It was a strange sight indeed, at least for my cynical European eyes; under a murderous sun, about a hundred activists were crowding the bit of pavement under the shiny Cheung Kong Holdings skyscraper in Central, Hong Kong.
It was uncanny because the protesters were the most polite bunch of fellows I’ve seen in about a decade of witnessing, and sometimes participating, such manifestations in France, Italy, Hungary and the UK. No one was spraying slogans on buildings, holding flares or throwing missiles at the police; all they were doing was holding well-printed placards and banners, as well as umbrellas and bubble tea jugs; it was a hot day after all.
It was also uncanny because, at the end of the day, Hong Kong had been firmly in Beijing’s hands for some 17 years now; true, the old British colonial rules never showed too much interests in fostering democracy and, also, the PRC had worn a velvet glove on its iron fist but… A protest, in the country that has given us Tien An Men square and stares on whilst Tibetan monks set themselves ablaze is something I didn’t think I’d be able to see in my time in China.
Police was out in numbers, but I couldn’t see anything that I used to associate to protest or football matches in old Europe: no gas masks, no helmets, no sci-fi riot gear, no batons and tear gas grenade launchers. They wore their usual outfit, and simply looked the unfolding of the events.
I, too, looked on a little while and then moved on. The CKH is a business group doing mostly real estate development, a pretty tame activity in my books: it wasn’t clubbing baby seals to death, fishing whales or building up settlements in the West Bank. Nothing, basically, capable of granting it the unwanted attention of protesters, or so I thought.
I archived the event under the “things I won’t quite understand” and went on. Then, a few meters away, under the futuristic HSBC building, I saw another group of protesters, this time huddled around blue nylon tents. Then some more, this time in the overpass near the 2 IFC building on the waterfront, too many to ignore.
The few signs in English made reference to “Universal Suffrage” and denounced China’s meddling into what they viewed at Hong Kong’s home affairs, the election of the new Chief Executive of the SAR.
I returned in my hotel room after a day’s worth of errands. I didn’t have a look at the CKH to see whether the picketing was still going on, but I wanted to know more. Coffee in hand, fresh after shower I started surfing the Internet, sure that I wouldn’t have found any information at all about the day’s events.
In a way I was right, the picketing had little if no coverage amongst the wide array of English-speaking media in the city. But this wasn’t because obscure, hidden powers ordered their suppression, quite the contrary; it was because it was no breaking news. My coffee quickly went cold while I discovered the extent and magnitude of Hong Kong’s struggle for autonomy, democracy and freedom of speech.
In early 2013, for example. a group of protesters had broken into the CKH offices, staging a sit-in and then leaving after having handed over a petition. In the same year, permanent camps have been set up – the ones I have seen in my stroll – and street demonstration prompted tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens to participate. A few days ago, July 1st, Central was inundated with hundreds of thousands of citizens. Many were arrested despite being peaceful, triggering international protests.
What were they protesting against, what were their intentions?
Ever since the end of the 99-years British lease of the city, Hong Kong – along with the former Portuguese colony of Macau – had become a Special Administrative Region or SAR for friends. Behind this acronym lie a level of autonomy unparalleled anywhere else in China, something that Tibet and Xinjiang would probably love to have.
However, though, this is not all honky dory. The PRC has some clever ways of reasserting its control over the two cities, and those go above and beyond flying the biggest flag at every triad of flag poles in town.
The most important one regards the way the city is ruled: its government is, indeed, appointed by Beijing’s State Councils. Beijing also controls the city’s defence and foreign affairs. Universal suffrage has been promised many times, but the timeline for its implementation has always been copied and pasted from the answers the British governments have given when asked about building new runways in the South East: after next year, before the next elections, after the next elections, after the Olympics… Basically the 31st of Neverember.
This is precisely what the protests have been about; the next government is due to be sworn in by 2017 and, by then, activists want to be able to cast their ballot. This is why there has been a sharp increase in their level of activity, including the foundation of a movement, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, spearheaded by university professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who launched the idea of the July 1st demonstration.
The turnout has been encouraging, with estimates of about 800,000 activists joining the demonstration. But will it work? I seriously don’t think so.
China has a history of denying democratic rights to its citizens of its, so to speak, “least Chinese” provinces, be they so by ethnic origin or by history. The reason is quite simple: once they get started, there won’t be way to stop the remaining 1.2 billion citizens from asking the same. China has stopped short of nothing to quell such requests, as the news from Xinjiang continue to remind us; not even being in the world’s spotlight in the build-up to the Olympics prevented them from crushing the Tibetan opposition.
Given these precedents, I seriously doubt that, come 2017, Chairman Mao’s successor will simply give in and say “You know what? Elect whoever you like, I don’t care”. I also doubt that we’ll see tanks rolling in down Queen Elizabeth road, Hong Kong is not Urumqi (no matter how bad it sounds to say this). But there’s no denying that I fear thatprofessor Benny and his friends will have a tough time in the future.
For whatever it’s worth, I’ll be standying by them and I’ll hope to be proven wrong.