Ernie goes to the Streets (June 2019)

Hong Kong June 2019-11

Hong Kong Remembers

Hong Kong is a city that remembers. Underneath the neon lights, the glass towers, the fast-paced lifestyle, and the infamously gruff service attitude is a stubborn belief in the exceptionalism of the city within the national context. So thirty years after the PLA’s tanks rumbled down the wide lanes of Chang’an Avenue, thousands of Hong Kongers still gather at Victoria Park to take up the unique burden of remembrance. Outside of Hong Kong there are gatherings here and there, mostly attended by the city’s scattered diaspora, but, for all intents and purposes, this is the last place on earth to consciously remember what happened in the early hours of June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square.

Some years the burden seems to rest a little lighter – like when the crowds averaged just 40,000 to 50,000 throughout most of the 2000s – but that figure has climbed to average around 150,000 in the last decade. The reasons are myriad and not really something I want to get into here, but suffice to say that actions stemming from across the border have made Hong Kongers increasingly concerned over Chinese government encroachment into their small territory. The latest such catalyst was the extradition bill put forward by Hong Kong’s chief executive earlier this year. Framed as nothing more than a procedural plug for a legal loophole, the bill quickly generated massive opposition from all corners of civil society and had already seen two protests in March and April, the latter event drawing a crowd of 130,000 – the largest protest since 2014.

That was the backdrop to this year’s June 4 vigil, when 180,000 people crowded into the football pitches and basketball courts of Victoria Park on an exceedingly warm summer’s evening. There were the usual speeches and video presentations by local democratic lawmakers and those who had participated in the Tiananmen Square protests thirty years ago, the stunning Causeway Bay skyline framing the background, but there was a palpable tension, or some other layer of emotion, running through the event as well. As Ashley and I walked back to our apartment, booths manned by civil groups and political parties blared out into the crowd that there would be a protest on Sunday against the extradition bill, exhorting the passing crowd to join in the march.

I honestly thought nothing of it. Having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, it’s easy to get numb to the amount of protests and marches for various causes that jam up the city’s arteries every other weekend. My hardened heart had perhaps already accepted the inevitability of the bill’s passage, I hate to admit, and the current leadership in power had thus far shown little to no interest in the concerns of the people. I also had doubts about how many people would actually show up to march through muggy city streets in the midst of a Hong Kong summer. And then 3000 of the city’s top legal professionals and academics showed up two days later in a silent protest against the bill, marching from the Court of Final Appeal to government headquarters in Admiralty. It was both the largest protest ever from the city’s renowned legal sector, and the first time it was protesting legislation, and though I still didn’t have high expectations for the coming Sunday, it was enough to make me think that perhaps there was more happening here than meets the eye (or my eyes at least).

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One Million for Justice

That Sunday afternoon, Ashley and I looked down from our living room apartment to the streets below, watching in amazement as a slow trickle of protesters grew into a massive crowd in a matter of minutes, overwhelming first one side of King’s Road and then the other. The police had blocked off sections of the road, ostensibly for reasons of crowd management, but we could hear through the walls of our apartment the cries of the masses gathered below, chanting in Cantonese, “open the road, open the road!”

It became unbearable for us to watch the city fight for its future from the sidelines, and we went down to the streets to join the march, Miles strapped securely to my chest. The crowd was dressed all in white to represent justice, and it was an incredible sight. Rumours began trickling in that this had the potential to be the largest protest in the history of Hong Kong, surpassing the 500,000-strong march in 2003 against a proposed anti-subversion national security law. And then videos and photos of the march started popping up on newsfeeds, showing a sea of people stretching from Admiralty, the end point of the march, to Tin Hau, with more still joining the protest from side streets and bubbling up from MTR stations along the route. I’m only posting photos here that I took myself, but there are some truly jaw-dropping images out there that show just how mind-bogglingly large the march was. The final tally that day: 1 million, or nearly 1 out of  every 7 Hong Kongers.

Despite the record-setting protest, the government dug its heels in, announcing later that evening that the bill reading would take place as planned on June 12. And thus the stage was set for the week ahead.

