« A Walk In Hong Kong
08.30.2019

A Week With No Tear Gas

Saturday, August 11

On Saturday I went to join the march up in To Kwa Wan. Throughout August, the police had been growing more skittish about granting the once routine “no objection” letters that make a protest legal. They had limited this march to a brief route through a residential area, ending at the Whampoa MTR station.

Like all the protests that manage to obtain police permission, this was a family affair, with people of all ages attending, and some couples pushing strollers. Early on we turned a corner and encountered a police van parked along the road. The young cops behind the barred windows looked like unhappy cats in a carrier. Some in the crowd jeered them for breaking the law (it’s illegal to idle your engine in a parked vehicle), which has been a recurring theme in these protests- the police break the rules they expect everyone else to follow. But the marchers left the frightened cops alone.

Residents of the neighborhood had set up a station to offer water and juice to the passing protesters. Some people stopped to flip off the police station looming over the opposite side of the road, or to yell curses at officers looking from the high windows. For better or worse, the police have become a proxy for Hong Kong’s chief executive, who has been hiding from the public all summer. They are the only point of contact between an absentee government and a furious public, and their most frequent counterargument is tear gas.

At the official terminus of the march, residents had put up a sign reminding police that the residential complex we were in was private property, where they were not welcome. Those who were not ready to go home milled around the MTR station; it was clear that the march would not end here. Soon enough, the first black-clad marchers struck out, and the rest of the waiting group fell into line.

For the next hour or two, we meandered through industrial and residential streets far from the tourist parts of Kowloon. There were no police in sight, but at one point we blundered into a cloud of durian, far more noxious than tear gas, emanating from a nearby fruit stall.

When it began to rain, a young man insisted on walking next to me with his umbrella. All I could get out of him in bashful English was that he was 17, a student, and wanted me to be careful. He walked with me for three miles.

I wanted him to be careful, too.

Sunday, August 18

It had been a tumultuous few days in the protests. The previous weekend, on August 11, a young medic had lost the sight in her eye when police fired a bean bag round at her face from a shotgun at close range. Her horrifying injury immediately became a symbol of the entire protest movement. That same night, police had fired tear gas rounds into an MTR station, an extremely dangerous act. Photographs showed police firing the tear gas rounds nearly horizontally and at close range, in a clear violation of safety procedure.

Appalled by these acts of violence, demonstrators had occupied and shut down the international airport on August 12, and then again on August 13, the second time detaining and roughing up a suspected undercover cop and a journalist, both from mainland China. The press campaign labeling them as violent extremists ramped up in turn. By the end of the week, it was clear that everything was building up to the August 18 rally.

Today’s protest was widely anticipated as a kind of litmus test of popular support. A group called the Civil Human Rights Front had organized two previous rallies in June that had brought out an estimated 1 and 2 million people respectively (there are 7 million people in Hong Kong). Now we would see if that support had diminished after eleven weeks of tear gas and escalating clashes with police.

The police had granted protesters permission to assemble, but refused to let us march, citing safety. The official line was still that protesters were out-of-control rioters who would destroy everything in their path if allowed to roam free in the city. This impression has been cultivated by weeks of propaganda on state Chinese media like Xinhua (served in ads on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) depicting the protesters as a fringe, radical element. Xinhua had even referred to the protesters as cockroaches, and published an editorial cartoon to that effect.

Hong Kong is saddled with a draconian riot law, a leftover from British colonial rule. If three or more people gather in an unlawful assembly, and one of them commits a breach of the peace, every participant can be sent to jail for up to ten years. So even if a million people showed up, the restriction on marching had to be taken seriously.

As the park filled up, the organizers explained the strategy for circumventing the police ban. Once the park was completely full, the organizers could ask the police to shut the surrounding streets on the grounds of public safety. They would then designate safe routes into and out of the area. People in the park would be asked to make way for new arrivals, until everyone who wanted had a chance to attend the protest. This would turn the stationary rally into a de facto march without violating the police order.

Even before the 2 PM start time, the park was close to full. It was a happy crowd. Some enterprising person had updated a plaster replica of the Goddess of Democracy, the famous statue from the 1989 Tiananmen protests, to give her a yellow hard hat, goggles, umbrella, and bleeding eye. Other people were inflating and handing out macabre little white balloons in the shape of an eyeball, complete with a black circle for the iris. One daring person had brought a large Chinese flag into the park and was waving it back and forth, but the demonstrators sensibly left them alone.

