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‘We Do Not Want to Be Persuaded’

A Dispatch from Hong Kong

Over the past week, it has been hard to make sense of the threats and ultimatums the Hong Kong protesters have faced. On Sunday, the South China Morning Post splashed on its front page that Hong Kong had “hours to avoid tragedy.” University deans sent out urgent appeals imploring the students to leave straight away, for their safety. Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Joseph Sung, in a letter sent to staff and students, asked demonstrators “not to make unnecessary sacrifices.” Andrew Li, the former (and much respected) Chief Justice of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, issued his appeal in a press statement published by the Ming Pao newspaper. The city’s Catholic Diocese followed suit, with messages to the city’s newspapers.

What had they heard? What did they know? And could there be any voice among these that the students might be willing to heed, if their safety was truly at risk?

I tried to ask my few contacts in government if they knew what type of danger was imminent, but I did not get far: they seemed rather detached about the whole situation, and left me as confused as before.

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Meanwhile, on Connaught Road at dawn, a main thoroughfare pedestrianized by the demonstrators, Tony, 19, was folding up the small foil mat he had slept on. With a gray trash bag draped over his body, goggles on his forehead, and a gas mask dangling from his neck, he admitted the incessant warnings scared him, but he repeated what every young protester has told me: “I must do this. I must stay here. It is the only thing I can do for my future.” While protecting himself against what? Pepper spray? Gas? Bullets? Arrest? With only plastic?

In commentaries of all sorts, many voices draw parallels to Tiananmen Square, worrying or predicting that such a tragedy will once again befall a Chinese city. But to compare Tiananmen in 1989 and Admiralty in 2014 makes sense only on the surface, if at all. I was a student in Beijing in 1989, and everything—what was at stake, how confident China felt, and how fast the protests were spreading in the rest of the country—was different from what is happening today. Out in the peripheries, the Umbrella Movement is far less of a threat to the Communist Party than the Tiananmen protesters were, and the Chinese government enjoys stronger support now than it did 25 years ago in China. Hong Kong’s protests are more of an irritant to Beijing than subversion, not to mention that Hong Kong is way more integrated into the global community than Beijing was in 1989. The new avenues for communication have changed how much this would impact the whole of China, and even in the unlikely hypothesis that anyone in power feels inclined to send the troops in, the overall cost of such action would be too high to contemplate. Yet, as the alarmed appeals kept multiplying I thought of calling Han Dongfang, a founder of China’s first independent labor union in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and who now lives in exile in Hong Kong where he runs the China Labour Bulletin, to ask him what he thought. He had tried to talk to the students, too. “I went down to talk to the protesters, twice. I am past fifty now. I wanted to be the old man with the experience, you know, the adult with a relevant history who can give some advice. I am a very persuasive guy,” he said. On Friday October 3 he went to see them again, as the dire warnings were piling up: “I was telling them it would be good to leave now. Do not escalate the protest by occupying more roads, you are in a good position for dialogue now. But they did not want to listen to me. One told me, ‘Stop telling me these things. You are very persuasive, but we do not want to be persuaded, we are staying here,’” he said. One of the songs heard among the crowds these days, called “The Song of the Umbrella Revolution,” includes a similar line: “Please do not force me to surrender and leave.”

By Monday, October 6, many had left, but were ready to come back to the streets at the drop of a hat to show their support if their fellow protesters should be forcibly removed.

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Ray, a 26-year-old nurse who told me he had been sitting outside of the Government Headquarters in Admiralty with a group of friends for days, explained what exactly had brought him, and kept him, here. Born in Guangdong, he had lived in Hong Kong since he was two. He told me he was looking for ways to avoid feeling that the only option was to emigrate: “I have a job that travels well, and I could move to Australia as two friends of mine have done. But I love Hong Kong, and I wish to preserve it. It is getting harder: so many people from the mainland (China) come here, and have no respect for us. For our culture, our language, our moral values. And they do not bring [any other culture] with them: they are obsessed by money, and have no respect for rules.” His friend J. K., 20, sitting next to him, agreed: “The level of corruption that has been brought over through the years is creeping in, everywhere,” he said. “How do we defend ourselves against it? All we can do is at least hope for universal suffrage, a genuine democratic system that allows us to elect someone who represents us, not the interests of the mainland, not the tycoons,” he said.

“We join the June 4 vigil every year. Every year,” said Ray, and J.K. repeated it for emphasis. “For us, in Hong Kong, even if you want to not care about politics, you are doomed, politics still comes to you,” said Ray.