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The Young and the Restless

Following the Sunday protest, a smaller crowd remained outside the government headquarters, and I didn’t really pay much attention to what was happening there at first. I knew there’d likely be a larger protest again on Wednesday, June 12, the date of the bill reading, but, again, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of crowd size and whatnot. As I was leaving work on Tuesday evening, however, my office sent out a notice to all employees regarding the ongoing protest, and we were given the option of working from home. That same evening, thousands of the city’s youths gathered in nearby Tamar Park for what was described as a “picnic”, while another crowd closer to the government headquarters sang hymns and prayed together. This would go on to be one of the strangest partnerships throughout the protest: the city’s hardcore Christian demographic, and the largely areligious, internet-savvy meme generation. Later on in the week, as the violence escalated, Christian youths would become famous for singing the hymn Sing Hallelujah to the Lord at the protest, and that song would become one of the unofficial anthems of the cause, regardless of religious affiliation.

Anyway, I digress. By the next morning, the crowd in Admiralty had grown, and at some point they took over Harcourt Road, in a scene very reminiscent of Occupy Central protests of 2014. Having worked from home in the morning, I headed over to the protest site on my way into the office in the afternoon. I got off at Central MTR station and walked back towards the government buildings, cutting across Statue Square and Chater Garden. As I crested the ramp on Harcourt Road, an amazing scene opened up in front of me: thousands of people, mostly youths and young adults, as far as the eye could see, flooding the roadways like a tidal wave of ideals and stubborn hope. Teams of two walked throughout the crowd collecting trash, while others handed out water, snacks, face masks, and other necessities. On the margins, youths beckoned passersby to join their cause, and more than a few accepted the invitation and climbed over the concrete barriers to take their position.

When I got back to the office later that afternoon, I opened up a live feed on my phone, only to witness scenes that are now famous around the world – tear gas being shot indiscriminately into crowds, rubber bullets slamming into faces, black-clad riot police beating protesters with batons and shields, broken umbrellas and face masks littering the streets. I had planned to visit the protest again after work, but the situation had taken a definite turn for the worse, so when I packed up my things I was fully prepared to take the MTR straight home. As I walked through the calm streets of Central, however, surrounded by tailored suits and expensive dresses, I couldn’t quite reconcile the slightly surreal juxtaposition of “business-as-usual” in the financial district while youths struggled against tear gas and state-sponsored violence just a few blocks over. I’m not sure what it was – respect for the protesters, respect for the city, respect for myself – but I decided that I could not just ignore the scenes I’d watched unfold on my phone from the safety of my office tower just a few minutes beforehand. My decision was solidified the closer I got to Admiralty as groups of young protesters staggered past clutching helmets and face masks, taking a breather underneath the serene skyscrapers of Central.

The tear gas wafting in from not-so-distant clashes stung my nose and eyes, yet the thing that has stayed with me since that day was not the physical sense of discomfort or pain, but my admiration for these youths fighting for justice and how they went about doing it. There were no mad stampedes or out-of-control mobs – just regular kids volunteering to keep an eye on where the violence was and directing the crowds strategically up one street or down another. Appeals for medicine were passed down the grapevine and answered by strangers, while volunteers walked around with bottles of water to help fellow protesters flush out the remnants of chemical agents. When an older gentleman got into an argument with a protester, a crowd gathered around pleading for calm and reminding each other of the larger cause. It was utterly beautiful.

After I left, things deteriorated further. The reading of the bill was suspended, but the heavy-handed tactics of the police were ultimately successful in clearing the roads. In the age of social media and smart phones, however, there’s no escaping the eyes of the people – and there were a lot of witnesses. Even the media covering the protest weren’t immune from the actions of the police, and the next day, when the police held a news conference to explain their actions, it was with no small amount of pride in my fellow journalists that they showed up in full protest gear to register their disapproval. Never underestimate the troll game of Hong Kongers. To make matters worse, the police commissioner labeled the protest a riot, a significant shift in semantics that turned a legal protest into a criminal activity.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, conducted a disastrous television interview as well, and it was like fuel to the flame. Expressing no remorse for her actions and the actions of the police force, and refusing to even consider withdrawing the extradition bill, she went on to describe the protesters as unruly children. So, on the evening of June 14, 6000 mothers gathered in Chater Garden to protest the bill and call for the chief executive’s resignation. Indignant at being referred to as children, and furious at the violence shown towards their own, they brought their own brand of outrage into the volatile mix – how dare Carrie Lam defend the police that attacked their children, and how dare she claim the moral high ground of a mother. So by this point we’ve had protests by lawyers, journalists, mothers, youths, 1 million Hong Kongers, as well as various business groups in the city – and still the government refused to budge.