Around two o’clock, the organizers announced that the MTR was curtailing train service at the two nearest stations. This was reassuring. If Hong Kong’s public transit system was struggling, then a truly staggering number of people must be en route to the event.

Soon after that, the organizers told us the park was officially full. To general mirth, they also announced that the government had issued a statement expressing regret at the “violent anti-police rhetoric” of the day’s protest. And that was the last we heard from the government.

Why There Are Protests

China wants to eat Hong Kong. That is what these protests are about.

There is a more specific extradition law that set events into motion this summer. You can find a wonderful visual explanation of it here, along with some of the subsequent events that galvanized the city. And the focus of the protests has expanded over the weeks to center on the behavior of the police, including sexual violence (an enormous and heart-wrenching #metoo protest two nights ago brought out story after story from brave women). The protests are also calling out long-term inequities in a city where it is almost impossible to find housing. With the city abandoned by its government, all kinds of grievances find their voice in this popular movement, the only outlet through which Hong Kongers can now express their frustration.

But ultimately, the issue is China. A treaty with Great Britain guarantees Hong Kong autonomy until 2047, under the slogan “One Country, Two Systems”, but that autonomy is being challenged by an impatient, authoritarian regime. It is now clear that the city’s Chief Executive does not have freedom of action, and must follow instructions from the mainland. Hong Kongers had to choose whether to fight or let themselves be absorbed into China. They have chosen to fight.

If this were a normal city, China could use its vast toolkit of repression and shut the protests down with ease. The United Kingdom, the other signatory of the 1997 treaty, is busy imploding into the black hole of Brexit, and is in no condition to put up a fuss. The international community might denounce China’s actions in Hong Kong, but it has let China get away with far worse crimes in Xinjiang, and would undoubtedly find a way to accept the new status quo.

But Hong Kong is China’s financial gateway. International finance does not want to do business under Chinese law, and any direct interference carries the risk of scaring off the bankers. Two thirds of direct investment in China comes through Hong Kong, and this role is contingent on maintaining Hong Kong’s independent legal system and free and open access to global markets. Those institutions, once damaged, can’t be credibly restored.

China has tried in the past to set up an alternative financial center in Shanghai. These days it is trying to promote a concept called the Greater Bay Area that would entangle Hong Kong with nearby cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. But the global financial system wants what it wants - an autonomous Hong Kong.

In a weird way, the high level of corruption in the Chinese ruling class adds another layer of protection. Powerful people in China need somewhere to launder their loot, and that place is Hong Kong. A lot of shady money is either tied up in Hong Kong, or flows through it, and there is no obvious alternative way to turn suitcases full of renminbi into hard currency. You might say that there are both macro- and microeconomic incentives to not wreck the city’s unique role as the Mt. Gox of the Chinese economy, a place where the country’s idiosyncratic currency can be turned into something that one might actually use to buy a Tuscan villa.

What no one outside of Xi Jinping’s head can know is how strong a shield this is against direct Chinese intervention. The People’s Armed Police has made a public show of training just over the border in Shenzhen. On October 1, China will celebrate its 70th anniversary with a great military parade in Beijing. Life in the mainland is already shutting down for this bit of militaristic onanism- entire factories have been shuttered to ensure clean skies for the event. It is difficult to envision the unrest in Hong Kong being allowed to persist in its current form through National Day. It is also difficult to envision China destroying the value of Hong Kong by intervening here directly. But one of these things must happen.

The young, educated people at the core of the protest movement understand that they have passed a point of no return. If they can face down China, they may be able to keep Hong Kong autonomous for a few more years, perhaps long enough for the climate of repression on the mainland itself to ease. If the protest movement is defeated, then the participants will be arrested and imprisoned, one by one, for participating in the protests. The Hong Kong government, led by their masters in Beijing, will make sure that no large popular movement can ever arise in Hong Kong again.

Rain

Back in the park, dark clouds have gathered over the protest in a bit of obvious symbolism. The organizers instruct everyone to be patient, as a great number of people have clogged the surrounding roads. As they are speaking, I feel three fat drops of rain tap my shoulder, like the sky is trying to get my attention.

The next few seconds pass by like a dream. Half a million umbrellas spring open with a dramatic whoosh. An instant later, the heavens let us have it. We are like Spartans linking shields against a hail of stones, the rain falling in such tropical abundance that it’s not even possible to shout across to your neighbor over the noise. There is no sense in which the umbrellas keep anyone dry-they can only protect against the impact of this celestial flood. The rain ricochets around underneath them, like one of those fancy hotel showers that fires water at you from odd angles. Every so often a small river pours off of someone’s umbrella and finds a gap between my neck and collar. The water collects at everyone’s feet, soaking up into our shoes.

