Protest march, rally, riot, violence, revolution of our time, liberate Hong Kong, democracy, f**k the po-po, are not the sort of words or phrases I ever thought it would be necessary to learn in hitherto peaceful Hong Kong, indeed my Teach Yourself Chinese book is starkly lacking in this area. But, with the past weekends, 14 and counting, spent scrutinising a phalanx of eagerly wielded placards and graffiti, I now find my Cantonese, revolutionary vocab lies greatly enriched.While for me this bears considerable value when discussing the latest riotous commotion with villagers at the bus stop or indeed in determining when and where the next riotous commotion might occur, it does absolutely nothing for you, the reader, who might be contemplating a visit during our summer, nay autumn, of discontent. In this article therefore I shall endeavour to explain the current situation and allay your growing fears of landing on our troubled shores.
But first, for the uninformed, those of you who may have spent the last 14 weeks virtuously tramping over the Hindu Kush or, less virtuously, detained solitarily at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for some regrettable misdemeanour, please refer to my previous article Umbrella Movement for some background to our current dilemma. I should mention however, that when published that particular dilemma was relatively simple and generally confined to Hong Kong Island. Not so now.
Since then, early July that is, the protest movement has been active each weekend with knitting-pattern formation and regularity: pleasantly peaceful walk during daylight, all very good-natured, violent clashes at night, very ugly. Also the protestors’ original demand, withdrawal of the extradition bill, was quickly and angrily supplemented by four additional wants, which may have grown to even more by the time you read this – in other words a far more complex scenario has thus emerged.
The additional demands, in case you didn’t already know, insist that the 12th June protests, which ended violently, should not be classified as a riot (a riot charge could land you with 10 years inside), also, all arrested protestors are to receive an amnesty, an independent inquiry must be established to investigate the whole sorry saga and, finally, it’s high time Hong Kong’s leader is elected by universal suffrage. Oh yes, and our current leader Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam standing down would be much appreciated (by all sides including Mrs Lam herself I imagine).
So how did we get here? To most of us, and probably most of you too, the acceptance and implementation of some of these demands would seem like a fairly easy thing to do, especially as public sentiment is enormously in favour and predominantly peaceful. Why not then? Well, it has to be said that in the wake of the initial protests our CE, totally insensitive to public opinion, displayed a certain arrogance in claiming that the voice of the people had thus been heard but would, nevertheless, be ignored as passage of the bill continues. This needless to say inflamed the general public as protests, violence and vandalism were swiftly ratcheted up.
It’s oft debated whether a leader should be servant or master of the masses, our CE tries to be both. Begging humble forgiveness for past government oversights and poor performance in one sentence but stubbornly refusing to offer concessions or to consider a differing opinion in the next. This is Carrie on Hong Kong.
In fact, it has to be said that CE Carrie Lam, remaining entirely out of touch, seems solely instrumental in increasing protestor numbers, each speech constantly refusing to acknowledge peoples’ feelings and fuelling, thereby, a corresponding increase in those next taking to the streets, all ages and backgrounds. Social divisions grow as did violence; getting nowhere fast, protestors and police pitch angrily and pointlessly against each other. Through the air, one-way, zoom tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds while scavenged building site debris travels speedily in the opposing direction. Wanton violence, wanton destruction.
One sad consequence, as a direct result of government inaction, is the demonising of the police force, once one of Asia’s, if not the world’s, finest, brought in to quell the protests and subsequently losing respect by the day. And all for the sake of preserving government face. I recall, though it seems ages ago now, some black graffiti sprayed in the Legislative Council building back in July which might have added poignancy to the government’s re-education, but again no heed was paid; it stated rather chillingly: It was you who taught us that peaceful protest is useless. Indeed.
When not on riot duty, the beleaguered po-po find themselves jeered and verbally abused by ordinary citizens not even taking part. Injecting a slightly uncomfortable thought, one livid lady suggested that even po-po’s underwear was paid for by the tax payer – well, after a scary night on the battlefront we’re hardly likely to ask for them back – really, some people!
Adding to the fun, other dubious groups couldn’t wait to share the action, those with alleged connections to triad groups as well the powerful Heung Yi Kuk rural thugs not to mention a rough group of Fujian Chinese were delighted by the opportunity to indiscriminatingly bash in a few protestors and non-protestors too. Well, let’s face it, if you’re going to have internecine warfare you may as well do it properly!
And still our leader professed her deep understanding of the protestors’ plight, both herself and her government would strive to improve, would work harder would do anything to make it all go away; unfortunately oodles of pathos but concrete proposals were ominously nought, the same old record, all violence being routinely condemned but the rule of law she confidently stated would solve it all. The implication of which everybody immediately understood, an image conjured of government officials sitting firmly on hands doing nowt came swiftly to mind. We weren’t wrong either, our thoughts disturbed only by the sound of another few thousand decent, working folk swelling the protestors’ ranks.
The battle grounds also shifted. The New Territories saw a fair share of thrills, even the airport enjoyed an initially peaceful sit-in protest earning praise from both staff and travellers alike then, a few days later, it all turned nasty, flights were cancelled, people got angry and scuffles broke out – other than typhoons, closure of the airport is unprecedented here in Hong Kong, not good and a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot!
