HE is well known for his tough style of leadership. Doubtless that’s why on Friday the Chinese government brought former deputy police commissioner Alan Lau Yip-shing out of retirement, in a move that is said to have “stunned” Hong Hong’s law enforcement community.

While serving as commissioner it was Lau who, back in 2014, oversaw operations when protesters demanding greater democracy occupied key roads for 79 straight days. In 2016 it was Lau who also took charge of the crackdown on illegal hawkers in the city’s busy Mong Kok district sparking riots that were also seen to be politically motivated and became widely known as the Fishball Revolution.

Once again it seems the senior policeman with the “hands-on” reputation has been brought in to quell political dissent on Hong Kong’s streets.

Lau’s appointment on “special duty”, came as the city’s embattled police force geared up for three days of sit-in protests at Hong Kong International Airport, starting from Friday and culminating today.

No-one for a moment believes, however, it will mark the end of almost nine weeks of anti-government rallies that have frequently ended in violent clashes with police.

What began as a movement against an extradition bill, which would have let criminal suspects in Hong Kong be handed over for trial by communist party-controlled courts in mainland China, has since evolved into the biggest challenge from dissenters since the Tiananmen protests 30 years ago that still reverberate to this day.

Today, just like back then, the appointment of veteran chief police officer Alan Lau Yip-shing indicates that the Chinese authorities are in no mood for compromise.

That much was made clear by an official from the Chinese government’s Hong Kong office, who last week warned: “We would like to make clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: those who play with fire will perish by it.”

In that one statement lie clues to much of the fear, paranoia and disinformation that have been the hallmark of this latest crisis in Hong Kong.

To begin with, far from being the work of a small group, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the city’s streets, even if those numbers have dwindled of late.

Reports, too, of alleged criminal involvement suggest that rather than such malign forces lurking within the ranks of the protesters, it’s perhaps been the Chinese authorities themselves who have deployed Triad gang members to do their violent bidding in Hong Kong.

Last month a large group of masked men carrying wooden sticks and iron rods began attacking protesters, journalists and passengers indiscriminately at the city’s Yuen Long MTR railway station, leaving scores injured.

It later came to light that some of the attackers were indeed Triad members and were known to senior pro-establishment politician Junius Ho Kwan-yiu.

“The thugs who carried out the Yuen Long attacks have only served to convince the public that Triad societies are a dangerous resource available to those wishing to engage them,” wrote Justin Bong-Kwan in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in the wake of the attacks. Like other observers he points out that Hong Kong’s Triads have a long history of political involvement and “thugs for hire” is nothing new.

In 2014 when deputy police commissioner Lau was tasked with policing the violence during the Occupy protests, unknown gangs from neighbouring Guangdong province in China staged a similar attack at a night market, beating up protesters.

Commenting on the current situation, Lynette H Ong, a China expert at the University of Toronto, says that “thugs for hire” offer an expedient strategy to intimidate protesters and allow authorities to skirt responsibility for any violence that may take place.

The National: Hong Kong’s former deputy police commissioner Alan Lau Yipshing has been called out of retirement to deal with Hong Kong’s latest protestsHong Kong’s former deputy police commissioner Alan Lau Yipshing has been called out of retirement to deal with Hong Kong’s latest protests

“Short of rolling in tanks, outsourced violence arguably may be the most effective means to ward off protesters,” wrote Ong recently in the Washington Post.

Not that anyone has ruled out the possibility of troop deployment should the crisis deepen.

But would China really send in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and deploy tanks on Hong Kong’s streets?

A recent propaganda video from the Chinese army’s Hong Kong garrison, showing troops quelling civil unrest along with a similar large-scale police drill just across the mainland border, was hardly subtle in its messaging.

In one scene a soldier is seen shouting “All consequences are at your own risk!” as protesters are seen retreating before a phalanx of troops. Comments from officials and state media denouncing the protesters as “criminals”, crossing “red lines” through “intolerable violence” along with the oppressive nature of the Beijing regime and the Communist Party’s willingness to use force must linger in the minds of many who take to Hong Kong’s streets right now.

Certainly it all adds to the perception that Beijing wants to convey and never fails to repeatedly remind the public that Hong Kong law allows for PLA troops to “assist” if requested by the city’s government.

Many people in Hong Kong believe that the territory’s leader Carrie Lam has become a lame duck as the political crisis has spiralled, with Beijing now fully calling the shots from behind the scenes. Lam has rarely been seen in public in recent weeks and at her most recent appearance was flanked by a number of colleagues.

But despite Beijing’s ability to call things as it sees it, most analysts, or indeed Hong Kong people themselves, believe that the chances of PLA soldiers leaving their barracks for deployment on the streets anytime soon are slim.

They point to the fact that Hong Kong still has 28 years to go of its One Country, Two Systems whereby it transitions from its British past to its Chinese future while allowing freedoms unheard of on the mainland.

“It’s a political problem. I don’t think sending in a security force would effectively deal with it,” was how Adam Ni, a Chinese military researcher at Macquarie University, summed it up to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently.

The National:

Analysts also say China’s deeply strained relations with Western nations too, particularly the US, would also act as a restraining factor on President Xi Jinping’s regime in Beijing. This, though, has not stopped Chinese officials and Communist Party media insisting that Western “black hands” and a US covert role are behind the protests.