Then the deluge turns into a regular rainstorm, and it rains for the next seven hours.

What was a mass protest now feels like an intimate gathering. Under the umbrellas you can only see a few people around you, their faces tinted by the color of the fabric overhead. One of my neighbors has an umbrella patterned like a watermelon slice; another has a tan one with white letters reading OH SHIT IT’S RAINING. Yes it is.

It takes my little group two hours to shuffle from the center of the park to a position roughly in line with Queen Victoria’s nose, a distance of less than two hundred meters.

The police have refused to designate routes into and out of the park, so currents of people try to pass through one another. Whenever there is a chance, our little group takes one step, or two, and then waits again. The only people who can move with speed are volunteer medics, who the crowd summons with yelling and crossed forearms whenever someone is feeling unwell.

A juice box is passed back to me from some unknown benefactor up front. The cell phone network is struggling. I have noticed that there are no portable toilets at this protest, and ask my local companion what the vast crowd is supposed to do if nature calls. She points out the rows of clean, functional public toilets that are a permanent fixture at either end of the park. Right; of course. This is Hong Kong.

A kid in a stroller near me is peacefully asleep, shielded from the rain by a clear plastic tent. She’s the only dry person in sight. After another half hour, our stop-and-go motion becomes a slow shuffle. Someone up ahead hoists a banner reading “MORAL BOUNDARY - DO NOT CROSS”, a parody of the British-era colored flags police here still raise to warn that they are going to shoot you.

I realize that I have been feeling a weird sensation, almost like my jaw is tightening and my forearms are being pulled towards my body. It’s not frightening enough to call for first aid, but it bothers me, especially because there seems to be something weirdly familiar about it, a memory I can’t quite summon.

Then it hits me - I’m cold. The rain has dragged cool air down with it. Like Lazarus bringing the cooling drop to the rich man in torment, the heavens have granted me a moment of respite. For the first time in weeks, I’m dripping with water that isn’t part of a frantic effort on the part of my body to save my life.

All that day and into the night, some large fraction of the city’s population moves through Victoria Park. Turnout numbers have also become a weapon in the Hong Kong protests. The organizers will estimate the attendance on this violently rainy day at 1.7 million. The police claim 138,000, but they refuse to count anyone outside the boundaries of the park, which is like pouring a bucket of milk into a glass and then announcing that there was only one glass in the bucket (forgive the liquid metaphors, but rain is all I can think of).

After denouncing this march, the government and police are nowhere in sight. Perhaps hoping that the crowd will get unruly, maybe even believing their own lies about the protests, the authorities abandon the city to the marchers entirely.

And the marchers, in a gesture of the most profound contempt, leave the city untouched and spotless at day’s end.

2019 Tactics

The memory of 2014 umbrella protests, and how they failed, shapes how people approach the protests of 2019 (you can find an excellent essay on this topic here). Even the youngest students, just kids at the time, are aware of these lessons. The 2014 protests lost momentum when its leaders were arrested, so this protest stays leaderless, coordinated over social media by small groups. You can think of this as “Twitch plays protest” - a series of individual decisions that coalesce into what is sometimes a very subtle grand strategy.

In the 2014 protests, demonstrators occupied central Hong Kong. The protests this summer take place on weekends, and move from neighborhood or neighborhood, including the New Territories and parts of the city that have not traditionally been the locus of demonstrations. People only have to look out their window (or wince at the tear gas coming through it) to see how the police treat their fellow citizens.

The 2019 protests have also learned a more controversial lesson from 2014- that non-violent protest is not enough. When frontline fighters broke into the Legislative Council in June, they spray-painted "It was you who taught me peaceful marches did not work" on one of the columns. And they had a point. While the break-in struck commentators at the time as a strategic disaster, it won a key concession, ending all efforts to pass the hated extradition law.

The insistence on unity between the frontline protesters and the majority “rational, peaceful, non-violent” faction may be the most fascinating dynamic in the protest movement this summer.

The groups disagree on tactics, but are each committed to the principle that they will not allow themselves to be divided. There is immense tolerance of tactical differences that would fracture other movements. The nonviolent majority will show up to events that they know will turn into a clash with the police, to show support for the frontliners. And the frontliners, even when they arrive in full gear, will disband after certain peaceful protests. It is not an easy thing to ask desperate, amped-up young people to hold back after eleven weeks of street fighting. But they can do it.

