's name, they tried to maintain order and control the movement. There were reports that they even removed the blockades. Be aware of anyone dressed in the uniform who attempts to remove road blocks or instruct protesters to disperse. Kick them away if necessary.
Some duty team members were harassed by protesters and eventually had to take off their uniforms when on patrol as a result.
Left-wing activists were also targeted. On October 1, a large number of posters appeared at the sit-in sites, warning protesters to be aware of “left-plastic” (the meaning of plastic in Chinese is similar to trash). They named three activists, Chan King-fai, Bobo Yip and Fred Lam, accusing them of hijacking the protest.
Chan King-fai is a key organizer of a public forum called “Democracy for the Future,” which holds regular seminars in an independent bookstore. He moved the seminars to the sit-in last week to attract more people to join the protests. Bobo Yip is responsible for coordinating the public speech schedules of hundreds of university teachers who supported the class boycott. Fred Lam is a major initiator of the translator collective HKDemoNow, which translates the protests’ messages for the world to know.
The rumors and smears have had a serious impact on the spirit of the movement, one student protester wrote in an online forum:
下晝搬垃圾出去龍匯垃圾站，我地幾個同學諗住搬開少少個鐵馬，即刻有人好惡咁問我地係咪左膠，佢地話「你地係咪左膠，唔好扮哂野搞D鐵馬，你地係咪鬼」，勁嬲呀，執左幾粒鐘已經好攰，我就同佢地講：「我哋想容易d搬d垃圾，我哋做得好辛苦架，你知唔知呀」佢其中一個人話：「講笑咋、唔好咁認真，我哋係花生友」我真係好興，俾人好似當賊咁，我就講多次：「我哋做得好辛苦，你知唔知架？」 […] 依家咁既環境，又橡膠子彈又催淚彈，又俾老豆小，你同我講食花生，你班友仔垃圾又唔執淨係係到食花生，同兇人，有無搞錯。
I tried to move the garbage to the collection spot at Lung Wui Road. With my classmate, we had to open a path by moving the blockade. Then someone jumped out and screamed at me asking if I were “left-plastic.” They said: “Are you left-plastic, don't pretend and don't you touch the blockade. Are you a spy?” I was so angry. We had been collecting garbage for hours and were very tired. I answered: “We just want to move the garbage, do you know how hard we've been working?” One of them then said: “We're just joking, don't be so serious, we're just peanuts [meaning onlookers].” I was so angry that they treated me like a thief and repeated: “Do you know how hard we've been working?” […] In a situation like this, with rubber bullets and tear gas, we were scolded by our parents. You told me that you were just onlookers? You did nothing to clean up the garbage, just stood there watching and threatening people. Absolutely insane.
Many students have left the sit-in sites because of similar experiences of harassment. More have left now that anti-Occupy Central protesters are confronting sit-in participants with accusations of disturbing social order and in some cases removing booths and blockcades by force. Occupy Central not only fights for free and fair elections in Hong Kong, but now must also fight for its own survival against these attempts to dismantle it.