Hong Kong burning

Posted By on Oct 23, 2019 in Columns |

Overheard on the Delphi Network’s trip to HK (these are interesting comments shared by people we meet. We don’t necessarily agree with any of them.) Below the quotes is a short description of my visit.

-”Hong Kong has experienced a series of political coups, led by chief executive Carrie Lam, culminating in this state of emergency”. Local analyst sympathetic to rioters. (In fact, she insists on the term “protesters”).  

“The West should be ashamed of itself. The rioters should start bashing expats, too. HK makes a mockery of Western rights, but it is lauded as a star by the Heritage Foundation, for example. Ironically, mainlanders have done much better!” Western activist in HK.

-”The police are out of control and breaking heads in non-tourist areas at random. They are so brazen they don’t even care about being filmed.” Local professional working at Ali Baba. 

-”Hong Kong is sick. Nothing works for non-elite local people, including education, health, housing and real estate.” Two local protesters in Mongkok. (Indeed, it takes 5 years to get access to social housing in HK – despite the city’s overflowing budget surpluses.) 

-”Mainland Chinese people flocking to Hong Kong are weakening Hong Kong’s cultural identify and draining resources. They are hijacking our education and our culture” Ibid. 

-”The most rapidly growing industry is emmigration right now.” Local businessman. 

-”The police is split between the radicalized junior ranks and the more thoughtful senior inspectors. Also, the police has become more bureaucratic and centralized, which harms their ability to deal efficiently with the riots.” Long-term HK resident and Western reporter.  

-”The police are not used to riot control and very bad at it. Under the British it was a paramilitary force, not a police force in the European sense.” Ibid. 

-”I am watching my son like a hawk”. UK professional with teenage son concerned he will be “disappeared” by the police or pro-regime elements.

-”Beijing is doing a brilliant job in getting Hong Kong to tear itself apart, instead of uniting against the mainland.” Local analyst sympathetic to the protesters. 

-”The bigger problem is Beijing, where Xi Jingping is reviving the power of the Communist party and turning against private business and Westernization. The idea of him accepting an alternative power centre in Hong Kong is laughable.” Ibid. 

– Hong Kongers are wrong not to love the motherland. They are being misled by foreign influences.” Very wealthy local professional over cocktails at the swanky Hong Kong Club. (Somewhat surreal, indeed 🙂

-”The protests are showing extreme intolerance to people that disagree with them. This is a bad sign.” Expat reporter. 

-”They are fighting for freedom lovers on the mainland, too.” Young mainlander at Mongkok. 

Hong Kong Trip 

“Hong Hong is in the grip of a political crisis, not merely a livelihood crisis”. Ronnie Chan, political commentator and chairman of a huge property group.  

I attended my first ever riot/protest in Hong Kong last Saturday. It was a strange experience, which I think has lessons for the DN. After all, the DN was set up to help members separate fact from fiction. Indeed, the experience was different to what you see on TV. 

I arrived outside Mongkon police station at 8pm, thanks to the concierge of my hotel. I told him I was sorry to have missed the large and peaceful demonstration earlier that day, and he told me I might see some “action” here instead. 

Arriving on the scene as a middle-aged white man, I was nervous. From a previous trip to Israel, I had learned that all parties tend to assume you are not an innocent tourist, but there for some sinister reason. And indeed, the PRC government has stated that the riots are being encouraged by Western intelligence agencies. 

It was also the uneasy feeling that normal rules of social intercourse no longer applied and that the rule of law is not present.

So I made sureI not to photograph people’s faces and to stay alert. 

The police station is on the corner of a huge intersection in one of the more blue collar areas of Hong Kong’s Kowloon side. Outside, protesters were conducting funeral rites for those they claim have been detained in a black site, and those they claim have been abducted and murdered. (Indeed, a young woman’s body was washed ashore but it’s unclear if the police has anything to do with it). The protesters claim many disappearances, murders and suicides.

There were not many demonstrators, maybe 100-200 standing and sitting around. I noticed many high school students, and people in their 20s and older. I did not notice any wealthy, middle class people (in contrast to the Brexit demonstrations outside parliament today). Indeed, the rich Hong Kongers I met were against the riots and thought the idea of fighting China was futile and against their self-interest. 

I also did not mean any obvious leaders, apart from one young, strong-looking and dynamic man. But he was not giving orders.

After an hour or so, I felt slightly more relaxed and started to chat to two of the English-speaking demonstrators. I was nervous about using my Mandarin. They were very open and friendly. Their quote about HK being “sick” is reported above. They also supported the violence on their side saying that police brutality was out of control. They felt the Chief Executive ignored and despised them and is a Beijing puppet. They said they felt they had no future – mainlanders were taking over jobs, housing, education and even their language. 

A young mainland Chinese man said in English that the protesters were fighting for China’s freedom as well. 

Everybody became tense when the woman said that her Facebook Live feed informed her the riot police were moving towards them from another subway station. We all looked down the road where they were supposed to be coming from. 

I almost had a heart attack, therefore, when the side gate of the police station opened right behind us and a squad of riot police stormed out. I tried to take some photos but my hands were shaking uncontrollably. My new friends disappeared in a flash. I figured I was reasonably safe and started taking video and photos. 

The police activity quickly diminished and they started retreating to a different entrance. The cops were dressed chaotically in bits of gear, civilian clothes and uniforms. They did not look professional. On seeing the shot guns they were carrying I became nervous once again.

Protesters and press converged them and they quickly retreated back into the building. Some cops came out on the balcony and unfurled warning banners about gas. One cop fired a bean bag round. 

It was bizarre. I had not expected the police to behave like that. They looked amateurish and tired, considering they are supposed to be one of the best police forces in the world. 

Over a megaphone, a woman then started screeching at us to disperse. Her voice was extremely loud, shrill and panicky. It was not the voice of calm authority you would ideally want in such a situation. 

Protesters shouted back and used laser pointers. It was quite tense.  

A word about the press. There were a lot of journalists, mainly freelancers and documentary makers, and young. The only big media I met was a two-woman team from Voice of America.  A freelancer told me that he had seen the rioters seriously beat a suspected policeman in civilian clothes. He started to wear a helmet and goggles after a colleague’s face was cut by a tower block resident hurling a bottle from his window. The press have been attacked from both sides – by the police who tend to look bad as a result of press coverage, but in one case Taiwanese journalists were mistaken for mainland stooges by the rioters. 

After almost three hours, I decided to walk back to my hotel. I was surprised to see several vandalized MTR entrances. The HK subway is one of the city’s great achievements, but it is owned by the government. In addition, it was reportedly used to carry police on their way to confront protesters. 

In conclusion: my strange experience at Mongkok police station will stay in my mind for a long time. It was certainly a fascinating contrast to watching it on TV.