In this respect, the protesters have weaponized a civic virtue of Hong Kong, a sense of general responsibility and social order that extends beyond individual desires. I have noticed that protesters who talk to the press about their beliefs express them in the language of care. One of the greatest risks in the protests is arrest, which can have career-destroying consequences. The frontliners form a literal barrier between the police and the other demonstrators, putting themselves in danger to protect the great mass of people from arrest and beatings. They see that role as protective, even when it involves violent confrontation with the police.

In turn, the peaceful faction recognizes the moral and physical burden that the frontliners have to bear, and supports them with supplies, moral support, and by showing up at the protests in numbers. While the frontliners are fewer in number, their voice carries weight, because they bear a disproportionate share of the risk. There is a respect between the two sides, and a sense of mutual protection. Despite the lack of central leadership, the factions coexist and mostly succeed in maintaining their cherished value of unity.

Part of the reason this formula works is the intransigence of their opponents. The government cedes nothing, the police predictably escalate every confrontation, and Beijing appears to have lost what was once a deft touch. So there has been no serious crisis to test the alliance between factions.

Confrontation

It is well after dark when I finally make it past Wan Chai station, which is slowly absorbing tens of thousands of marchers into the ground. West of Wan Chai it is possible to walk normally, albeit still in a large crowd. I have never been less dry in my life, and that includes the nine months I spent in the womb.

Spotting a noodle shop that has stayed open, I duck inside and eat a hot bowl of something amazing. My right hand, which held my umbrella for most of the day, is puffy and disfigured from being soaked in water. I linger over the meal, just to be off my feet, but even an hour later the river of people outside is undiminished. Some are walking as far as Central or further to avoid the extreme congestion at stations closer in; others loop back towards Victoria Park again, to keep up the numbers.

Since I am near my hotel, I head there and slip out of my wet clothing with the grace of an elderly snake trying to shed its final skin. My socks and toes have been stained dark blue from standing all day in water. The protest posters in my backpack are a wet mass of mucilage.

Against all reason, I force myself to go back outside, to see what is happening at the police station on Harcourt Road. This has been a special focus of protesters’ ire, and if anyone decides to mix it up with police tonight, it is likely to happen there.

On Harcourt Road, all traffic has stopped. Several hundred frontliners are milling around between the MTR station and the police building. Many are just relaxing after an emotional day, not quite ready to go home, but closer to the police station I see groups of amped-up demonstrators in full gear, gas masks on, deciding what their next step should be. They have been waiting for over a week now to confront police, and this is their last chance to do it.

Every time a vehicle moves into the police compound, it is booed, and bright lasers paint the face of each cop walking into and out of the building. Plainclothes cops get called out with special harshness. The police ignore the protesters entirely.

I watch a line of first aid volunteers link arms across the road and try to herd some frontliners towards the MTR station, while another volunteer begs them to go home. Some listen, many don’t. A huddle of masked figures confers below me, debating what to do next. One of them looks up and sees me watching. A spy! They zap me in the chest with lasers until I make a sign of contrition and move away.

Several other groups are conferring near the police fence. One of them breaks up and walks to the MTR station, ready to go home. Others are undecided.

By eleven or so, only a core of the most agitated protesters remains, along with the press, who are hungry for conflict. There is some yelling going on between two groups, and at some point a large kid in white lunges past me to throw a punch at a skinny frontliner. The waiting reporters descend on the scuffle like vultures, surrounding it in a pyramid of selfie sticks, cameras, and yellow vests as the scrum moves quickly down the road. One reporter kicks me in a clumsy attempt to vault over a concrete divider, the only time I’ve been hit in all the Hong Kong protests.

I can’t bear to stay and watch the fight. We came so close to a conflict-free weekend, but now it looks like it will end in violence, and be exploited by the authorities as proof that the protesters are out of control. People on Twitter have been counting down to midnight, incredulous at the idea of a weekend with no tear gas, the first since the protests started. It seems like the opportunity for a great moral victory is slipping away, a chance to humiliate the police and discredit the lying government.

Feeling frustrated and tired, I walk back to my hotel, where I learn from Twitter that Harcourt road is empty. The fight ended, the first aid group made a final plea for everyone to leave, and the frontliners listened. Some combination of social media, personal pleading, sense of duty, and whatever alchemy keeps these protests going convinced the angry fighters to do the hardest thing a young person can do in such a conflict-go home.

And that's when I understood the Hong Kongers may actually win.

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