published in the Independent, Friday 10 October 2014
World View Hong Kong
Some of my colleagues are jumping the gun. David Pilling wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday, “As the high-stakes poker game between students and the Hong Kong government draws to a thankfully blood-free close…”
It ain’t over, David. And while it has to date been largely blood-free, give or take a few cracked skulls in Mong Kok, the conclusion of this extraordinary political event has yet to be written. It was inconceivable, Pilling wrote in the same piece, that Beijing “would bend to the students’ demands.” Probably so. But the protest goes on, the anger is unassuaged, and the end is not yet in sight.
Yesterday protest leaders called for a big attendance in Harcourt Road, the area they have re-named Umbrella Square, in front of government headquarters, for Friday afternoon, to put pressure on the negotiations with Carrie Lam, the top civil servant, that were due to start then. Ms Lam responded by cancelling the talks. It is highly unlikely, given their bullish mood, that this will prompt the protesters to cancel their planned assembly. The struggle has only just started.
Since Monday attendance at all three of the protest venues has been down on last week. But that’s because these protesters are not dole-bound or for other reasons economically independent. Last week, ‘Golden Week’, was a holiday for students and many workers. This week is a normal week, and few can afford to skip work or classes.
But their passion has not waned. Many of them continue to show up at the protest sites as and when they can. They have not given up, or changed their ideas.
Hong Kong’s protests are focused on Beijing’s decision to pre-select candidates for the chief executive elections of 2017, thus vitiating the promise of universal suffrage. But the reason they have drawn such enormous support is because, with that decision, Hong Kong’s likely future as the vassal of Beijing became starkly clear.
At the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was granted a 50-year special relationship with the mainland in the expectation that the differences between the two would steadily narrow: the mainland would become more like Hong Kong, the lingering rigidities of the Maoist years would soften, the society would steadily open up, and the eventual merger would be painless.
Nothing of the sort is happening. Or rather, it would be happening if the authorities allowed it to, but they don’t; on the contrary, they are digging in their heels to prevent it.
Growing affluence and education among the mainland’s middle class is producing a powerful urge for change along Hong Kong’s lines – but it is an urge which terrifies the ruling Communist Party because it inevitably brings into question the Party’s legitimacy, its right to rule China for ever, and that is one shibboleth that can never be questioned.
Last summer an internal directive was circulated to Party members with a list of ‘do not mention’ topics. They included democracy, universal values, civil society, market liberalism and media independence. But those unmentionables are Hong Kong’s precious jewels, the things that make life there bearable and starkly different from anywhere else in the People’s Republic. As the years before integration slip by, they are slowly being eroded, and the deeply unpopular rule of C Y Leung is a harbinger of worse to come.
Hongkongers are protesting while they can and because they can, and now they have started I suspect they will continue for as long as they can. Young Hongkongers reject the idea that their freedoms can simply be shredded by the mainland. This one will run and run.
The Independent received the following letter from Brett Free of the Hong Kong Government in response to this piece:
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: 10 October 2014 14:10
To: INDY Foreign
Subject: The Independent – “These student protests in Hong Kong will continue to run on and on”
I’m trying to get in touch with Peter Popham in relation to his article below – part highlighted in bold text. I’ve only managed to get hold of this email.
Apologies in advance if your desk is not dealing with it, but I thought it would be a good place to start.
As an ex-hack myself, I understand that a complicated idea often needs to be condensed into a pithy par.
But I’d still like to provide some background in the hope that those writing for the Independent about the current HK situation can do so with a complete picture of what Beijing has actually decided.
The protests we are seeing have their root in Hong Kong’s constitutional reform process which proposes a Chief Executive (CE) elected by universal suffrage in 2017 in accordance with our constitutional document the Basic Law and the August 31 decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC). Many protesters are discontent with this NPCSC decision because they feel it is too restrictive. In Hong Kong’s constitutional framework this decision is legally binding on the Hong Kong SAR. As a city that cherishes the rule of law we must work within this constitutional and legal framework. There is no escaping this fact.
