It started with an extradition bill (now shelved) which would allow suspected criminals be brought into China for interrogation. During peaceful demonstrations against the bill, Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and sprayed protesters with tear gas, which prompted a rightfully angry reaction from the public. In August, a mass sit-in at the Hong Kong airport caused disruption. Flying in from summer holidays just hours before the airport closure, I was confronted by a group of young protesters handing out pamphlets and welcoming me to their city. I wanted to yell at them ‘this is my city too!’ It’s where I live, but is it really mine?
After assuring all of our friends and family back home that we were fine, we continued to watch it play out, sympathising with their plight while we went about our daily routine. By the end of August, the protestors had put together their 5 key demands. 1. full withdrawal of the extradition bill; 2. a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality; 3. Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”; 4. Amnesty for arrested protesters; 5. universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive (at the moment only half the seats in the governing body are elected).
In the two months since then, the Government has conceded on the first point only, and Hong Kong has seen further protests, riots, police brutality, a rather vague ‘Community Dialogue’ from Chief Executive Carrie Lam in September which did nothing to appease the public, and escalating disruption and unrest. The movement has exploded into both large scale organised demonstrations and impromptu marches which often result in violent skirmishes scattered around the city, mostly near the MTR (subway) stations.
This week, in an effort to restore order, the Government implemented an edict to ban all face masks. How this was supposed to restore order is a question that remains. The decision incited so much ire, that both students and office workers took to the streets Friday night, blocking roads in central donning masks in direct contravention of the law. Overnight, shops, banks and stations were destroyed and burnt in acts of desperation and rage. A 14 year old boy was shot in the leg. An undercover policeman was set on fire. On Sunday a taxi drove into demonstrators and put a woman into hospital. He was subsequently dragged from his car and curb-stomped by an angry mob who witnessed the scene. So much for restoring order.
It now seems to have gone to a point of no return. Police are arming themselves and using more force as the protesters become more violent. Radical mobs are attacking police and undercover police are attacking rioters. The protesters have now undermined their position for securing #3 and #4 of their demands (or quite possibly all of them) and the government seems determined let the anger burn out while they do nothing to quell the growing rage. Meanwhile, the world waits to see what happens next.
I have had many messages, thoughts and prayers from family and friends in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US wondering if we are OK and what is happening. As expats living just outside the city, the protests rarely affect us directly. Sure, there are days it’s harder to get in or out of the office because traffic is disrupted. We have instructed our teenage boys to take taxis instead of the MTR at night, not wear black in case they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and mistaken for protesters, and stay away from certain parts of the city in the evenings where there is always trouble. Other than that, we are not physically affected. As I write this, I am looking out over the aqua marine South China Sea watching the boats chug by as usual. Behind me in the jungle where we take the dog for a walk and the only disturbance I have encountered in the last 48 hours was a sleepy wild boar roaming across the path.
But I think about it constantly, like a low-level cloud hovering over my mind. I know it’s happening right beside me, a few kilometers, a few city blocks away. There is anger and palpable tension in the air and it is exhausting. I work in an office where the majority of the team are local so most of the daily conversation revolves around what is happening in the city. I have just had another Police Appeal texted to my phone this second (it feels very George Orwellian to have the police intercept our phones and send direct messages: POLICE APPEAL. UNAUTHORISED PUBLIC EVENTS EXPECT TODAY WILL LIKELY CAUSE VIOLENCE AND DISRUPTIONS. PLEASE STAY ALERT AND AVOID GOING OUT. )
The whole thing is emotionally draining, and breaks my heart watching this city tear itself apart. Listening to the chatter, opinions are divided on whether it’s a fight they can win, and after this weekend’s violence, public sentiment seems to be turning against the radicalised component of the protest. Some feel this is just a bunch of naive students raging against the machine. Others are just really fed up with the disruption to their routine. The city’s economy is being hurt by this, and for many, their patience is wearing thin and they would quite like to get on with business.
On the other hand, there are those who feel that this is the most important moment for Hong Kong. In 1997, Britain handed back the land to China in accordance with the agreement of their lease, with a 50-year buffer period where Hong Kong would be governed under the principal of ‘one country, two systems’, hence the SAR (Special Administrative Region). Every year closer to that date, the region feels the grasp of the country’s government tighten, and this frightens them. With every new law, every new act of government, Hong Kongers are on heightened alert for anything that seems like an infringement on their rights as free citizens.
And so here we are. Every historical moment has a consequence, and Hong Kong is still feeling the repercussions of the Treaty of Nanking (Google it and it will give you some understanding). Arguably, there are many other moments in history that have lead to this, but the point is, Hong Kong was ceded to the British where it was ruled under one system and they gave it back (with conditions) to China which is ruled under a very different one, and now it’s messy.
There is no clear solution to this and it is difficult to see how or when it ends. So for us and many other expats who have built a life here in Hong Kong, we will continue to live as outsiders in our own home, observing people fighting in the streets for something they believe in, with our fingers very close to the eject button. And for what it’s worth, even if it is all in vain, we along with the rest of the world continue to watch them rage against the machine.