June 15 brought more somber news – a man clad in a yellow raincoat had fallen to his death from construction scaffolding on the Pacific Place shopping mall in Admiralty, after putting up a sign with a list of demands regarding the extradition bill. It was ruled a suicide, and the people of Hong Kong began to hail him as a martyr. By this point, the government had said that it would be suspending the bill – a minor victory, yes, but the original call had been for complete withdrawal. The police commissioner’s categorisation of the protest as a riot was another sore point, which was further exacerbated when it became known that the police had arrested protesters at hospitals where they were receiving treatment. So then, all the pieces were in place for June 16.

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Two Million in Black

To be completely honest, I had my doubts about whether this protest would match the turnout from the previous Sunday’s march. One million people is an astounding number, and I just didn’t think we’d see that again. I also kind of thought that maybe people would have protest fatigue, that the events of the past week had so exhausted the public’s capacity to demonstrate that of course there would be some sort of regression.

But the people of Hong Kong are amazing. You would think there’d be no way more than 1 in 7 people in the city would come out, like they did the week before. And you’d think that possibly the violence enacted on the protesters in the middle of the week would make some people think twice. I certainly harboured a little of both – and I was dead wrong. Two million mother-effing Hong Kongers dressed in black marched through the streets of Hong Kong one more time, spilling over into three other major thoroughfares through the heart of the city, and not one step out of place. Again, there are incredible, beautiful, and awe-inspiring photos of the June 16 march out there, and those photos have to be seen to be believed. We only marched with the crowd from Tin Hau to Causeway Bay because we needed to stick to Miles’ schedule, but we watched the live feed afterwards at home and my heart was more than full.

This was nearly one-third of the city coming out on a Sunday afternoon to say to the government that suspension of the bill was not even close to being enough. But it was also the city – the mothers and fathers, the journalists and civil servants, the lawmakers and the bureaucrats, the students and the retired, the young and the old – coming out and saying to the youths that had been beaten and battered during the week, “We see you. We are with you. Thank-you for keeping the protest alive while we were at work and school and taking care of our families. We’re back and we’re mad as hell, and you’re not alone anymore. And we brought everyone with us.” It was like the scene at the end of Endgame (spoiler alert!) when the portals open up at just the right moment, bringing thousands of heroes back into the fight when all hope was lost. I think about this and I honestly get teary-eyed. Hong Kong really came through – the city saw it, the world saw, and the government sure as hell saw it.

A government apology was disseminated while the second Sunday protest was going on, but it was largely dismissed as being impersonal and inadequate. The protesters’ demands, or I should say Hong Kong’s demands, were not met, and it wasn’t until a second police press conference on Monday that the commissioner backtracked and said that the protest was not a riot. Carrie Lam finally appeared in public on Tuesday afternoon to apologise live, but, again, the consensus seems to be that she still did not address the actual concerns of the people. The extradition bill is as good as dead according to political commentators, but the significance of a complete withdrawal to Hong Kongers cannot be overstated.

That’s where things stand.

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I Remember

It’s been an incredible week-and-a-half in Hong Kong, one worth remembering. I didn’t get all the details in there, and I may not have gotten all the details right, but these are the moments that stood out to me throughout the past few days. Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the days ahead. The violent protests a week ago galvanised the city to march in record numbers for a second straight Sunday, but I’m not sure if the more conservative members of the protest can stomach any more violence, even if they support the cause. It was a perfect storm of people power, government incompetence, and global attention that drove the momentum of last week, and I don’t know if that can be replicated – but I’ve been proven wrong before. In any case, I decided to write all of this out to help process my emotions in my heart and in my head, and I hope to revisit this later with some distance. It has been a hard and trying week for the city, but also one that has showcased its brilliant beauty and inspiration to the world. Never change, Hong Kong.

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