The Nominating Committee that will nominate two to three candidates to run-off for an election in 2017 has been in the Basic Law since it was promulgated in 1990. It is nothing new. Discussions about how this Nominating Committee will be formed, how candidates can be considered for nomination, voting procedures etc have not even started yet.
According to both the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) and the Basic Law (1990), the winner of a Chief Executive election, whether through the current electoral college method or via universal suffrage in 2017, still has to be appointed by the Central People’s Government. There is a good reason for this. Hong Kong is not an ordinary local democracy. The CE enjoys much a far higher level of institutional power than the mayors of Western democracies, including London. These powers come from Beijing and are stipulated in the Basic Law, which states that the CE is accountable to Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.
If you want any more info, or are unclear about anything, I’d be happy to oblige.
Thanks and best,
published in World News, the Independent, Tuesday 7 October
by Peter Popham in Hong Kong
Is it all over in Hong Kong? Kwok Yung, a 20-year-old college student says not.
Last night she and a handful of fellow-protesters were manning the very first barricade across the main road that has been the main focus of the occupation for more than a week. Hundreds of yards of empty road separated this barricade from the much shrunken heart of the protest. She was still in uniform – pleated navy skirt, white blouse, tie – because it was her first day back at school after the ‘Golden Week’ holiday.
Soon she will go home for dinner with her parents, then come back to the barricade. Then return home to sleep. And homework? “I did it at school,” she said. Won’t you get tired, following such a schedule? “Yes, I’m very tired,” she admitted, “but when I think I am fighting for Hong Kong I get power again.”
Numbers at the protest yesterday were down steeply on the weekend, one reason being that tens of thousands like Kwok were back at school or work. But by late evening thousands again filled the main road.
So how long will they stay? Preliminary talks with top civil servant Carrie Lam, are under way. If she demands the roads be opened for negotiations to proceed, would you go home?
“No, we don’t trust her,” Kwok said, “she and the government are the same.”
And what about the dire warnings by people like former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, urging protesters to clear the streets and go home for their own safety?
“That was his kindness, reminding us that we are in a dangerous situation,” said Chris Chen, 29, a digital journalist, manning the barricade with Kwok. “But we wouldn’t be here if we were not prepared to be arrested.”
The focus of the protests from the start has been on demanding open nominations for chief executive of Hong Kong – effectively governor – in 2017, instead of the pre-selected, Beijing-approved nominations announced by present CEO C Y Leung on 31 August. Chris Chen explained why this dry demand has elicited such vast and sustained support.
“Rich tourists from the mainland are making the prices in Hong Kong’s shops rise. Hong Kong people’s wages are going down, fares on public transport are going up, our standard of living is going down. In Causeway Bay” – Hong Kong’s Oxford Street – “you only find luxury shops for the tourists selling jewellery and Chanel. We are just normal people, we can’t afford these things. You see old ladies who should enjoy their lives still working, collecting old newspapers and drink cans. The government should take care of the people. They are not fair. They don’t even do the basic things well.”
This experience of unaccountable government connects with their parent’s bad memories of communism. “My parents fled from the mainland to escape from the Cultural Revolution,” said Chen. And now communism is coming to get them. Not surprisingly, his family is right behind him.
At another outpost of the uprising the mood was equally angry and defiant. Mong Kok, a gritty, densely populated area of shops and tight-packed high-rise apartment blocks, has been much the most violent flashpoint of the revolt, with Triad gangsters launching attacks on the protesters on several days last week. Protesters were injured and at least 19 of the Triad attackers arrested, though most were quickly released.
One of the student groups yesterday announced that the Mong Kok occupation was ending. He was promptly contradicted by other protesters, and last night the occupation of the area was a surreal circus, a knot of protesters under tents surrounded by a few dozen sympathisers and with the local and international media waiting in the background.
