Monday, September 29, 2014

The September 28 Protests in Hong Kong

History looks different to every participant, so I wish to record what I saw at today’s protests, and some of the aspects that surprised me.

We went to the protest in part to support the students and partly out of curiosity. I have no intention of getting arrested, but I do think nonviolent support is important, and that it can make a difference in the long run if perhaps not immediately. We had already heard by 2:00 pm that the police had “locked down” the area at the government building, and were not allowing people to join the protesters. The radio did not explain why, but it said that many legislators and democracy figures, including Democratic Party chair Emily Lau, and the very moderate and soft-spoken former legislator Fernando Cheung, had been arrested and taken away to a police station in Aberdeen. The police had arrested the leader of the student group Scholarism, Joshua Wong, and had denied him bail. It is not clear what crimes they were being charged with.

Students directing people in MTR station
At the Admiralty MTR station, there were students telling people to go to Exit C2 and to walk by a circuitous route towards the protests, because the police had closed exit A. When we got out at ground level (now about 3:10), there were hundreds of people milling about, seemingly waiting for something. We soon realized, from their chants, that they were waiting for the police to “open the road” to allow them to cross Connaught Road to join protesters in Civic Square on the north side of Connaught Road (closer to the water). A few dozen police officers, with no weapons or shields, just riot helmets, were at the end of the road preventing this.

Police blocking protesters from road
While we were there, taking pictures, the protesters periodically chanted, but mostly waited. The crowd kept growing, but it was not restless. Volunteers started collecting water, food, masks, umbrellas, and other first aid materials, in a makeshift control center under some overhead passageways.

One odd thing was that the police kept walking through the crowd, for no apparent purpose. At one point, a dozen or so plain-clothes officers wearing “Police” vests and backpacks walked through the crowd (using the same corridor on the edge of the area, next to the new MTR station construction site) and joined the uniformed officers on Connaught Road. Then a group of over 20 officers walked quickly into the area, also down the same corridor but in the opposite direction, and stationed themselves as if they were guarding the construction site entrance to the MTR site. The crowd at time booed or gave thumb down signs to the police, and changed “retreat” to them, but did not harass them. Other police officers, sometimes in small groups of 5 or so, also pass through the group going who knows where. Thus, there was no front line, and it was not clear what the police was doing.
More police arrive to block protesters from Connaught Rd

We were thinking of leaving, and decided to have a look on the western side of Admiralty. I noticed that there were some fire department vehicles arriving, in particular an aerial rescue truck with ladders. Seemed odd, for a protest. When we got to Connaught Road, we saw that a man was standing on the edge of the overpass connecting Admiralty to the Central Government Offices. We surmised that he was threatening to jump. By the time I first saw him at 4:00, there were already officers talking to him. One in particular, with no hard hat or other equipment, held out his hand trying to get him to give up. We waited to see what would happen; it took longer than I expected.

Underneath, the traffic completely stopped. Already when we were there at 4:00, there was a yellow rescue cushion on the street level below him. Though Connaught Road is a 6-lane highway, there is a barrier in the middle dividing the two directions, so cars and buses could not turn around. Drivers could see what was happening, so they got out of their cars.
Protester on footbridge threatens to jump

While we waited, many tourists tried to walk down Connaught Road, but the police (there were only half a dozen) told them to go around. Bizarrely, two Mainlanders got very angry at the police too, and yelled at them in Mandarin. One woman said, “I’m a tourist! Where am I supposed to go?!” (我是旅游客,我怎麻走?)  One person yelled out, "Go home" (回家), which is essentially an anti-Mainlander slur. I felt like someone should say "I'm sorry our struggle for democracy has inconvenienced you!" but she would not have grasped the sarcasm.

At about 4:30, two officers in red, with helmets and wearing harnesses, crossed over the barrier and began to approach the protester from both sides. Oddly, the protester seemingly could not see what was happening, and at 4:32, the two officers in red jumped him and pushed him away from the ledge onto the ground, where he was presumably tied to a gurney we had seen earlier and then wheeled away.

