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Erik Wennermark: City of Protest

In Hong Kong, participatory democracy fights the forces of inertia and autocracy.

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Falun Gong members protest organ harvesting.
Image courtesy of the author.

(This is the third of Erik Wennermark’s Hong Kong dispatches. Read the first and second installments.)

By Erik Wennermark

Martin, a chubby young guy wearing a Google Android t-shirt and keeping a solitary overnight vigil by the barricades in front of the Hysan Place mall in Causeway Bay, seems about to cry. He is angry and wants to tell me about it.

“There are not enough people here. We are at the mercy of the police,” he says. He is right; the police could have cleared the area with minimal fuss many nights this week, but have chosen not to, presumably to maintain order elsewhere. So far, whenever violence or force appears, the protesters’ strength redoubles; somewhat surprisingly, the police and government are now content to let protester fatigue take its course. Martin, however, is fed up. He will no longer sacrifice his university marks to the dictates of “timid” leaders in Admiralty. He tells me he will return to school, or perhaps go to Mong Kok. Mong Kok is now seen as the true front of the struggle, where the serious tough guys go to make their bones in the revolution. It is the battleground that keeps the “Blue-Ribbons”—anti-Occupy protesters—engaged and away from Admiralty, which has become a sacred space, an untouchable symbol.

Admiralty is where the struggle began, where the tear gas plumed, and is closest to the offices of those Occupy seeks to depose; it is home of the largest crowds, the smartest banners, and is the main image on the news; this accounts for its importance, along with some resentment from the other, less conspicuous neighborhoods where the struggle carries on. The differing character of the different protest sites is one of the more interesting anthropological side-notes of Occupy—they seem to take their respective vibes through osmosis, mirroring their surroundings: officious, yet pleasant, Admiralty, home of Hong Kong’s government buildings; edgy Mong Kok, with its knock-off sneaker stalls and one-hour love motels; customer-friendly Causeway Bay, all well-heeled food courts, brunch spots, and frigidly air-conditioned shopping malls.

“Last night there were not even a hundred people and half were girls!” Martin says, pawing at his glasses. He is searching for the English words and his irritation mounts. “If the Umbrella Revolution succeeds it will be the brave men of Mong Kok. If the Blue-Ribbons come here…” He shakes his head again and shuffles his feet like an angry bull.

Despite many figureheads, Occupy pledges it has no leaders; events show it to be reactive and unable to sustain its hard-won momentum.

One of the difficulties in arranging negotiations is the many divergent voices of Occupy. There is Occupy Central With Love and Peace (OCLP), a generally middle-aged crew; the Hong Kong Federation of Students; and Scholarism, another student group, along with many unaffiliated protesters. Calls by one group are not heeded by the others. Cooperation is pledged and forgotten. Some of this accounts for the mysticism surrounding Mong Kok, a place many feel was abandoned during last Friday’s violence (which some have dubbed “The Siege of Mong Kok”), when OCLP leader Benny Tai called for protesters to retreat from Mong Kok and Causeway Bay and marshal forces in Admiralty. His plea was ignored. Occupy seems increasingly rudderless. Despite many figureheads, Occupy pledges it has no leaders; events show it to be reactive and unable to sustain its hard-won momentum.

*                      *                     *

The barricades of Mong Kok, set up to slow oncoming police or Blue-Ribbons, are far more severe than those elsewhere in the city. Protesters have gathered whatever they could and thrown it into the street: garbage cans, recycling bins, stray scraps of wood, street signs, carpets, boxes. Nathan Road, a major street through Kowloon, is blocked from the Mong Kok to Yau Ma Tei MTR stations—a distance of about a kilometer. This stretch is filled with jewelry stores and high-end cosmetics shops catering to nouveau-riche Mainland tourists. Many of these stores have displaced local family-run businesses, accounting for the Hong Konger populism, and even xenophobia, most prevalent in Mong Kok’s protests but increasingly exhibited elsewhere.

Protestors here, along with seeking self-determination, are tired of outrageous rents and a crowded, shrinking job pool—major areas of contention in Hong Kong that are often laid at the doorstep of Mainland real-estate developers and prospective workers from the Southern Chinese boomtowns of Shenzhen and Shanghai. While Mainland Chinese have brought much prosperity to Hong Kong, they have also increased the competition.

The home of Hong Kong’s triad-run Red Light District, the side streets of Mong Kok are where things get interesting. A disturbance kicks up and armed police move in to separate the clashing parties—the police have been more diligent about maintaining order since the triad-led attacks of a few days prior. The underworld, too, doesn’t like seeing business disrupted by closed streets and wary tourists. An old man with thinning white hair wearing a polo shirt and dirty shorts glares at the protesters and takes a swig of his beer; a bald guy in his late-fifties with a beer gut, peers over the railing near the MTR station while his buddies stand back and watch, laughing. Some of these guys remind me of my late grandfather, an eminently hard-assed man and veteran of several wars, while others look like China’s Archie Bunker. Protestors sing “Happy Birthday” in English and Chinese to any Blue-Ribbon who wants to mix it up, generally confusing the interloper until the situation fades or police arrive. Young kids run and play in the open street. There are plenty of female protesters, too. One, standing stock still and expressionless, holds a crude cardboard sign that reads, “I don’t need sex becoz the gov fuck me everyday.”