They are not the only ones. Sirius Lee, 22 years old, is a student who had set up a home-made electric charging station for people to juice up their smartphones and be able to stay up-to-date with all developments through Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Firechat, and the other sites and forums that have been helping to coordinate this largely leaderless protest. He is graduating in Public Health from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he first attended the Tiananmen vigil “at 17, and I felt that those students and me, we all have the same goals. I want Hong Kong to democratize, so I think we do have a lot in common. Today, on the other hand, our values and the values of the people from the mainland… are very different. I see this even with my classmates from the mainland. They can only think of success. We, on the other hand, today are also looking for inspiration. Some mainlanders have come down to see the protests, even if not all of them support us: but I charged their phones, all the same.”

As the numbers of protesters began to dwindle and people waited to see what kind of dialogue with the government was going to be possible, the area outside of the Government Offices continued to be the most exciting laboratory of political debate Hong Kong has ever seen. Professors came to offer free lectures, with discussions continuing through the night. A democracy-wall type of space, called “Lennon Wall,” was covered in posters and post-its with all sorts of ideas and drawings, read carefully by countless passersby.

In Mongkok, meanwhile, where violent thugs had attacked the demonstrators on the night of October 3, the two opposing camps, simply called Occupy and Anti-Occupy, or “Yellow Ribbons” and “Blue Ribbons,” fought, but also sat down and talked. It was an odd sight, kept under the watchful gaze of one of the most motley crowds imaginable: some of the neighborhood toughs hung around menacingly, in clusters of three or four, contending with the TV crews for the prime observation site atop the exits of the subway station. Police watched , too, as well as the daily throngs of shoppers—joined by numerous mainland tourists in town for the National Day Golden Week. The protesters had set up tents and canopies, covered with blue and white plastic sheets, and underneath those, in the shaky and intermittent calm after the attacks, some rare conversations took place. Serious, open-air discussions that opened unprecedented, unfiltered channels of discussion among political foes. Not every Blue Ribbon supporter joined, of course, and the roughing up and the violence continued on and off, in spite of the talks. For a few days, after women and girls from the Yellow Ribbon crowd were singled out for sexual attacks, the atmosphere took on a more macho feel, unavoidably reminiscent of some of the more rough-and-tumble Hong Kong cop movies from the ’80s and ’90s. And then, again, crowds came in and out. Office workers would wander near the tents during their lunch break, listen in, and move on.

On the evening of October 5, I talked to Lisa Leung, a professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan College. She described Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement as a turning-point in the “decolonization of Hong Kong” and in a process of “becoming a Hongkonger: Having been brought up under the mainstream discourses of ‘pragmatism,’ ‘economics over everything,’ and ‘flexibility’ as roots of Hong Kong’s success, Hong Kongers found themselves jostled with the inner tension that has today come home to roost,” she told me.

As the numbers of protestors slimmed down, the Umbrella Movement found itself on the back foot: forced by the Government into a waiting game as preparatory talks for the establishment of a public dialogue were followed by more preparatory talks. Exhausted students kept on sleeping and doing their homework on the street, keeping themselves in good spirits by drawing political cartoons and filling post-it notes with their thoughts and sticking them on the walls and the concrete partitions. A bleary-eyed wait under Hong Kong’s October heat. But as swathes of Admiralty and smaller sections of Mongkok, Causeway Bay, and Canton Road were still blocked to traffic by the barricades, the urban landscape had been turned upside down. On the tenth day since the students protests began, Hong Kong offered surreal landscapes. The metal fences used by the protesters to secure their occupation belong, in fact, to the police, who usually employ them to keep protesters at bay. As the work week started, the empty asphalt was used by men and women in suits to eat their lunches in the open, reclaiming some of the most urban public spaces. Meanwhile, under the tents and the shade of the overpasses, a generation that grew up honoring the memory of the Tiananmen victims discussed its post-handover anxiety of ever greater assimilation with China, and its anger toward the real estate and business elites that continue to dictate what the city should look and be like.

As I talk to the demonstrators, day after day, I marvel at just how free their minds are. They download uncensored information on their smartphones, constantly. They chat in online forums and with friends. Unshackled information truly makes free people.

Eugene, a 27-year-old protester, resting her back against the concrete partition on Connaught Road, said: “Our media has been reporting that there are protests, and they have been bemoaning the effect this might have on the economy. But the mainstream media, from TVB to the conservative newspapers, has not even mentioned why we are protesting. We are asking for more diversity.”

Nobody knows yet what the Umbrella Movement’s legacy will be. But it has already changed Hong Kong.

This story has been corrected. An earlier version referred to Hong Kong’s “September heat,” but the events described took place in October.