In Mong Kok too the main grievance – the electoral stitch-up – is fuelled by a welter of down-to-earth resentments. “Young people can’t afford to buy or even rent a flat,” said John Law, a 20-year-old solicitor drinking donated Oolong tea under the central tent. “And the small shops of my father’s generation have been replaced by a few monopolies and franchises. Wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and wider. The government does not protect the ordinary people but only their rich clients. That’s why we have to stand up. We have to protect the younger generation. We have to create a place fit for them to live.”
Faye Lai, 22, who graduated in economics from an Australian university and now works as a clerk, said, “Here in Mong Kok we lead ourselves. I’m upset about the talks [with the government]. I don’t want those groups to represent me. All protests in Hong Kong end with negotiations and a nonsense solution. We don’t trust our so-called leaders. We are being betrayed right now. That’s why we are still sitting here.”
published in World News, the Independent, Monday 6 October 2014
Peter Popham in Hong Kong
Whatever happens in the coming days – and the predictions are dire –Hong Kong will never be the same after this amazing week.
Exactly one week ago, a barrage of tear gas exploding around a modest student demonstration catapulted Hong Kong into a new place, and the Hongkongers are still inhabiting it.
It’s an ideal world that has no business existing in the heart of a place as hard-headed and money-minded as this. A multi-lane city centre highway become a people’s park, a flyover ramp becomes the site of gentle family strolls. Teenagers line this impromptu park manning shops that offer cold drinks, hot soup, towels, umbrellas and much more. They are like the million shopkeepers in the real Hong Kong outside, with the difference that no money is offered or taken.
Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers, the majority very young, have found the courage to imagine and put into practice a way of living and sharing that has nothing in common either with Hong Kong’s cut-throat capitalism nor with the crony communism rampant on the mainland.
There are no police in this world. Instead there are first aid stations manned by volunteers. More volunteers circulate with signs printed with the number to call if you need legal advice. There are mobile democracy classrooms. The advertising installations for fashion magazines and perfume are plastered with satirical depictions of chief executive C Y Leung. The walls of the flyover ramp bear messages of support in 61 languages, including Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Quebecois French and Pashto. Five days ago theses occupied streets were kept immaculately clean by volunteers. They are still immaculately clean today.
Near the back of the crowd of 5,000 listening to speeches last night was an elegant middle-aged couple, Makim, 44, and Fafa, his wife, 36. They held up pieces of paper which said simply, “Thank you.” Fafa said, “We’ve come here every day. I own a make-up shop in Causeway Bay” – site of one of the occupation camps – “and of course it’s hurt my business. But we hope they will change Hong Kong. Our bodies are weak but our faith is strong.”
Anger brought this place into being, but there is no anger on display, let alone violence or looting. You sense people falling in love. At dawn on Saturday a young couple in Causeway Bay got engaged in the occupied street. Of course the pictures were all over Facebook in no time.
But this world with its clear rules – no booze, no graffiti, no mess – with its signs that say “PLEASE DON’T WASTE PRODUCE AND LEAVE WITH YOUR GARBAGE” – could be living through its last hours. Yesterday powerful, realistic men were telling the inhabitants of this world, time’s up. Go home, right away.
Former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang said, “The students’ ideals and aspirations for democracy have been fully understood and are respected…. it is now time for them to leave the protest venue. No-one would like to see the students getting hurt. I sincerely urge the students to leave immediately. Otherwise there is a danger to their safety.”
Before flying to Washington for meetings with the International Monetary Fund, Financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said, “The high speed of development over the past week was completely out of everybody’s expectation. It’s hard not to be concerned that more serious chaos could happen… This event is a grave test for all Hong Kong people. Its handling shall require everyone’s wisdom and patience.”
These warnings reinforced that of chief executive C Y Leung, who said overnight on Saturday that, today being a regular working day, the roads around the government offices must be cleared so civil servants can get to their desks. Yesterday the air was thick with rumours that drastic action could be taken at any time.