*                      *                     *

I arrive in Admiralty on the MTR from Mong Kok just as Scholarism leader Joshua Wong is speaking to the crowd. Joshua is the seventeen-year-old superstar of Occupy who has been profiled in magazines and newspapers across the world. He is a passionate speaker; a woman standing nearby roughly interprets his words: “Celebrities and others ask us to leave [Admiralty], but only the government can allow us to leave [through negotiations].” Later, news comes that the students and government have agreed to a format and timetable for talks to begin Friday, October 9. With the number of protesters dwindling more each day, I can’t say what concessions the students will be able to pry from Beijing’s intransigent grasp. I have my doubts the hardcores in Mong Kok will pay much heed either way.

The next evening, while sitting on a traffic divider under the Connaught Road overpass watching the goings-on, it occurs to me that all that I see will be gone soon.

The next evening, while sitting on a traffic divider under the Connaught Road overpass watching the goings-on, it occurs to me that all that I see will be gone soon: the picnicking couples; the supply and first aid tent volunteers; the little girls handing out fruit; the group of guys who charge phones with an industrial-size USB port and a power strip; the public restrooms freely stocked with toothpaste, soap, and shampoo; the clever, creative, funny art and signage; the shared spirit of camaraderie and kindness; the sense of hope. My fear is that the loss will account for nothing, and what a terrible message that would be for the world—that by being so nice, so charitable, so very themselves, the students have missed an opportunity to force real change. The “world’s politest protesters” win little respect from Beijing.

“I understand China’s government and politicians better than Hong Kong people; they treasure the stability of their power more than anything else, so I don’t think the Umbrella Revolution will have any real progress this time”

Emily, a coworker, is twenty-six and has a Master’s in Cultural Studies from Chinese University of Hong Kong. She’s from Beijing, but has lived in Hong Kong for eight years. I find her to be a thoughtful and funny person and I somewhat warily ask her for her impressions of Occupy Central over Gchat. She first expresses her neutrality, then, when I push the question to Hong Konger’s impressions of Mainlanders, she writes, “I moved to Hong Kong in 2006; at that time there weren’t many Chinese people living here, so the Hong Kong people were very nice to us, and the international environment and freedom of speech also attracted me. But in the past two or three years, too many Chinese travelers have come to Hong Kong and have affected local people’s lives, so I can understand their anger. On the other hand, I understand China’s government and politicians better than Hong Kong people; they treasure the stability of their power more than anything else, so I don’t think the Umbrella Revolution will have any real progress this time.” After a moment, another message comes through, “But I don’t like people being angry with each other just because of their disagreement about this event. If you want real democracy, you have to listen and respect different voices first.”

The massive front-page headline of the complimentary English-language newspaper in my office building reads, “MORE TRAFFIC MAYHEM AHEAD.” Proper news of the protest is relegated to the inside pages.

A June poll by Hong Kong University showed that substantially more residents of Hong Kong self-identify as “Hong Kong people” than as “Chinese.” The numbers were up from similar surveys in previous years and will likely continue to rise. Further anecdotal evidence is available in virtually every street and classroom of Hong Kong.

*                      *                     *

On the eve of negotiations between the government and the students, Deputy Carrie Lam abruptly calls off the talks. Hong Kong, and the world, is losing interest in the protesters, and perhaps government officials think they no longer need to negotiate. The massive front-page headline of the complimentary English-language newspaper in my office building reads, “MORE TRAFFIC MAYHEM AHEAD.” Proper news of the protest is relegated to the inside pages. Lam is perhaps also trying to further splinter the groups, which have been making a show of visible cooperation in recent days: she says that OCLP is partially responsible for the cancellation; that she intended negotiations to be limited to student groups. She says the government’s “trust is shaken;” a somewhat laughable prospect given the events—triad attacks, stalling tactics, new reports of CY Leung’s prodigious graft—of the past two weeks.

In Causeway Bay, Franz (“like Kafka or Schubert,” he says), a graduate student in his late-twenties, gives a lecture on Critical Thinking, or at least he’s trying to. His “indignation,” he says, made it a bit more political than he originally intended. In keeping with Causeway Bay’s youthful, more earnest character during Occupy Central, the closed street space is now used for lectures and classes on spoken English, Literature, Math, and a variety of other topics. A whiteboard with a class schedule stands on the side of the street nearby a book borrowing and donation library. After his class I ask him if he has heard the news about the talks. “Yes,” he says, “I don’t want to say anything discouraging, but everyone’s disappointed. The truth is they have the power.” Franz feels it may be hard to continue the protests, but “the students are not asking for anyone’s sympathy. This is a long-term movement.”