We also witnessed an impressive recreation of the human, Baltic Way; a protest chain staged 30 years ago against Soviet Russian tyranny. Dubbed the Hong Kong Way this time, two hundred thousand Hong Kongers held hands along three stretches of MTR train routes. Another group ventured upwards to form a night-time chain over the hills and, cresting the head of the prominent Lion Rock, held flashlights brightly aloft.
This hugely symbolic act evoked the Territory’s renowned Below the Lion Rock spirit – its roots in a hugely popular classic TV series (1972-2016) of that name, famed for portraying tough times and desperate livelihoods. The series’ ageless theme tune was crooned by Canto-pop star Roman Tam and the song, incidentally, is still regarded by many Hong Kongers as their true national anthem, think of London, the blitz and Dame Vera Lynn and you get the idea. This hillside event was one which unavoidably brought a lump to the throat. In parallel that day, holding Hong Kong emblems, Lithuanians joined hands and held a similar re-enactment in Vilnius, my father for one would certainly have been proud!
To describe the protestor groups as well organised would be to understate terribly. Although they remain leaderless, information and instructions are broadcast on social media by various parties as to what, where and when. On the battlefront this translates to the establishment of astonishingly efficient food and water chains, provision of safety equipment and even a medical presence. To be honest, they’re running rings around the police and government which is where a good number of them really ought to be! Be like Water is their mantra, a phrase borrowed from the Bruce Lee book of philosophy, they certainly are.
Well, last week you’ll have heard, the now world-famous extradition bill was officially withdrawn. Congratulations to our CE, if only she’d have seen the light 14 weeks previously, as peacefully and sincerely requested by the business community, a number of lawmakers not to mention a few million concerned protestors, Hong Kong wouldn’t have graced the headlines so jarringly most days and the hostile divisions which now cripple our society need never have manifested. Such a high cost in lives, damage to facilities and disruption triggered by one simple word and its loose interpretation, how you intend getting us out of this mess Madam CE goodness only knows, it’ll require some very deep Below the Lion Rock spirit, dialogue and reconciliation indeed.
So now confrontation rules, the protestors as with the government are unlikely to back down unless there’s some fairly radical out-of-the-box thinking. An independent inquiry, one of the protestors’ key demands, as mentioned earlier, could go a long way to alleviating this impasse. It would hopefully study critically the behaviour of all parties, especially the protestors and their gripes, police gripes, government gripes in fact every bleedin’ gripe that lurks amongst us right now. The important word here however, yes here we go again, would be independent as that’s the only type of inquiry people will trust.
But government, still holding back on people’s expectations, steadfastly refuse, they insist that existing police complaint channels will prove adequate in addressing protestors’ concerns with regard to any dubious police tactics and alleged brutality. All well and good, but it should go further, what of an independent critique of the government? Well, that’s a touchy subject. You see, with the entire situation born of government insensitivity and political ineptitude, face plays a large part here and whereas a resolution to the crisis would be nice, it wouldn’t be that nice should it bestow personal embarrassment and professional accountability on some of the key players. So now you can see how restoring trust between the public, the police and government is going to require infinitely more than an earnest pow-wow over a bowl of wanton noodles.
So back to the $64,000 question: should you still visit Hong Kong and what can you expect to see whilst here? Well, I concluded Umbrella Movement with a resounding yes to that question based on events at the time. Those events have certainly moved on with protests becoming more regular and taking in other locations too, just to share it around.
My gut feeling, as we stand today, is also to say yes. This is because the major protests generally take place on weekends only, the locations are advertised in advance so can be easily avoided. It must be stressed that these daytime protests are usually orchestrated in a peaceful manner, all age groups present, with an almost carnival style atmosphere. The daring of you might even care to join in; you’ll undoubtedly discover the participants to be well-meaning, concerned members of the public, as simple as that – why not talk to them or contribute to a Lennon wall?
It’s evening time when events often descend sadly into violence between police and protestors; it’s almost as if a shift change of characters occurs as players take on a more vicious persona. These are the hot spots, usually isolated, the places and the times to avoid. Again, such locations, being the end point of a protest march or the local cop shop, are easily identified and easy to avoid. In these instances common sense rules – please use it!
The funny thing is, funny strange I mean, is that in the morning following a violent fracas, everything is soon back to normal, everyone is back at work, everyone behaves as they always did. The atmosphere is quite surreal; it’s as if nothing had ever happened! If out and about I look around at people and wonder about that person featured on the TV news last night, the one hurling a petrol bomb from this very position. Was it him? Was it her? Was it you? But now he or she is silently standing or walking beside me and, like me, simply going about their business, any viciousness having long since melted away to leave just another unassuming person in the street – that’s all. Weird!
The very worst you might experience therefore is some delay or disruption to your travel plans but, in most cases, sticking my neck out here, your visit will probably pass without witnessing or undergoing any disturbance at all. Even with this current carry on, Hong Kong remains one of the safest cities in the world. The mainland Chinese seem to be staying away but last week I surprisingly noticed many other tourists, clearly unfazed, in the districts of Central and Kowloon, so I hope that answers your question. We look forward to seeing you!