Professor Michael DeGolyer, a close observer of changing Hong Kong, told The Independent, “People are beginning to sense we are approaching an inflection point. Leung’s statement that, if the streets and particularly around government offices are not cleared by tomorrow morning, the ‘Hong Kong Government may probably lose control’ of HK is very ominous: that is the condition under which Central Government forces may be called for assistance…It is a clear warning that he may already have the backing of Central Government authorities to…legalise the entry of People’s Liberation Army troops or Security Police in large numbers.”
The picture is complicated by increasing signs of dissent from ordinary members of the public. The occupation of the working class commercial district of Mong Kok has seen continual tension between occupiers and those opposed to them, some criminals but others merely local shopkeepers infuriated by the damage to their businesses. Yesterday the hostility showed signs of spilling into the Admirality area with the arrival of a small but noisy demonstration demanding that police clear the roads.
Both government and occupation sides were yesterday holding out hopes of dialogue, the olive branch extended by Mr Leung last Thursday, but spurned by the students after the outbreak of Triad-inspired violence in Mong Kok. But many of the occupiers are sceptical.
Allan Yu, 22, a student at Hong Kong polytechnic, said, “The future of Hong Kong is not owned by the people at the top who are issuing threats. Hong Kong’s future belongs to the people here, the teenagers. The people are staying here because the government refuses to give us real democracy. We are very angry.”
published in World News, the Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014
Peter Popham in Hong Kong
Tens of thousands of protesters continued their occupation of large swathes of Hong Kong yesterday, but the embattled chief executive of the former colony, Leung Chun-ying, warned that the protest’s days were numbered.
With a return to normal government working due tomorrow, he warned that all blocked roads must be cleared and access to all government offices opened. Achieving that would effectively end the occupation.
But Leung and his colleagues understand that Hong Kong is now a tinderbox. It was the brutal attempt to disperse a small demonstration one week ago that brought the masses onto the streets in the first place. Heavy-handed efforts to clear the roads could provoke a second surge.
Yet many observers agree that the protests have reached an impasse. Leung has refused the protesters’ demand to resign. The Hong Kong Federation of Students in turn rejected the offer of talks with his top civil servant, the key concession that offered hope of a dialogue, accusing police of allowing violence against protesters to break out in the bar district of Mong Kok on Friday.
With no progress on either side, many believe that something has to give. A prominent pro-democrat legislator, Law Chi-kwong, warned last night that government action could be imminent.
And now…enter the Triads. Police confirmed that 19 of those arrested in Mong Kok had Triad backgrounds.
Why should Triads be involved? Mafia-like gangs have been a part of life in Hong Kong for generations, living off extortion, prostitution and illegal gambling. Others are established in legitimate businesses, concentrated in dense commercial areas like Mong Kok. The gangsters, though theoretically secret, are easily recognized: they tend to chain smoke, wear sunglasses at night, use foul language and have a distinctive swaggering walk. At Mong Kok they attacked in formation.
We may never know for sure who paid the gangsters in Mong Kok. But whoever it was would have been confident of the approval of Beijing.
With sensitivity to police violence now so acute in Hong Kong, the mind of mainland officialdom is undoubtedly going over the strategic options for closing down the protests as quickly as possible, with minimum blowback.
Professor Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project – “Tracking the Transition of Hong Kong People from Subjects to Citizens” – this week proposed five scenarios available to Beijing for ending the protests, from the most emollient (Leung resigns) to the most draconian (the mainland shuts off the water supply – an abiding fear while the British ruled).
The scenario that has drawn most attention is the most cunning.
Professor DeGolyer calls it ‘the anaconda strategy’. A large, non-venomous snake, the anaconda kills its prey by hugging them to death, then crushing and eating them. This strategy, as he explained on Hong Kong television yesterday, involves “the slow strangulation of the umbrella revolution using a divide-and-conquer strategy”.
