In this essay Evan shares his experience of being at the August 17th Anti-Occupy Central Demonstration and of the people saw and spoke to there, and compares them with those people he joined at the July 1st Pro-Democracy march. He notes the very different nature of the two demonstrations, as well as the police response, and find himself unable to hold back his shame at what he considers is the disingenuous nature of the event.
I first noticed the difference at Admiralty MTR station. Several large groups of 50 or more people, usually dressed in matching association shirts, were being shepherded by group leaders. Like a tour group the people congregated around a flag or some other marker. Their day as a group had started much earlier.
The people did not seem familiar with the MTR. Many held single-way tickets in their hands, so I can only presume they do not own an Octopus card.
A few women really stood out, and had clearly dressed up for the occasion. However no one was wearing branded clothes. This was an older generation of market shoppers. There was a familiar earthy smell about them, of stale sweat and herbal tea. These were not public housing tenants but rural villagers, a suspicion confirmed by their heavily tanned skin, short stature and accents laced with Hokkien. They had thick fingers that paled towards the fingertips from years of working with their hands in the sun. They did not mix among the other commuters but stuck very closely together. A clan on the move.
Young people were noticeable by their absence. A few of school age, usually in their early teens, were accompanying family. Like the younger July 1st crowd they spoke Cantonese without an obvious accent, but noticeably changed their tones when speaking with their family.
Compared to the crowds who had gathered for July 1st this crowd was much louder. People shouted. Yet there was also a distinct lack of energy or conviction. Many of the people seemed reluctant to be there, their posture and expression suggesting resignation at making up a crowd. Not once did I hear anyone mention politics, democracy or why they were there.
Most of the conversation evolved around directions – many seemed to think Victoria Park was in Central. The other popular topic was food and drink. Clearly these people had just come from a meal and had been promised another. They were expecting to be take； care of. Whilst most people carried a day bag, many did not have any water or at best a very limited amount.
Listening in to the conversation I also received my first shock of the day. A group of elderly men stood watching Caucasians in the station. Assuming I did not understand Cantonese they talked of their “shame” that “Chinese soil” should be polluted by “gweilos”. One said that foreigners used to be the enemy as another added that “a patriot would kill them”. This conversation was shouted and continued for several minutes, and surprisingly attracted no attention from either other members of their group or by-standers.
On July 1st I had joined a mass of individuals and families who only began to congregate in the streets around Victoria Park. There was a diversity of people present; a cross section of the Hong Kong street. Theirs was the sound of the city, and the tones of Hong Kong Cantonese. People kept to themselves, but they also seemed unfazed by what they saw. I felt part of a crowd.
Among the predominantly Chinese crowd there were a few Westerners and Eurasians. Some were familiar faces, people I know who were born here or who have devoted their lives to the interests of the city and the people that have become their new home. Many were there with local partners, with husbands and wives. Many of these mixed relationships were between professional and well-to-do people, who had nothing personal to gain and much to lose by being there. And yet they chose to come.
However on August 17th I felt isolated. I was an individual among groups; a foreigner among a crowd that saw me only as one. I was the only “gweilo” there, and I did not feel welcome. I felt watched.
A journalist from Ming Pao approached me for an interview. When he realised I was there also as an observer and was meaning to write on my experience, his demeanour changed and our exchange become a lot more light hearted, but also frank. “There are so many from the PRC”, he said, “this is not a protest but a gathering of associations”. “It’s a joke”, he laughed, a broken man resigned to his fate. He slapped my back and wished me well.
About a quarter of those present were clearly from the Mainland. I had expected this, as reports flooded in that morning of cross border buses being unloaded. One particularly disturbing photograph I had seen was the vandalized interior of one of these buses. The nature of the curses that had been left I have seen before among the very worst and criminal elements of our society.
These unverifiable reports were supported by messages I had received from friends around town. People I know and trust had seen buses being loaded in Yuen Long, the driver paying each passenger $250 for the day. Another friend had seen several busloads of Mainlanders with protest banners leave a hotel in Sheung Wan. Two other friends, including one working at Hong Kong’s leading English language newspaper, had informed me that members of their families had received messages from their employers threatening them if they did not join a group that was being formed to take them to Victoria Park, and that transport and meals had already been arranged.
