Video report by ITV News Senior International Affairs Correspondent John Irvine
As we watched it happening, we knew the Chinese would take it very badly.
And of course that’s why the protesters did it – first they tore down the Chinese flag flying at the iconic Star Ferry terminal. Then they tossed it into the channel that separates Hong Kong island from Kowloon and the Chinese mainland.
The photo of the national flag sinking into Victoria Harbour was on the cover of many Sunday papers. Beijing was indeed furious.
Hong Kong means ‘fragrant harbour,’ but off the back of the flag incident Chinese state television warned that the territory risked becoming a ‘stinky and dead harbour,’ if it slid into anarchy.
Today, at a news conference in Beijing the Chinese office responsible for Hong Kong said protesters were playing with fire.
The spokesman singled out the flag incident witnessed by ITV News, calling it crazy, shameless and a red line.
Their opponents try to paint the protesters as hoodlums but most of the ones we’ve met are well-educated, articulate, young people who simply fear their future will be worse than the past their parents enjoyed.
They turn out every weekend to protest about what they see as the erosion of their freedoms – the hated extradition bill that sparked this fiasco being just the latest example of China’s desire for the total ideological and administrative conquest of the former British Colony.
Hong Kong is normally a paragon of conformity, where going beyond the conventional is rare.
Protest doesn’t come naturally to those who have resorted to it. When they halted metro services as part of a general strike they apologised to inconvenienced commuters.
At one metro stop we filmed the station manager hugging one of the anguished young people who had stopped his trains from running.
This crisis is a new experience too for the Hong Kong police. I have reported on many riots around the world over the years, and I have never seen security forces so restrained.
Demonstrators who have accused the police of being heavy-handed should come to Cairo or Kiev to see what heavy-handed really looks like.
The biggest problem is that an absence of real leadership is preventing any brakes being put on Hong Kong’s summer of discontent.
The violence is getting worse and if the downward slide goes unchecked people will eventually get killed.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam doesn’t appear to know what to do. She appeared in public for the first time in a fortnight yesterday but had nothing new to say.
For the time being Beijing says it still has confidence in the Hong Kong government, which is probably because it keeps China one step removed from an unfolding disaster that now has its own momentum.