In practice it means slowly turning off the economic tap from the mainland, “inflicting painful but easily reversible economic damage in incremental doses as a means to pressure Hong Kong people to turn against the student movement.” An example he gave was the barring of tour groups from the mainland visiting Hong Kongs. Tourists from the mainland account for 9 per cent of employment in Hong Kong, so the economic pain of visits stopping is considerable.
This prediction came true within hours of him airing it, when Beijing announced the banning of visas for group tours to Hong Kong by mainlanders.
The Triads come into play in the second stage of DeGolyer’s strategy, what he calls the Crushing phase. “As economic damage escalates,” he wrote, “more and more of the public begins to demand government action to bring the demonstrations to an end, or at least, to clear the streets and prevent loss of business. Triads…try to intimidate protesters, to move them out of areas crucial to their operations (Mong Kong, Wanchai bar area).”
And that, in his vision, is only the start of it. “As tourism drops, and as local travel in and out of lower Kowloon becomes more restricted, triad violence escalates. Unemployment soars over 5% from 3% before the protests, with trend moving upward. Shops start closing, posting signs ‘thank you students and democrats for putting us out of business and taking away our livelihood.’ If protesters do not clear the streets in these areas and perhaps all areas, ‘flying squads’ of triads armed with bats and choppers begin running attacks, flying in, seriously injuring or killing protesters…”
This reads like the description of an apocalypse. But two of his predictions have already come true.
And if the subsequent ones seem implausibly dark, it’s worth bearing in mind that, for the authorities, the present state of affairs around the Hong Kong government’s offices already has the complexion of an apocalypse.
For the students strolling or lolling around yesterday, Hong Kong in these days may feel like Woodstock without the music. But last night a veteran democratic politician warned that the hour of reckoning could be at hand.
In an email published by the South China Morning Post, Dr Law Chi-kwong wrote, “When the students say no to talk, they have removed their last line of protection. Things can turn very drastic within the next couple of hours. I am begging everyone I know to leave…I believe no-one in Hong Kong can stop what may happen in the next couple of hours. I beg with tears.”
published in World News, the Independent, Saturday 4 October 2014
By Peter Popham and James Legge in Hong Kong
An uprising needs energy. It needs a kick start. Hong Kong’s initial burst of energy came not from within but from outside, when police last Sunday used tear gas to try to break up a demonstration. That spark of brutality ignited the anger which produced the biggest revolt in the ex-colony’s history.
Then yesterday, when the whole thing was starting to flag badly from exhaustion and indirection, came a new burst of negative energy from outside.
An organized gang of hundreds of outsiders, most of them much older than the student-age demonstrators, descended on the remaining occupiers of a protest site in the busy and congested shopping district of Mong Kok. They chanted at them to “clear the roads” and “go away”, closing in until the protesters were hemmed in around a tent and surrounded on all sides.
Police, some joining hands with the occupiers, were forced to form a protective cordon around the 100 or so remaining at the pro-democracy camp, which earlier in the week took over a long swathe of Nathan Road, one of the city’s busiest roads.
Occasionally individuals broke through the dividing line from the outside, grappling with protesters. Bottles were lobbed at those inside. One protester was led away by police, blood dripping down his face.
Protesters alleged that the newcomers had been paid by the government to provoke violence and delegitimise the campaign. There is a track record for this: Triad-associated thugs have in the past been paid by the government to disrupt demonstrations. Mong Kok’s protesters said they would refuse to rise to the provocations. They were visibly determined to remain calm and avoid a fight.
Aaron Lee, a 31-year-old hair stylist among the protesters, said: “If you check that side, they are not speaking Cantonese, they are speaking Mandarin. Guess who is paying them. “We are just trying to make a change here. All we want is freedom.”
News of the violence flew across Hong Kong harbour at the speed of Twitter to the remnants of the protesters, visibly tired and fewer in number but still in possession of much of the main road that links east and west sides of the island.
