A Canadian man who fled Hong Kong has taken refuge elsewhere in Asia after posting a video of street unrest that prompted threats from protesters – and sympathetic coverage by Chinese state media.
“I’m in hiding,” said Toby Gu, 27, a social media influencer who declined to reveal his current location. “I’m still pretty nervous.”
The furious reaction to his video has made him an unusual figure in the fractious debate over whether the protest movement in Hong Kong, now nearing the end of its fourth month, has gone too far.
Mr. Gu travelled to Hong Kong in late September, armed with his Canadian passport, cameras, a high-visibility vest, a press card he made himself and plans “to share the brutality, the pain and the difficulties that residents here in Hong Kong are experiencing every single day” – but also to find the kind of dramatic footage that could “get this video to explode.”
He found it. A video he uploaded to YouTube shows a man being attacked and bloodied by protesters – a “mob,” as Mr. Gu calls them at one point – who go on to smash the common areas of a shopping mall, set fires on the street and block traffic.
“They’re literally just provoking. They’re just destroying private property,” Mr. Gu says in the video, adding later: “These protesters are really just, like, asking for a fight. It’s crazy.”
He notes that the protesters left the shops in the mall unmolested and the goods untouched.
But the tone he strikes, giddily venturing into a fracas, his admission that he faked media credentials and his description of the protesters as unnecessarily aggressive – without mentioning their grievances, including their demands for an independent inquiry into police conduct and greater democratic freedoms – struck some as reckless.
In Hong Kong, some online commenters began hunting for Mr. Gu, circulating images on social media of people on the streets that they suspected might be him. One message to him said: “Hi, I have a dagger ready for your throat. The hunting begins now.”
“I opened that – I was like, wow, that made my stomach sink,” Mr. Gu said. “That’s when I made the conscious decision I probably don’t want to go outside.”
He put on a face mask and took a taxi to the airport. But even after leaving Hong Kong, he was recognized at an ATM in another city by a person who told him: “A lot of Hong Kong people hate you right now.”
He is now in a different country, where he has taken to wearing a hat and glasses – although he hasn’t eased up on his critique of the demonstrators.
“I think a lot of the protesters believe they can never do anything wrong,” he said. But “at this point, it’s just straight up a riot. You have people smashing things, you have people beating cops, you have fire bombs being thrown.”
For Mr. Gu, though, the experience in Hong Kong has had its advantages. His video has won him thousands of new social media followers. Among his fans are Chinese state media, including broadcaster CGTN, which profiled his work, saying he had “inadvertently exposed the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘peaceful protests.’”
Mr. Gu’s criticism coincides with a lot of “soul-searching” among the protesters themselves, said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University, after days of turmoil following the Hong Kong government’s imposition of an emergency ordinance banning face masks. “There’s a lot of reflections on online forums now after the violent weekend,” said Prof. Yuen, who has conducted numerous surveys of demonstrators and also helped conduct a poll in early August that showed strong support for the notion that “radical protests can force the government to listen to the people.”
But anti-Beijing anger has since taken a violent turn. In September, protesters beat a man holding a Chinese flag. This weekend, they attacked a Mandarin-speaking employee of JPMorgan Chase after he took pictures of protesters and told a crowd: “We are all Chinese.” Black-clad demonstrators have kicked and punched riot police, clutching at their batons and pistols and leaving some bloodied. Two protesters have been shot, with police saying the officers were justified in using live ammunition in response to a life-threatening situation.
The violence has been sustained in part because tens of thousands of people continue taking to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, providing a backstop of public support for those engaged in more radical acts.
Still, other voices in Hong Kong have called for restraint.
International support generally rallies behind “those who fight in peace, not those who sabotage their own society,” said Robert Chung, a respected pollster who is president of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. He urged the police to use caution but also called for protesters to “resort to more peaceful means of conflict resolution.”
Official condemnation has also escalated. “Some rioters took the law into their own hands by beating up bystanders, overstepping the bottom line of any civilized society,” Hong Kong police said in a statement Sunday night.
Randy Shek, a barrister who has helped co-ordinate some 200 lawyers offering pro bono legal services for protesters, called the escalating violence “very worrying.”
“I’m not saying the protesters are correct in causing such huge amounts of injuries and vandalism,” he said. But, he added, the protesters have also been subjected to injustice, with authorities more muted when violence is used by police and organized thugs.
At the same time, the violent protests have provided fodder for Chinese propaganda organs, which have shown images of bloody attacks and streets set ablaze – ignoring peaceful demonstrations – to bolster opposition to the anti-Beijing movement in China.
“Beating ordinary people who do not agree with rioters has become a common sight amid illegal demonstrations,” the Global Times reported Sunday, describing a “new height of lawlessness.”
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