ANALYSIS: Violence returns to Hong Kong protests — is the region safe?

WATCH: On Sunday, Aug. 25, a protest near Tsuen Wan Park in Hong Kong became violent for the second day in a row after a week of relative peace.

Global News’ Eric Mark Do provides a glimpse into the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, where he was from Aug. 22 to 26. Do was born in Canada but speaks Cantonese, the language most commonly spoken in Hong Kong.

Petrol bombs. Tear gas. Bricks. Rubber bullets. Violence.

It’s easy to look at some recent headlines about the Hong Kong protests and think it’s incredibly dangerous and that everyone in the Chinese special administrative region is running for cover daily.

But after a short trip to Hong Kong, it seems the region is safer than it appears in media reports.

Protests have been taking place in Hong Kong since early June. The demonstrations were initially a response to a proposed extradition bill, however they later evolved as protesters expressed concern that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” agreement with China was under threat.

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READ MORE: Hong Kong is a SAR of China — What that means and how it affects protests

I knew there were ongoing protests in Hong Kong — a place I had briefly visited before — but I wanted to see for myself what was happening on the ground. A colleague mentioned that I would probably encounter chaos as soon as I stepped out of the airport, but that wasn’t the case at all.

From what I saw, daily life in Hong Kong seemed to go on as it normally does: people go to work, they go out to eat, maybe have a drink and go home.

READ MORE: Hong Kong protests — How peaceful demonstrations morphed into a summer of violent clashes

The locations of protests vary, and the MTR subway system shuts down stations when transit officials are aware of something happening nearby, which is a cue to the public to avoid the area. 

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Still, there definitely are hot spots, which I soon saw for myself.

WATCH (July 22, 2019): Dozens of Hong Kong protestors hospitalized after thugs attack

Dozens of Hong Kong protestors hospitalized after thugs attack
Dozens of Hong Kong protestors hospitalized after thugs attack

How violent is the current situation in Hong Kong?

In my view, there have been two pivotal moments in the protests so far: the suspected triad attack on protesters in Yuen Long on July 21 and an incident in which police shot a beanbag round that punctured through a nurse’s goggles and hit her in the eye, potentially causing her to lose vision in that eye.

An ongoing reality is that police are liberally firing tear gas during these protests. Rubber bullets and beanbags have also been used by police in response to the demonstrations.

There are allegations of sexual assault by police towards female protesters in custody as well and allegations of turning a blind eye to triads beating protesters. 

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WATCH (Aug. 28, 2019): #MeToo rally held against alleged police behaviour during Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protests: #MeToo rally held against alleged police behaviour
Hong Kong protests: #MeToo rally held against alleged police behaviour

During the protests I saw, police appeared to be targeting individuals when they shot rubber bullets or beanbags.

On the protesters’ side, there were demonstrators throwing bricks, petrol bombs and other items toward the police — and “toward” is an important distinction. The protest on Aug. 25 by Tsuen Wan Park was arguably the one that got most of the headlines during my time there.

READ MORE: Hong Kong police draw guns, fire tear gas and water cannons in latest protest violence

But taking a closer look at how far the petrol bombs and bricks actually were from police, it’s clear that if protesters wanted to hit them, they easily could have — but didn’t.

Some protesters did get closer to hit the police with bricks, but police appeared well protected from such attacks as they were wearing full riot gear.

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That same night, protesters were seen destroying a business they believed to be triad controlled, and others were seen attacking police with sticks. One officer then fired his service gun as a warning.

Interactions with protesters

Protesters in Hong Kong are very organized. The demonstrators have medics, water and supply depots stocked with things like masks and saline solution. They even have recycling depots.

During my time there, I saw protesters work in groups to dismantle barriers and set up blockades, warning anyone who was not equipped for the protest to stay on the sidelines.

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WATCH (Aug. 24, 2019): Violence escalates in Hong Kong’s latest clash between protesters and police

Bricks and tear gas: Violence escalates in Hong Kong’s latest clash between protesters and police
Bricks and tear gas: Violence escalates in Hong Kong’s latest clash between protesters and police

They are also accommodating of the press, and when I got caught up in tear gas for the first time, the protesters’ medics were quick to help. I was even given a gas mask and goggles to protect myself.

At no point did I feel I was in danger of being attacked by protesters.

Interactions with police

My first interaction with police was when officers fired tear gas at protesters who were throwing bricks at them in Kwun Tong.

The area was also full of press and medics at the time this took place.

This seemed to be an ongoing theme throughout the weekend.

General safety in Hong Kong

From what I saw in Hong Kong, the outside perception that the entire region is a war zone is misplaced — daily life goes on.

There are definitely huge traffic delays when roads are blockaded or trashed, but I saw protesters dismantling the blockades to let ambulances and other vehicles through before blocking them off again. Even those who were inconvenienced by the protests often seem to be in support of the movement.

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READ MORE: Chinese-Canadian community divided over Hong Kong protests

As for those who happen to be in an area where a protest is happening, sometimes encountering the demonstration is unavoidable. An acquaintance told me he was walking home from work on Nathan Road — a main street in Kowloon, comparable to Yonge Street in Toronto — when a tear gas canister landed 20 metres in front of him.

My experience was obviously limited, given I was only there for five days. But what I saw on the ground differed from what I had read in media reports and heard from people outside the region. The people of Hong Kong are definitely fighting, but for the most part, it appears they are doing so without hurting people.

Eric Mark Do is the national syndication editor for Global News and was also the first member of the newsroom’s social media desk. He previously worked as a media editor at J-Source.