It gave them a new shot of what they had been lacking. Several thousand came together at Admiralty, where they have been laying siege to the main government buildings of Hong Kong, and sat on the tarmac as leaders of the protest told them what was happening across the water. Enough of them took the cue, rushing over to Mong Kok, barely 20 minutes by subway, to change the dynamic and put the hostile newcomers into a minority. The tense standoff continued into the night.
Will the new menace galvanize the movement sufficiently to give it a new lease of life?
Because life is what it was palpably beginning to lose yesterday.
There were several reasons for that. Friday was a working day, in contrast to the public holidays on Wednesday and Thursday. Many thousands of the protesters are working people and went back to work.
Those that remained were tired. They have built this movement from nothing, day and night, effectively creating an alternative municipal structure with food and water distribution, first aid provision and rubbish collection. There have been endless public discussion meetings, wall newspapers and art work; people have made and freely distributed delicate umbrella-shaped brooches as well as millions of yellow ribbons and thousands of umbrellas. All this in debilitatingly hot and humid conditions, punctuated by mighty thunderstorms. Understandably the strain was beginning to tell. To their great credit it emerged not as arguing or indiscipline, let alone looting or random violence, but as a loss of focus. A haziness about what they are all doing out there anyway.
The scene yesterday outside the offices of chief executive Leung Chun-ying, near the parliament and other government buildings, was a case in point.
This has been a major flashpoint of the protests for days now, as the protesters reinforced their demand that Mr Leung quit by blocking the road to his complex. Police and demonstrators have been eyeballing each other here since the beginning of the week.
On Thursday night, minutes before the midnight deadline, Mr Leung announced that he was instructing his chief civil servant, Ms Carrie Lam, to start negotiations with the protesters, as early as this weekend. However neither Mr Leung nor Ms Lam gave a clear time frame for the talks, let alone any clue as to their substance. It was a unilateral bid to puncture the tension, and as such it temporarily succeeded. In the same statement
Leung refused to do the protesters’ bidding and resign. But his vague, tactical concession threw them off balance.
Yesterday morning the crowd outside his offices was raucous but smaller, arguing with the police when they attempted to have an ambulance brought into the premises – it was grudgingly allowed in – and arguing again when the driver of a suspicious van attempting to enter – maybe full of tear gas canisters? – refused to divulge its contents and was turned away.
In the evening the crowd here had further shrunk in size to fewer than 100 people, many of them onlookers or journalists rather than participants. “We are so few, we’re afraid the police could easily clear the road if they decided to,” said Lau Chun-hong, 23, a male student of nursing who had manned a first aid tent during last Sunday’s demonstration.
“What can we do?” Albert Yang, 55, working in property management, asked rhetorically. “There are 80 million people in the Chinese Communist Party. The total population of Hong Kong is only seven million. They are too strong. And we are alone. Who is supporting us? Nobody. If the police attack us, I will leave. I will not sacrifice myself.”
Anger and indignation provide a kick of energy. But they don’t substitute for direction and co-ordination. Hong Kong’s protests have massively outgrown the modest plans of Occupy Central drawn up by its professorial leadership. They have set a new high not only in sheer numbers but by
creating a living demonstration of Mutual Aid, the theory devised by the 19th century Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. But like other anarchist manifestations, they flounder when it comes to strategy and leadership.
Late last night Martin Lee, 76, the veteran activist known as the father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, told the crowd at Admiralty “It was very ugly in Mong Kok. Because of the presence of the international press, the police won’t use tear gas again…[instead] they use these Triad society members to create a scene and threaten the people. We are peace loving and we are getting injured.”
A little earlier, the Federation of Students, one of the main organisations behind the protests, announced it was calling off its meeting with Carrie Lam in protest at the Mong Kok attacks.
So Hong Kong’s mighty movement moves ahead: fuelled by anger, direction unclear.