On our way home after a few weeks in Laos, we stopped in Hong Kong to renew old acquaintances. Like many people, we follow HK’s pro-democracy movement and wished there was something we could do to show support. As it happened, a “police-approved” march was starting shortly after our plane landed so we checked in to our hotel, bought our “elder” Octopus cards, and headed for Victoria Park, the event’s start point. For a Sunday, even for HK, the underground seemed unusually crowded and most riders seemed to be wearing black. We were among the oldest but definitely not alone.
Five stops later, we got off at Tin Hau station just east of Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. On the train we met a young couple who filled us in on what to expect, told us to keep escape routes in mind and insisted on giving us a bottle of water in case we encountered tear gas or pepper spray. As this was an approved march, there was a lot of optimism that things might go well. As it happened, we didn’t see a single police officer at the march.
We joined a large river of people (200,000 plus) exiting the park onto the street and walked for some distance with the chanting crowd, no trouble in sight. There were lots of young people, some dressed for battle but most not, some parents with young children and lots of older folk like us. It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever witnessed. Hong Kong people have traditionally been concerned only with family, money and good food but that has changed and they are now politically woke. This was not a crowd of troublemakers but a crowd of quiet, modest people you’d be proud to have as children or friends. Hong Kong people want to continue living in freedom and see a very dark future if they don’t stand up now. It was a tremendously powerful sight.
We talked to many people along the way: a 20-year-old girl studying textile engineering who was there on her own, an older couple who insisted their adult son stay with his family so only 2/3 of their family would be at risk, an older woman who was crying under her mask and whose daughter’s school friend had mysteriously died after being detained. There were stories of terrible police brutality, of thousands of young detainees held incommunicado and without bail, of gang rapes of female prisoners and of one arrested girl, a competitive swimmer, whose naked body was found floating in HK harbour. There is a lot of anger at police, at government and at China, especially at their total lack of accountability. As a retired civil servant told us, the HK police had been well-respected members of the community — until recently regarded as the best police force in Asia — but trust is broken and they are now seen as a violent occupying army.
A recent losing candidate for HK’s legislature — a Beijing supporter — had his face plastered all over the tarmac so that he was trod upon and ground into the dirt. There was a bit of graffiti but not a lot. It doesn’t pretend to be art but contains serious political messages.
The democracy movement has created a lot of stress in HK society. Many Hong Kongers or their parents arrived as refugees in the ’50s and ’60s, escaping savage communist repression and politically-motivated starvation so there is a well-founded fear of the Chinese Communist Party. With the support of enlightened colonial officials, these proud Hong Kongers — that is how they identify, as opposed to “Chinese” — built a free, prosperous, and well-ordered society and they want to preserve it. Nonetheless, while authoritarian, repressive, one-party China is an enormous threat to Hong Kong’s future, the protests are an immediate challenge to public order, business and employment. It’s a difficult situation that creates many personal conflicts and divisions. Nonetheless, normal life continues and Hong Kong remains a safe, dynamic and exciting city.
We moved very little in the two hours we spent there. Occasionally, people would hold their arms up in an X and the crowd would reverse course to take pressure off the front. Suddenly the signal would change and everyone would start forward again. At one point an ambulance needed access and the crowd parted to allow it a full lane of travel. It was remarkable.
As the afternoon progressed we learned that police had tear-gassed marchers halfway along the route. A human chain was formed and equipment — umbrellas, helmets and masks — was quickly passed two km down the line to where it was needed. It was a remarkable process and happened very fast. Fellow marchers became concerned and advised us to leave so we retraced our steps, got on the train and headed back to our hotel. During the evening, police buses were seen throughout Hong Kong and many arrests were reported.
It was an honour to be there, to see history being made and to witness Hong Kong people standing up for their rights and their futures. Things don’t look too good in the world but Hong Kong’s democracy movement is a bright light in all the gloom.
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