On Thursday and Friday, Beijing-backed media outlets circulated a photo of Julie Eadeh, the political unit chief of the US consulate general in Hong Kong, meeting in a hotel lobby with prominent members of the opposition, including 22-year-old Joshua Wong, a key figure in the protests that rocked Hong Kong five years ago.

Chinese State broadcaster CCTV has also insisted that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was known for instigating “colour revolutions”, a reference to demonstrations that sprang up in former Soviet states during the previous decade. Beijing officials also said this week that the Hong Kong unrest had the markings of a colour revolution.

According to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, the propaganda attacks represented a classic Communist Party influenced effort to shore up public opinion in Hong Kong.

“That is exactly what they would call the United Front approach. We would call it divide and rule,” Tsang said, referring to the Communist Party wing that is responsible for political influence campaigns in China and abroad.

“They want to isolate the protesters from the bulk of the Hong Kong population and say, ‘This is all about foreign interference,’ ” Tsang told the Washington Post.

Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong and its people has always been an evolving one. Seen even from a purely economic perspective, China’s attitude has changed considerably in recent times.

At the time of the handover in 1997, the territory’s economy was equivalent to nearly a fifth of China’s. Today the figure is 3%, and Hong Kong’s port is far less important in shipping goods from the mainland.

China is simply no longer as directly dependent on the territory for its economic welfare as it once was, when foreign firms operating from Hong Kong, managerial expertise and access to international markets via its port were critical.

For the moment, though, such wider economic concerns and geopolitics will have little bearing on the day-to-day running of the protests still taking place on Hong Kong’s streets after two months.

While the absolute number of protesters has fallen from an estimated 2 million who marched, largely peacefully, on June 16, to 350,000 strikers, they continue to be a thorn in the side of the authorities.

The National: Two men in black shirts cover their heads as they bleed after being attacked by thugs in white shirts at a subway station in New Territory in Hong KongTwo men in black shirts cover their heads as they bleed after being attacked by thugs in white shirts at a subway station in New Territory in Hong Kong

Much has been made of the remarkable and often ingenious tactics they have adopted in confronting the police. Almost daily thousands have used what has been described as near “guerrilla tactics” that often involve a series of “flash mob” events designed to distract and confuse the authorities.

“Our aim is not to let the police arrest us. We need to be like water,” one protester was quoted as saying while on the streets last week.

“Be water, my friend” – a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote to be “formless, shapeless, like water” – has been a rallying cry of the leaderless movement.

THE fluid tactics of the black-clad vanguard of protesters means they don’t gather in one place, where you can be encircled; don’t have clear leaders who can be arrested; ebb and flow the demonstrations to keep officials confused.

Many carry laser pointers to “shoot” at public security cameras to disable them such is the fear of being identified and arrested. Almost all of those who now come on to the streets are well equipped with helmets, goggles and gas masks to ward off the more than 1800 rounds of teargas fired over the nine weeks of protest.

Hong Kongers’ experience of resistance has made the protests sharply effective.

“Protesters experience these illegal protests the same way soldiers often describe war – long periods of boredom punctuated by terrifying episodes of violence,” wrote Trey Menefee, a Hong Kong based social scientist, in Foreign Policy magazine around the time the current protests began.

“The key is to determine when the police will move, where they’ll come from, and what tactics they’ll likely use. Most protesters have learned from experience the importance of knowing when to “fall back”, and not to get caught somewhere without a predetermined exit route,” Menefee explained.

Many observers of events on the streets say the willingness of some protesters to fight back in the face of police violence is a marked contrast to the “extremely well-behaved, peaceful” Umbrella Movement of 2014, when students occupied public spaces and streets outside regional government offices for 79 days.

“This time there are no leaders. Just anonymous people, groups of friends, civil society and an army of volunteers organising everything: medics, food and drinks, all kind of anti-riot protective gear, volunteers to drive protesters late at night,” says Raul Gallego Abellan, a video and photojournalist who spoke with the online US-based portal The Intercept.

“People leave money in the machines that sell subway tickets for those that can’t pay, volunteers bring clothes so people can change after the demonstration and not be identified as protesters. There’s even a group of mothers that help those youth involved in the protest that need any kind of assistance,” explains Abellan.

Yesterday the diversity of those making up the protesters ranks was once again visible on the streets, with some arriving back at Hong Kong’s airport, a day after a peaceful gathering there of about 1000 activists.

Hundreds occupied the arrivals hall yesterday, some of them sitting on the floor drawing protest posters, while others politely greeted arriving passengers.

In the morning, in two separate protests, small groups of elderly Hong Kongers and families marched near the financial centre’s business district. Both marches, unlike many of the rallies of late, were peaceful. Few doubt things will remain that way for long though.

In less than a fortnight’s time those on the streets will surpass 2014’s 79-day Umbrella Movement democracy protests. While those protests had largely fizzled out by the end, there are few signs of the same happening this time around, with the movement remaining fiery and determined.

What ultimately they will achieve remains to be seen, but if one thing is certain it’s that Hong Kong politically will never be the same again.

The recalling of tough former deputy police commissioner Alan Lau Yip-shing out of retirement to deal with the situation might just be an ominous sign of things to come.