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Umbrella Movement

Growing up in 1960s England, the term Umbrella Movement could only mean one thing: The Avengers TV series and its suave hero, secret agent John Steed, effectively disarming many an assailant with a swiftly yielded British brolly. Today, courtesy of Hong Kong spirit, the humble brolly now stands as a worldwide symbol of peaceful defiance in the face of government intransigence. Agent Steed I imagine would be duly impressed.It’s a surprising contribution to pop-culture from a city which, funnily enough, also in the 1960s, flooded the world with plastic flowers, toys, paper lanterns and, yes, umbrellas – I remember the ubiquitous Made in Hong Kong label tooled our lives though as to what or where Hong Kong was I doubt any of us really knew back then! I wonder if John Steed’s brolly originated in the Far East, what an intriguing story that would make, it certainly had a handle made of Chinese wanghee

The protesting umbrella has been visible here for a few years now, opening to major prominence amidst the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in 2014; this was essentially a sit-in street protest against the government’s lack of progress regarding introduction of universal suffrage. Let me explain. In order to merit consideration for the top job, our leader, known as the Chief Executive, or Governor as used to be, must ideally demonstrate that their head is located well and truly up Beijing’s backside; free thinkers need not apply. After which it’s down to a dubious band of 1200 hand-picked Hong Kongers to elect the one Beijing prefers. Those of you about to receive Mr Johnson as UK Prime Minister, thanks to 1600 Tory members, might notice an uncomfortable parallel or two.

Occupy emerged to challenge this practise, citing a clause in the Basic Law (a Sino-British mini constitution) which suggests that in the spirit of nurturing democracy post-colonial governments should work towards universal suffrage, in other words one-person-one-vote. Anyway, Occupy lasted under three months with little to show. Nevertheless, in only that short time, our simple umbrella had gained considerable significance, bursting upon the world stage as a fully-fledged, albeit unlikely, symbol of revolution.

After all, who needs a tank, an AK47 or a Stealth Fighter when the simple umbrella will suffice; so the Umbrella Revolution had arrived and was evidently here to stay! Incidentally, the brolly was initially adopted as a means of protecting identity and also deflecting pepper spray, not to mention water jets, should impatient police get a little narked. And, remembering its original design intent, very useful in combating our notoriously fickle weather when political intent requires you hit the road in mid-summer.

I started writing this on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of British Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, a public holiday usually marked by a peaceful protest march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front; this march has been staged every year, without major incident, since 1997 and is generally regarded as an acceptable way for people to voice their dissatisfaction with government, Beijing and various other crackpot affiliations alleged to be diluting our freedoms and rights.

With this in mind, you may have noticed that Hong Kong has consistently made the news in recent months, probably for all the wrong reasons, or maybe all the right ones depending on your point of view. You see, the problem from the government’s perspective, is that we’ve been getting awfully adept in the art of protest and riot. Why? It’s a long story but at the centre of this storm lurks the proposed introduction of an extradition law to cover Taiwan, China and Macau; similar treaties with the likes of UK and USA already exist so you’d think that in principle there’d be no major problem – not so.

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The reason for this seemingly urgent law was highlighted by a case in which a young Hong Kong chap went on holiday to Taiwan with his pregnant girlfriend whom he then set about strangling; clearly Hong Kongers indulge some weird holiday activities but we humour them nonetheless. Anyway, with girlfriend sadly done in, our perpetrator escaped free to Hong Kong but, under police investigation, was eventually tracked down and guilt fully admitted.

Unfortunately a murder charge could not be levelled as no extradition agreement existed – hence the need! Of course, with Taiwan and China at perpetual loggerheads there was no way Hong Kong could forge an extradition treaty with arch-enemy Taiwan and yet leave our loving Motherland out in the cold and looking stupid; that would be too embarrassing for our respected northern cadres.

Now, when the masses came to learn of this the proverbial brown stuff hit the fan. People quite rightly imagined all manner of scenarios involving petty – and not so petty – criminals being legally spirited away to China never to be seen again, or, failing that, yet further erosion of our much-prized judicial independence, a cornerstone of the Hong Kong success story and the one-country-two-systems doctrine (China’s sensible approach to keeping communism and capitalism apart). So to many the notion of having ones collar felt by Inspector Chan & Co up north and doing time sowing rice bags in a grotty mainland jug is not particularly appealing.

Even several foreign governments advised (as we would say), or butted in (as China would say), that such a treaty might realistically sound the death knell for Hong Kong’s cherished trade and economic openness, local lawyers and business folk echoed the sentiments. And did government listen? No, intransigence rules – though a heavy price was about to be exacted.