I could tell most of the Putonghua speakers were from the Mainland. Their look, and the fact that many did not seem able to speak Cantonese and had heavy regional accents, betrayed them. They sat in groups. When I attempted to talk to them I was always immediately approached by a younger woman who spoke a little English. Each time they asked “what press do you write for?”. I said I did not write for the press and that I was merely curious. Each time I got the same response: “why should we speak to you if we do not know who you are?”, before being given the cold shoulder. Telling them my name and saying I was a curious Hong Kong resident clearly wasn’t enough.
Thankfully an intern at Asia Sentinel from Yunnan who was with me for the day had more success. Whilst the majority of Mainlanders were from across the border, including groups from Yunnan and Yangzhou, there were also those who live or study in Hong Kong. What they told her was that they had chosen to join the demonstration as they wanted there to be more “unity” between China and Hong Kong. Living and studying in Hong Kong they were disappointed to find Hong Kong people closed and unwelcoming. They were not here to demonstrate against Occupy Central but to advocate for a better relationship between the Chinese people. This is a sentiment I share, though I disagree fundamentally with what this protest is supposed to represent and the polarising effect it has had.
More open to talk were the many South Asians, Indonesians and West Africans who were present. All wore Chinese association shirts, yet formed their own small groups, usually of around 20 people. They did not mix, but always had an association minder.
A group of Sri Lankans told me that they had come because their boss had told them they must. When I asked what the protest was about, I was told “China is interfering with Hong Kong” and that “this is an anti-China rally”. When I asked them why there were so many people carry the China flag there was a sudden pause followed by silence. The group members turned to one another, before one man had the courage to say, “I think we’ve been told something different.”
It was a Nepalese man who provided the best anecdote. He and his group were there to support the DAB. His story was similar, but there was a knowingness to the way he told me his story I found most revealing. It was all about “friendship”. “Our friend supports the DAB”, he said, “our friend and his friends in the DAB help each other. They help us in Hong Kong”. He would not say what he did or describe the help they received, adding only “it’s good for business”. When I asked him why he thought so many people had joined the demonstration this was his reply:
“We don’t really understand politics. We don’t care. We’re all simple people here. All we want is a simple life.”
This really summed up the crowd. Looking around I saw a people bewildered by the experience of being in town, and being part of such a gathering. The groups stopped often to take pictures – always as a group, and always with a prepared banner. Many people seemed to take pride in recognising other groups as if viewing a parade.
Before I arrived I had expected there to be more conservative middle class people; more of the people who front the Alliance; more pro-China academics and journalists. I had also expected to see those ladies who play afternoon tennis at private clubs with their sun screen and brand name, dry-fit clothing, many of whom had in the days leading up to the demonstration attempted to rally support from my own family. It was not just that I did not see them on Sunday, but that I did not see how they would have fit in to the crowd. Perhaps they all got cold feet? Some, I was told, decided to play tennis.
By contrast the July 1st crowd stood patiently in the heat and rain. I was one of those who waited patiently for over 4 hours to leave Victoria Park. Packed tightly in to the space we did seek shade and a place to sit but stood in line. I was not part of any group but with a friend. We met because we both decided to go, not because we were asked. I received no food or drink or any gifts, but when the rain fell others shared with me their umbrella.
On July 1st the majority of the crowd wore their own shirts and waved their own home-made banners. Slogans called for democracy, justice and social justice. The groups present represented issues as well as communities. LGBT groups stood side by side with Catholic associations. The Hong Kong SAR flag was waved along with the Colonial Flag; and the Nationalist flag and the Communist flag. Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were quoted, and it was in their spirit that the crowd had gathered. Among the crowd I heard young students discuss Thomas Picketty. Not everyone may have agreed, and indeed a variety of opinions were represented, but these people were engaged in a debate.
On August 17th everyone I spoke to said they were doing someone else a favour. Conversation revolved around food, drink and, a question I heard repeated put to organisers, how long would they “need” to be here. Patriotism echoed in the marching bands, and the Communist flag flew beside SAR flags. When a nationalist flag was raised in provocation along the route a minor scuffle broke out. But why, if this was a Hong Kong demonstration on a Hong Kong issue, would this flag, representative of the historic allegiance of so many in our community, be a provocation?
