“Do you identify as a Chinese or as a Hong Konger?” – “A Hong Konger, of course. I have no patriotism for China.”

This conversation with a taxi-driver took place not in 2019 but five years earlier. Most Hong Kongers would probably feel the same way. In the 30-something years I have known the place, I have never heard anybody there speak positively about the People’s Republic. So I suppose the protests in Hong Kong should have come as no surprise.

But I have to confess they did. For me, Hong Kong was always the place that cared about business, not politics. Where British rule and security guarantees were accepted without either hostility or gratitude or indeed much evident interest. The HK dollar was all that counted. When I was working on a magazine there in the 1990s, I remember a Filipino editor telling me as the reversion neared, “I don’t feel sorry for them. We fought for democracy. They didn’t.” Well, they were fighting for it now. 

I visited Hong Kong in October 2019 for business and personal reasons, and was barely aware that the protests were still going on. I was swiftly brought up to speed as I made my way to my cubbyhole in Chungking Mansions in Nathan Road. Anybody who has spent time in Hong Kong will know how orderly it is. It was shocking to see the kilometres of angry graffiti on walls, and the battered metro entrance grills, all the way down Nathan Road from Mongkok to the waterfront — several kilometres making up Hong Kong’s Oxford Street. The fliers and the graffiti were blunt: “Chinazis” and suchlike in English, and in Chinese, “Gouguan” (dog officials), “Fangong!” (Resist the communists!). Two vague, four-character phrases, “Guangfu Xianggang” (restore Hong Kong to glory) and “Shidai Geming” (revolution of the age), seemed the slogans of the movement. 

I took the metro, where vandalised ticket machines were still taped off, to Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. The park is close to where I used to work, and was also the venue for Tiananmen Massacre memorial gatherings. I was expecting to find a protest “hub,” a sit-in and banners maybe, but there was nothing, only evening strollers. But at Causeway Bay, the adjoining shopping area, every lamppost and patch of bare wall was defaced. The graffiti must have been there for weeks. At a canteen, I asked a waiter, a guy in his mid-50s, what does the phrase “restore Hong Kong to glory” mean exactly?  “Get back Hong Kong.” – And what did that mean? Independence? – “More or less.”

Ten minutes later, I got a fuller answer. Walking back, I blundered into a small demonstration outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station. Demonstrators carrying flags of prewar China — this was the old republic’s national day — and media folk with hard hats, mikes and cameras were facing off against a squad of police in riot gear at the entrance of the police station, which was at the top of short stairway. The mood was calm but tense. A passerby shouted out “Rapists!” at the cops — a reference to the police brutality that was now the focus of the protests.

“No, we are not calling for independence,” one of three demonstrators I interviewed said. “The time is not right, we cannot go that far.” The protests were originally triggered by dispute over an extradition bill. They had broadened. Demonstrators now had six demands, mostly related to police and government overreaction. The last was a demand for universal, free voting on the Chief Executive (promised by Beijing in 2014 but allegedly never delivered in full). 

“But the underlying issue is that under (Chinese president) Xi Jinping, people fear that they are going to lose their current freedoms. We want to defend and maintain Hong Kong’s separate identity and status.” 

The three young men agreed that though the protests had probably peaked, they would continue. There was no central organization. The tactic was scattered, spontaneous actions, carried out all over the territory by masked groups, aimed at keeping the authorities on the defensive and the issues on the boil. The protests were spearheaded by students and members of the elite class — “people who do not have to be doing this.” They estimated that between 60% and 80% of the Hong Kongers supported them, and were a little dismissive of complaints about disruption and vandalism: “People have a too short-term attitude,” one said.

As we talked, the police suddenly emerged from behind their grill fence, and jogged menacingly down the stairway in their RoboCop gear—you could not see an inch of human flesh. At the bottom they faced off with the protestors, who did not fall back. After ten minutes of jostling and shouting, they evidently got orders to retreat, and jogged back up the stairs with their riot shields. I went back to the hotel.

The following day, I got into a conversation with a young woman activist. She was in her twenties, and originally from the mainland. I asked her, mischievously, wasn’t this uprising really about mainland people moving into Hong Kong and taking jobs and housing in one of the world’s most crowded territories? Yes, she acknowledged, there was an element of that. “But it is only a small part. This is about democracy and freedom. Our media now censor themselves. Hong Kong companies will not support democracy for fear of upsetting cross-border business ties. We’re not playing around. We really are fighting for the future.” Was there support on the mainland? Yes, she said, there is some support. “But obviously, it’s hard to gauge.”

At the time of writing, the protests have become nastier and public support has wavered. Hong Kong’s high street has already taken a big hit. “Things are down 70% here,” an Indian restaurant manager told me. His place was inside the guts of Chungking Mansions. “Normally, I have no trouble getting people in, but I’m having to stand outside and tout for business at the moment. Hate doing that.” He was a Punjabi speaker who had spent most of his life in Hong Kong and was, unusually, fluent in Cantonese. He broadly supported the students, calling the police tactics “outrageous.” Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, was useless — a general view. “If Beijing says that night is day, she will just report to us that night is day.” I asked him, in your half-century here, which was the best time? “The years up to 1995,” he said. 

Such views were not shared at my guesthouse, which was run by a family of mainland origin who spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese, amongst themselves. Mention of the protests evinced a one-word response: “Maiguo.” Treachery. “The mainlanders keep this place going. If they stop coming, Hong Kong goes under. We’re already down badly this year. Know what they really want? They want to go back to Britain, ha ha,” the landlord laughed. “Do you think there is any chance of independence?” – “No. Impossible.” He added: “We do not have sympathy with this. And nor do people on the mainland.”


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Photo by Studio Incendo

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