Mass protests, Hong Kong style
News analysis

Mass protests, Hong Kong style

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

The protests in the former British colony of Hong Kong, that had been continuing for two months now, show no signs of dying down and there are no indications of any reconciliation offer from the authorities either. These protests were over a legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. They have since spiraled into Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.One of the main demands of the protesters is the resignation of its embattled chief executive, Ms. Carrie Lam.

While many residents appear to support the protesters, including ordinary people who have shown up in their thousands at peaceful marches, Ms. Lam has maintained that these protesters are largely violent fringe elements who have taken advantage of a civil disobedience movement.

Two weeks after the first protest she broke her silence and said: ‘Hong Kong has been the safest city in the world. But this series of extremely violent acts is pushing Hong Kong to a very dangerous situation, and some extreme activists have altered the nature of these protests. They removed the national flag, threw it into the sea, and called for a revolution. These challenged national sovereignty, threatened the ‘one country, two systems’ move, and would destroy the city’s prosperity and stability.’

The catch phrase ‘one country, two systems’ had always been viewed suspiciously ever since the dapper long- term British administrator Chris Patten folded up the Union Jack and left this flourishing colony but it had continued without a hiccough and had survived the Asian tigers’ bubble and the global economic meltdown of 2008.

The existence of this listening post to mainland China suited both Beijing as well as the West that had a window into what is happening in that mysterious country behind the Bamboo Curtain. So this became a thriving island with all the showpieces of capitalist economy and enterprise, a vibrant press and the envy of even countries like Japan and Singapore. It suited the Chinese as well and it periodically sent its triad of demobbed People’s Liberation Army irregulars to settle scores or set things right.

For India too Hong Kong has been a business and educational hub with career diplomats and academics from the progressive universities like JNU sending their scholars to teach and learn Chinese from the elite language institutes in this outpost. ‘Do not fear God, do not fear the devil, but fear the foreigner who can speak Chinese’ was one of their cautionary sayings.

The protests have come at an unwelcome moment for Hong Kong when it has been toying with the ambitious scheme of the ‘Greater Bay Area’ blueprint to seize new areas of economic growth and improve living standards. However this has met with scepticism from professionals and business people who have given only cautious endorsement. They demand that they needed to see the specifics to gauge how the city could benefit.

‘We are actually a bit disappointed and it is just a framework without many concrete policy details,’ said a pro-business Liberal Party leader. ‘The positioning of Hong Kong has got clearer, but we can only wait for how it is to be achieved.’

The document acknowledged the city’s pivotal role in providing international standards in many areas for others to aspire to, but had made it plain that much work lay ahead in enhancing its competitiveness in traditional strong suits.

Meanwhile, the protests have also, in the two months, acquired new dimensions and styles in keeping with the island’s tradition of springing novelty and surprise. And the protesters have moved to two of Kowloon peninsula suburbs, Sham Shui Po and Tsim Sha Tsui, across a glittering harbour from Hong Kong Island. Images of police officers in riot gear charging at protesters and tackling some of them against the glitzy background of glass and chromium high rises and metro subways provide the perfect counterpoint to the modern urban unrest. Police said that some protesters had been hurling bricks at officers, ‘posing a threat to the safety of everyone at the scene.’ Meanwhile a few districts away, television footage showed police officers firing tear gas into the Kwai Fong subway station, near a police station where protesters had collected, the first time they are supposed to have used teargas.

Also the protesters, police said, had not sought permission for a peaceful demonstration at the Hong Kong International Airport, one of the busiest in the world. There was also panic when protesters hop-scotched around Kowloon and police had to fire teargas shells at several locations. They also blocked a crucial cross harbour tunnel and barricaded traffic crossings and set fire to a police station.

These sporadic protests coming at a time when the Great Bay Plan, which covers 11 cities in the Pearl River Delta, supports Hong Kong in entrenching its status as an international finance, transport and trade centre as well as an aviation hub, promoting the development of high-end and high-value-added financial, commercial, trading, logistics and professional services.

The push also helps in innovation and technology, and to strengthen the city’s research and development capabilities, enabling local institutes to enjoy the same level of funding as mainland ones. There will help for start-ups, at the incubation stage, in getting private equity funding, and securing public listings. These are grand plans that would transform the city dramatically.

Though initially the protest began over plans – that now seem to be put in cold storage - that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, these have now cascaded to reflect wider demands for democratic reform.

All these are not happening in a vacuum, it would seem. There has been a lot of important contexts - some of it stretching back decades - that helps explain what is going on. For one Hong Kong is uniquely different from other Chinese cities and there is a historical background to it.  A British colony for more than 150 years, Hong Kong island was ceded to the UK after the 1842 war and later China also leased the rest of it - the New Territories - to the British for a 99-year lease.

It became a busy trading port, and its economy took off soon after World War II it became a manufacturing hub as well. It became a haven for migrants and dissidents fleeing instability, poverty or persecution in the mainland. Over the years it became one of the busiest and most densely populated cities in the world.

So it is no longer the haven or hedge fund managers and the manufacturing sector and in the present context it has become quiet with more and more people staying indoors with rumours circulating that suspected gangsters are gathering to attack protesters and bystanders.

For the protesters too, life has changed in more dramatic ways with relationships with families getting and some leaving their jobs to focus on the protests full time. Many carry gas masks with them whenever they go out at night and almost every day, notices are sent out through the Telegram messaging app alerting protesters that certain users have been detained and probably compromised, and all conversations with them be deleted.

‘You are always on high alert, this is not a game,’ as one protester and organisers of media campaigns directed at international audiences, said. These groups of protesters, dressed in all black, their faces covered by duct-taped goggles and face masks, sitting in groups at public transport stations are a common sight and commuters with iPhones are regularly airdropped fliers on the latest demonstration.

These continuing rallies and marches are now taking place regularly, during the week as well as weekends, in diverse locations and all the time of thinking of new ways to demonstrate that don’t involve direct conflict with the police. In this mode of protest also Hong Kong has demonstrated its innovative skills.

Meanwhile Beijing has signaled that it is losing patience and its Hong Kong affairs department has spoken to the media twice in recent weeks to warn protesters that their actions will not be tolerated. And in the face-off China has received support from an unlikely quarter. A spokesperson of the North Koran foreign ministry has accused unspecified ‘foreign forces’ of ‘interfering’ with Hong Kong affairs, backing Beijing’s allegations the unrest is the work of the United States. ‘We fully support the stand and measures of the Chinese party and government for defending the sovereignty, security and reunification of the country and safeguarding the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,’ the spokesperson said.

‘It is our principled stand that any country, entity and individual should not be allowed to destroy the sovereignty and security of China and ‘one country and two systems’ as Hong Kong is Hong Kong of China.’ Pyongyang is a close ally and Mr. Kim Jong-un’s regime relies on China for food and fuel but ties have fluctuated, particularly where Beijing’s willingness to maintain international sanctions has been concerned. In contrast, a group of 92 South Korean NGOs last week rallied in Seoul to support Hong Kong citizens ‘seeking to protect democracy and human rights.’

So this island that shown its survival instincts through the typhoons and tsunamis that periodically lash its coasts and let the glass of the high rise buildings fly dangerously and survived the Japanese sweep across South Asia during World War II is marking time. And it may survive this latest turbulence also.