Others I talk to are unsurprised by the cancellation. They have little faith in their governance, which they feel lacks legitimacy. In fact, they seem surprised at my surprise over the government’s actions—it’s clear I don’t fully understand conditions to which they’re totally accustomed. In Admiralty, where blocks have been erected to cross over the highway dividers on Connaught and Harcourt Road, each dirty, boot-marked step reads “689,” the number of votes CY Leung received from the Beijing nominating committee (composed of 1,200 members) to take his post as Chief Executive—this in a city of over seven million.

The student and OCLP leaders call for a huge crowd in Admiralty Friday night to express their displeasure with the government’s refusal to negotiate. They ask protesters to bring tents and mattresses and prepare to occupy “every inch of the streets.” By 9 p.m. the crowd numbers well over ten thousand: the biggest turnout in several days by a good margin, yet it’s surprisingly sedate. Most in attendance are sitting on Connaught Road listening quietly to a series of volunteers, protest leaders, local pop and movie stars, academics, and supportive politicians share their memories of the past two weeks, rally present spirits, and plan for a way forward. Along with “long term occupation” and continued disobedience, the prospect of a 2017 “shadow election,”—the next time the Chief Executive post is open—open to all Hong Kongers, has been floated.

Yet again, the government’s plan to diffuse the protests has backfired. Further, their perplexing decisions put the police—men and women who have been working double shifts for two weeks—in the terrible situation of dealing with the continued fallout and frustration of the disruptions to Hong Kong life. The tension at the protest sites, particularly Mong Kok, is still high. The tram still doesn’t run—talks between students and transportation officials are ongoing to resume service (limited routes are expected soon, yet the Executive Committee can’t find the negotiation table)—and traffic’s a mess; exhausted police and angry Blue-Ribbons patrol the streets. The impression is that the capricious decision-making reflects the uncertainty and disagreement both within the local government and further to Beijing. It’s possible, given the unfeasibility of a brutal crackdown on such a visible, networked population, they simply don’t know what to do.

Late Friday night, the government press office announces CF Leung and his deputy Carrie Lam will be visiting an agricultural conference in Guangzhou until the middle of the following week. The Chinese city is a mere eighty miles away, which brings the necessity of a multi-night trip for the city’s two top leaders into question. That same night in Causeway Bay, a young man with an emo haircut and Nikes gives a late-night street Chemistry class to a few interested pupils.

*                      *                     *

Sunday afternoon in Causeway Bay a group of twenty or thirty pro-China protesters meet across a barricade against two or three times that number of their Occupy counterparts. Likely a hundred more Occupy protesters are spread around the rest of their site, sitting under tarps, chatting or playing on their phones, unconcerned with the confrontation. Dozens of tents have been erected in the last couple of days and Hennessey Road looks like an urban campground. Most in the pro-China crowd are men over fifty, though there are a few similarly aged women and younger people. Several wear Chinese flag t-shirts and blue baseball hats. They carry nicely printed yellow and red signs in Chinese along with a banner with the Chinese flag hovering over, and partially obscuring, a Hong Kong flag. “Respect your elders,” I am told they shout in Chinese. “We are Chinese and we should love China!”

Both sides of protesters and the police are well outnumbered by Sunday shoppers and curious onlookers snapping pictures of the signs and artwork, strung origami birds and umbrellas, or taking selfies with a police/Blue-Ribbon backdrop. There are multiple megaphones, an ever-shifting chorus of chants—all of it is in Chinese, but I gather it is quite ridiculous. Apparently one of the Blue-Ribbons is a 9/11-truther. Many onlookers, after listening for a while, walk away shaking their heads or giggling. The generation gap has never seemed so wide.

Twenty feet behind the gaggle of Blue-Ribbons, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charity booth, set off by puppy- and kitty-printed umbrellas, is taking donations and selling t-shirts and dog toys, along with the cutesy umbrellas. Not thirty feet to the left, Falun Gong—a quasi-religious group that has been furiously persecuted in China for over twenty years with many adherents now living in Hong Kong—is performing a mock-dissection. An old man in scrubs, facemask, and a hair-cover stands over a woman lying prone on a table, surgical tools raised in his hands. (Falun Gong and others are convinced their practitioners are kidnapped and tortured by Chinese authorities and their vital organs harvested.) Hong Kong-born movie star Jackie Chan spoke out against Occupy in recent days, and was roundly mocked for it, but I am reminded of something else he once said, also pejoratively. The sixty-year-old called Hong Kong, a “city of protest.” In many ways, this cacophony of thought, activity and opinion, this particularly free-speaking Hong Kong blend of massive-Asian-metropolis vitality and craziness, this city of protest, is exactly what the Occupiers are fighting for.

Erik Wennermark is a contributor who lives in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter.

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