Living History in Hong Kong

I’ve been in Hong Kong for about a month now and I’ve come to the decision that there is no better time to be living here. The protests have been in full swing for months now and I’ve no doubt that, in the future, they will be seen as a key point in the history of Hong Kong. As a student of history, the opportunity to experience a time-defining moment, such as this is something I’ve always idealised. Whenever I have heard the older generations tell stories of, for example, being in Berlin in 1989, it has always given me a desire to experience these unique phenomena myself. Now I’ll have my own – I lived in Hong Kong during ‘The Revolution of our Times’. I want to share with you my initial impressions of the protests, but before I do, I’ll briefly summarise the events so far.

What started the protests?

In March 2019, Carrie Lam and her government proposed a change to Hong Kong’s extradition laws which would allow China to extradite citizens back to the mainland. This was seen as a threat to the autonomy of Hong Kong. It leaves its citizens vulnerable to the Chinese judicial system and is considered a violation of the ‘one country, two systems’ pact upon which the current Sino-Hong Kong relationship is built upon. As a result, thousands of people took to the streets to protest.

What is happening now?

It is now September and the protests show no signs of slowing down. Every weekend  countless citizens don their black clothes and take to the streets chanting “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”. Protests have become increasingly violent as frustration with the stalemate grows: the police’s use of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets has become commonplace. Similarly, protestors creating large fires and throwing Molotov’s have become standard – although there are allegations the molotov’s have been thrown by disguised police who are looking to discredit the protests. Video’s have also been circulated of Chinese troops crossing into Hong Kong, escalating fears of further violence, but the CCP put this down to “routine rotation”. So far, it has merely been the police against the protestors and live ammunition has only been used on two occasions – both shots into the air in an attempt to force crowds to disperse. Let us hope it stays that way.

The movement has affected most areas of society: for the past two weeks students have boycotted university and secondary school, economic reports – particularly in retail & tourism – indicate a slowing in the economy, in early August the Hong Kong International Airport was shut down and MTR (metro) station closures have been frequent on weekends. These disruptions are a contributing factor to most of the protests now being declared illegal. As a result of this, many have been arrested for participating but there has been very little violent backlash from the protesters against this. There have been some cases of protesters losing their heads and partaking in senseless violence but this has been the anomaly. However, there have been multiple allegations of police brutality. For example, on the 31st August Police stormed the Prince Edward MTR station and videos have since emerged of them attacking unarmed people on the MTR. This has led to further demands from the protesters which is why, when Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill on the 4th September, this didn’t spell an end to the movement.

What are the demands?

The movement has five demands:

  • An independent inquiry into Police brutality.
  • Amnesty for all arrested protesters.
  • Removal of the term “riots” as a description of the unrest.
  • The reform of the political system allowing for democratic elections of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council.
  • Complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. (Achieved)

My experience:

I have been living in Hong Kong for almost a month now and in this time I’ve spoken to people from all walks of life, from students to taxi drivers, about the protests. I’ve also seen the demonstrations in action across the city and this has allowed me to make a few observations.

Firstly, there is an incredible sense of community around Hong Kong as everyone has united behind this common cause. One can just be walking around when a protest song starts being sung and it is amazing how many people sing along, both young and old. Whilst all of these will not be actively protesting – it appears protests are mainly the prerogative of youngsters – it seems that everyone supports the cause. I’ve met a lot of people who are protesting and all of them, without fail, have told me to stay safe out on the streets. Despite the violence, the atmosphere is caring, not hostile. Even when seeing the protests, once you’ve adjusted to the spectacle, it is not a place where you fear much for your own safety. I felt that I’d be safe amongst the protestors, the only fear is being caught in the Police crossfire, which I think speaks volumes about the honourable motives of this movement.

Secondly, as a Hong Kong University (HKU) student living in halls I’ve been fully immersed in the protest culture, there is no escaping it and it is incredible. I have become accustomed to hearing protest chants shouted from the accommodation buildings every night. In the bathroom you’re more than likely to hear the protest song being sung in the shower and there’s pro-protest articles on the toilet doors. On campus there is a monument that has recently been erected that is dedicated to the protests. Students spend their days on campus handing out leaflets about the protests and the words ‘5 demands, not one less’ have been spray painted onto one of the main walkways. What I find most striking about this is the bravery of ordinary young people, who are in the exact same life as I am. Being arrested is a very real outcome for those who go out to protest, and despite this, thousands protest every weekend. It is a fantastic show of solidarity that protestors continue to fight for the demands and stand with those who have been arrested.

Lastly, what I’ve been most impressed by, within the protests themselves, is the discipline. Despite the police brutality that was mentioned earlier, very few protesters appear to have lost their heads and acted irrationally. They’ve been going on for months now, there have been numerous arrests, it is a leaderless movement, yet they still attract thousands of people into largely non-violent, respectful protests. This video of a crowd of protesters dividing to let an ambulance through highlights this point perfectly.

What is going to happen:

I believe that the protests will continue. Having spoken to protesters they’ve expressed their dismay at how the 2014 Umbrella Movement fizzled out and there’s a conviction to ensure this protest does not end the same way, the spray paint on the HKU floor highlights this. Carrie Lam withdrawing the bill is too little too late, the protest has spread into a movement far greater than just the extradition bill. In fact, now she has withdrawn it she’s proved that these demonstrations do work. Thus, I believe the unrest will continue until further demands are met, or hopefully not, China forecfully intervene.

Fear of Chinese intervention has led to protestors increasingly looking to the international community for support. Joseph Wong, a key figure in the movement, is currently in Europe aiming to do this. In Berlin, he recently compared Hong Kong to Cold-War Berlin. There certainly are parallels to be drawn between the two situations, although I’d hesitate to say they’re a perfect analogy. Nonetheless, nations will fear being on the bad side of China – due to their economic power- the same way states once feared the Soviet Union, albeit for different reasons. This makes me doubt the likelihood of any international action that goes beyond verbal support, except potentially by the United States as Trump looks to continue to put China under pressure in his bid for them to embrace more free-market reforms.

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