We decided to have another look at where we’d been before leaving, and when we got there, we were shocked that the crowd was much smaller than before. But as we moved forward, we realized that what had happened is that for whatever reason, the line of police protecting Connaught Road had left, and the protesters had moved into the road. They had moved plastic temporary road barriers (used for the MTR station) and put them on their side to make a ramp to cross the cement barriers on the road. Then as we moved forward, we realized that there were several thousand people on the flyover leading from Wanchai to Admiralty. The crowd had gotten huge.
Students collect donated water & supplies

But not everyone is willing to be involved to the same degree. At one point, we noticed a lot of people leaving, so I asked someone next to me what had been just been said (it is all in Cantonese, and I understand maybe 20%). They explained that they had urged people to sit down as a protest, but that those who backed up did not want to sit down. They were there for support, but not to “Occupy Central” (of course, we were not in Central but Admiralty, so the “Occupy Central” movement has a bit of a marketing problem. Some protesters were complaining about this on the evening news).

We left at 5:30, feeling that this would go on well into the night. There had already been spurts of pepper spray from police into the protesters on the far side of the street. The police’s red banners were out several times warning that the police would use additional force if the protesters continued to charge. A human chain passed umbrellas and water to the front line, and we saw a police officer being led away, apparently a victim of heat stroke, and a young protester being taken on a wheeled gurney to an ambulance. When we arrived in Sham Shui Po for an errand, we saw on the TV of a shop (showing an underground station’s live footage) that the police had started using tear gas (and that it was blowing back into their own faces).
View left towards Central district, 17:23

View towards Central Government Square

View right, towards Wanchai
Crowd in Sham Shui Po watching protesters getting tear gassed

Earlier today, my wife was surprised when an acquaintance complained about the students. He said that Hong Kong is now part of China, we just have to get used to it. Michael Chugani, a columnist and Hong Kong gadfly, has been taking the same line. Some people take this “realist” position. Of course, many of them are wealthy, and prefer Communist style elections so as to preserve their privileges. Interestingly, no one in Hong Kong actually says the proposed reforms are actually good. To keep any semblance of credibility, all political figures have admitted that the NPCSC decision was disappointing. CY Leung and others try to claim that because everyone can vote, it will be better than the previous system (in which only 1200 generally pro-Beijing representatives voted). They may be right, but because no one trusts Beijing to liberalize further in the future, democrats will find it impossible to approve the NPCSC-proposed framework. Pan-democrats feel tricked because Beijing constrained “universal suffrage” with a Nominating Committee, which is the same old Electoral Committee, and increased the threshold for nomination from one eighth to one half of Nominating Committee votes.

At the same time, the pan-democrats and Occupy Central activists did not help their cause by insisting on “civil nominations,” even after Beijing had insisted that civil nominations did not comply with the Basic Law, and that the Nominating Committee had to have a role. They could have argued for a larger and more representative Nominating Committee. They could have argued to keep the one eighth threshold. But I wonder if anyone anticipated Beijing would raise the threshold to one half.

But now, Hong Kong is dividing in two: one either supports the students, or opposes them. Some critics insist the students are being manipulated by teachers or even by foreign forces. But others are inspired by the students. I am on an email list of Hong Kong professors, and I’m struck by how many have written that the students make them feel embarrassed that they have not done more up to now. They were saying that they were going to go to support the students today, because they were inspired by their courage.

The news tonight says the protesters are still at Admiralty in the thousands. I’m sure the government wants to clear them by the start of work tomorrow morning. I’m not sure they will be able to. And even if they do, what if they show up in Central tomorrow? How will this end? We got an email rumor claiming the PLA was moving into positions; that is very unlikely now, and would be a disaster for Hong Kong and for China. Surely, though Beijing was foolish in promulgating such conservative election rules, which have provoked the protests we see today. Right?

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