On July 1st teams had been arranged to collecting rubbish for recycling. The Alliance, having erected support stations along the route distributing free bottles of water, made no such arrangement and the streets were littered with empty water bottles, broken banners and gifts handed out by the associations taking part. When I pointed out the rubbish to an elderly woman she replied that “it would be much worse if there were to be protests”. I asked her whether she had been to a protest in Hong Kong. She grew angry and refused to answer.
Then there was the police, who as always acted with a level or personal decorum for which this city should be proud. The decision to deploy a minimal police presence was welcome. There were no solid barriers erected, and the route was marked were necessary by police tape. Individual policemen walked among the marches, and small teams were present to provide assistance to both marchers and the general public at important junctions only. A security analyst I know described it as a “low security posture”. There were no major movements of resources around the demonstration, as if anticipating trouble, and the officers themselves, far more relaxed and standing noticeably less upright than they were on July 1st, were deployed in a manner to assist rather than confront. I very much hope the response is representative of a new approach the police will be adopting to all public demonstrations.
I also noted that the police seemed to be working alongside another policing force. These men wore yellow visibility vest similar to those worn by the police, but were in fact CCP volunteers. I noted on several occasions these volunteer teams seemed to operate in conjunction with police officers, and yet I also noted that I never once saw an officer give them a command. These volunteers, who greeted demonstrators with encouragement yet would not offer me assistance when I asked for directions, were clearly working for the event organisers. I again wonder if we will be seeing such self-policing arrangements in future?
I had anticipated a turnout similar to July 1st. It was clearly nowhere close. The Hong Kong University POP team placed the number at 80,000 people, or under half of the July 1st count. (The police estimate is 111,000 to 90,000 the other way.) Walking along the route there was no evidence of popular support. Unlike in July when streams of people both joined and would leave the rally along adjoining streets, those streets were now empty. The marchers all started from Victoria Park and marched to the official end point in Central. Here they were greeted with much fanfare by pseudo-models and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” playing on loudspeakers, and celebratory group photographs were taken. What exactly where they celebrating? It all felt like a sponsored walk.
Where July 1st felt like a popular protest, called by the organisers but made by the people, August 17th felt disingenuous and staged. The Alliance may claim to represent the silent majority but on evidence of this demonstration represent only an alliance of pro-establishment associations who have made a concerted effort to mobilise vast resources to gather a crowd. There was a lot of money that went in to staging this event. A lot of arrangements were made. Will questions be asked about this? Will our government release figures detailing the number of people brought across the border in the few days leading up to the demonstration? Will the organisers be transparent as to who paid for all the transportation that had been arranged and for all the drinks and other gifts that were distributed?
But like the Ming Pao journalist I find myself laughing in pain. As Hong Kong person it hurts me to see non-resident and foreign recruited not only to influence but to claim to “represent” the “majority” view of my people. It hurts me to see the bigotry, racism and intolerant nationalism of some of our elderly people who were defined in a very different time stoked by those who seek to manipulate the political scene. But most hurtful is the shame I feel that there are people within our society, people of influence and respect, who could organise an event like this and be so disingenuous as to suggest it is representative of Hong Kong.
I do not know anyone who wants to occupy Central. The majority have many very legitimate concerns. But this does not mean Hong Kong people, especially those who engage in the political debate, are against it per se. The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people are more united than those behind this demonstration are prepared to admit: we are united in our desire for democratic reform and for there to be less interference in our internal affairs. The Alliance has played to these wishes not by stating what they represent but by demonising the opposition as unpatriotic, undemocratic and violent. Instead of appealing to the moderate ground they have chosen to embrace bigotry and to resort to the worst kind of shameless manipulation that has and continues to blight our politics.
Originally published on Asia Sentinel
七一那天，大部分的人穿著自己的襯衫，揮動著自製的橫額。標語呼籲民主、公平和社會公義。人群提出的問題代表了社會的聲音。同志團體與天主教團體並肩而立。特區區旗伴隨著殖民旗幟、國民黨旗和共產黨旗幟一起揮揚。路人談到了曼德拉、甘地和馬丁路德金。是他們的精神，驅使人群在這裡聚集。在人群中，我聽到一批年輕學生在討論皮凱提 （注：Thomas Picketty，當代法國經濟學家）的理論。不是每個人都持有相同的觀點，更多的是不同的見解，但他們都在熱衷地參與論辯。
譯：Sally Kwok。英文原文刋於 Asia Sentinel