|Kowloon Tong MTR|
There are many reasons for the high level of anger and frustration in Hong Kong, and it is wrong to try to identify the single or primary cause. Thus, the government’s strategy (pushed by Beijing) of focusing on economic and livelihood issues is not likely to resolve the protests. There can be no doubt that the high cost of housing, rising inequality, and limited prospects for many young people are contributing factors, but they are not the “material base” on which all other elements rest, to use Marxist theory. There are identity issues, and ideas of justice, that are harder to address. And we have to be frank that a layer of anti-Mainlander bigotry also adds emotional power for some of the protesters.
|Graffiti, Hong Kong Island|
Instead, what I heard from many people I spoke to was how ordinary people felt compelled to donate supplies (masks, umbrellas, clothes, etc) to support the protesters. People leave change and single-trip MTR cards on subway vending machines to help protesters leave without leaving a trace on their Octopus cards that would record their travel. People with cars have driven protesters away from police action. I suppose it would be naïve to think foreign agencies are not supporting the protests, but that is hardly an explanation for what is going on.
|Graffiti against police violence|
A sociologist in Hong Kong who studies protest movements made two interesting observations. He noted that the protests may seem to have erupted suddenly from nowhere, but there are protesters who have over a decade of experience in battling the police. From battles over Queen’s Pier, the Kwu Tong redevelopment and the high speed train station, protesters and police have years of experience in fighting with each other (my retired police office friends refer to them as “professional protesters”). Indeed, at the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement, the very first day when tear gas was first used (to the shock of Hong Kong society not used to such methods), we saw protesters with defensive equipment from masks to plastic wrap arrive prepared for battle. So these tensions have been simmering for years. Each side has learned from the other, and escalated in their tactics, but their attacks also have a ritualized quality.
The sociologist’s other observation was that the protesters have deliberately and successfully provoked a violent police response. In fact, the protesters and police engage in verbal sparring and name-calling during protests. It seems the protesters calculated that the public would support the protesters if they saw the police using violence against them. Though this has indeed occurred, it is hard to know how deliberate this was. Another argument claims that the police withdrew and allowed the protesters to enter and vandalize the Legislative Council chamber, believing that this would turn the public against the protesters. Indeed, many are puzzled as to why the police retreated and allowed the protesters to enter the chamber. In any case, if it was deliberate, it did not work, but only further polarized society, with pro-establishment people horrified by the anarchy and defacing of national symbols, and protesters emphasizing the symbolic nature of the damage (e.g. that the protesters did not touch the library and that they left money for the drinks they took).
|V for Vendetta sign in Mong Kok|
"Know-your-Meme" that does not see the meaning here and NY Times article here), these protesters identify with the anti-establishment ethos that the Alt-Right has created for the frog (much to the dismay of the frog’s creator; see a Reply All podcast and transcript here). The protesters do not see Pepe as a symbol of hate, but they correctly identify it as a symbol of protest, and some of the anti-Mainlander bigotry (as noted in the excellent This American Life episode) also fits with the Alt-Right's use of Pepe as a symbol of hate. So, many pro-establishment people are probably right when they say that Americans and Europeans would not be so sympathetic to the protesters if they were protesting like this in their countries.
On the other hand, a European friend in Hong Kong said that only now, with the protests, does Hong Kong feel like home. Before, with everyone worrying about making money and about brand-name clothes, she felt alienated from Hong Kong society, but now that people are political in a way that she understands and recognizes from her youth back home, she feels much more of a connection and bond with Hong Kong. She cares much more about the society now that she knows others care about society’s future too.
But most people are more negative. One friend has begun the process of emigrating to Malaysia (which for a Chinese person seems, at least superficially, to be like "out of the frying pan into the fire"). Several other recently retired friends who are strongly anti-protester are now planning on moving to England, though they had planned to remain in Hong Kong. They say they do not recognize their city any more.
|CUHK graffiti: "would rather be dead than not free"|
It seems the government intends to simply wait out the protesters, hoping they will tire. In the meantime, the reputation of the police, until recently touted as “Asia’s finest,” is in tatters. Stories of summary arrests and beatings by police, even of innocent bystanders, are common. And a surprising number of people believe that the police has killed protesters at the Prince Edward MTR station and disposed of the bodies. Rumors about the toxic chemicals in the tear gas and blue dye shot from the water cannon are rife. There is no trust in the government. The government claims to have foiled two recent bomb plots. Such an escalation would be tragic, and probably self-defeating. But it is hard to predict anything about these protests, given how unpredictable they have been thus far.