One must also remember that most folk here hold a strong aversion, putting it mildly, to any living thing from across the border, especially people and government. Consequently, although of Chinese ethnicity obviously, most Hong Kongers prefer to identify as Hong Kongers and not Chinese, they’re very proud of that distinction and it would be a brave man who suggested otherwise! Consequently, slogans such as Hong Kong is not China and No to Mainlandisation are not uncommon as are popular depictions bearing the old colonial flag.

And so the protests commenced but you have to remember that the city was still feeling a little raw from the 2014 Occupy Movement and the evident lack of political progress. Protests here tend to take the form of a peaceful march, usually from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Central Government Offices, a distance of about two kilometres. Early June then saw the first anti-extradition bill protest with a million folk taking to the streets; it passed peacefully but government predictably paid no heed.

Then the second protest took place a few days later which ended in violent clashes involving only a small minority; still no official response other than criticism of the rioters. Protestors threw iron bars and paving blocks, police responded with rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and tear gas. Quite who provoked who in all this is still up for debate and will doubtless rumble on and on. Incidentally I do not blame the police at all; they too are Hong Kongers, many with young families who more than likely share similar views to the protestors, and a job’s a job at the end of the day.

The constituent parts of the protestors were many, all ages and backgrounds, not at all restricted to impetuous youth or radicalised students. By example, along came Uncle Wong in his 90s not to mention a gritty sexagenarian known as Aunty Wong (no relation) who, like a crusty old bogey, lodges persistently up the nostrils of authority by waving a large Union Jack whenever the need arises, which seems to be quite often these days.

The dress code of this party by the way is a black t-shirt with optional extras of umbrella, face mask and yellow-coloured, plastic hard hat. For me this, together with an assortment of building materials, conjures up all the wrong images of work and a busman’s holiday but for our protestors it’s all about protection: identity and safety. John Steed of course employed a more stylish, steel-reinforced, bowler hat, capable of inflicting severe damage.

Four days later the mother of all protests took place, this time a staggering two million participated, half of humanity it seemed. We felt very proud, it passed peacefully and at last government responded, the bill was to be suspended!

Now, that should really have been the end of it all, but it wasn’t. A big hoo-hah debate followed by those unhappy with the bill being suspended, they wanted it withdrawn totally even though with the current legislative term due to expire shortly it amounted to much the same thing. It was argued to death by our legislators (70 members below the Chief Executive, some of whom we can vote for) who generally fall into one of two camps, pro-democrats or pro-Beijing; the leanings of these two groups being self-explanatory. Pro-democrats tend to be of modern liberal thought whereas pro-Beijingers unimaginatively parrot the party line, BeiBot – style

The proles however were definitely not appeased which brings us back to today’s 1st July march and it’s at this point that I stopped writing this article as it all got too much, especially when the violence and vandalism started. We were mesmerised by the images being broadcast, but not in a good way – to be honest we’re simply not used to this sort of thing in Hong Kong.

I’m back on now, a few days later and feeling better; I won’t need to tell you what happened, you’ll have seen for yourselves in the news. In short, a group of protestors smashed their way into the legislative building to create havoc and an awful lot of damage to boot. Slogans spray-painted on the walls didn’t commend too highly our glorious leader’s integrity or political nous. Some even suggested that her continuing in the top job would not be at all welcomed. This was such a radical departure from our peaceful way of solving things, so, entirely understandable perhaps that some conspiracy theories should surface.

We thought it a bit odd at the time that protestors’ forced entry into the building met with zero resistance, police looked dreamily on as if part-supervising the event. It almost seemed this small band of thugs was actually in the pay of Beijing or even a fifth column inspired to cause as much destruction as time allowed. This particular theory is now gathering pace. It’s strange that immediately following the desecration public opinion, hitherto totally behind the protests, thus began to waiver (but only for a while). That would have been quite an acceptable outcome for the government.

Meanwhile, looking totally out of depth and unsure of what to do, government wouldn’t budge, suspended they reiterated so get lost! The irony is that our four leaders since the handover have been either wealthy businessmen or senior civil servants, none of which have shown any political clout or ability. This clearly constitutes a problem when faced with a populace increasingly politicised and increasingly dissatisfied. So we’re riveted by events here and remain curious as to how it will all turn out.

At present all is quiet on the Eastern Front and that’s certainly a good thing. Doubtless you’ll be wondering whether you should cancel that Hong Kong holiday or turn down that lucrative job offer. Well, the answer to that is a resounding NO, you most certainly should not! Such events are localised and so far restricted to parts of Hong Kong Island, you’re unlikely to be affected or get caught up in one, unless you want to of course. We live about 17 kilometres north of the trouble spot and life carries on as normal, in fact eavesdropping as I often do, people don’t appear to be at all bothered.

Although protest organisers insist that future marches must remain peaceful they may take in other parts of Hong Kong too so keep an eye out for announcements, now, where did I put my brolly and bowler?…

Ben Zabulis

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of ‘success’; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.