CAVAN HOGUE. Hong Kong – Students and police

Nov 21, 2019

The current situation is Hong Kong is depressing as both police and protesters blame the other and both engage in violence. There is no sign of reconciliation and the future looks bleak whatever happens. Recession is serious. This report is from a long time resident of Hong Kong who works in universities but prefers not to be identified. It is not safe to stand out in either direction. University staff have to teach on line because universities are closed which makes more work but it is still possible to keep in touch with students –  even  with those holed up in campuses.

Given the escalating violence and chaos in Hong Kong, it would be logical to assume that the protesters would be losing support from the general population who have had to endure sudden economic losses, transport chaos and plain old physical danger. However, in a complex city as Hong Kong, this is not the case. It is now light years away from the beginning of summer, in June when the protests began over the introduction of the Extradition Bill. The first marches were festive family affairs and felt more like carnivals. Everyone had a stake in squashing this deeply unpopular bill and both conservative and liberals were united in their opposition. Six months later, Hong Kong is fractured and broken and deeply divided with little hope and no will for compromise.

The radical protesters are losing public support as there is increased frustration at the long transport delays and chaotic disruptions to daily life. However, this does not translate into increased government support. Instead there is less support for Carrie Lam’s government than ever before, 82% disapproval rate, and there is still a ground support for protesters. Despite the chaos and disruptions, there are sometimes astonishing scenes, of lunchtime city workers joining the protesters and shouting insults to the riot police and many ordinary citizens will provide supplies and transport to stranded protesters. More recently, at Polytechnic University, taxi drivers blocked roads so that protesters could get away from the police and often they will hang around key protest areas to ferry them home.

At universities, there are different levels of participation. While many students support the cause, there is an equally large number who are not protesters and others who do not want to be involved in violence. However, the Be Water movement and the mobility of students to move in and out of areas means that they can also choose their level of support. Through apps like telegram, they can select their level of commitment. They can choose mundane tasks like passing water bottles around to the more extreme tasks of fighting on the frontline. Both the more peaceful ones and the radical elements have an understanding that each have their place in the protest. The escalating violence however, has meant that numbers are dropping which leaves the radicals more exposed. The numbers do fluctuate, Increasing in such events as the death of the HKUST student. This violence has also come from both police and protesters and depending on your side, you can argue that the police started it or the protesters started it. What is now clear is that there is deep hatred on either side for the other. This has led to reckless and dangerous behavior on both sides but since the police have the upper hand in terms of weaponry and keeping law and order they are seen as the greater villains.

It is dangerous to express any form of criticism as there are no nuanced views. At the moment you either support Hong Kong freedom or you are a pro Beijing supporter. Shops, restaurants and businesses are targeted as being blue ( pro Beijing ) or yellow ( pro Hong Kong). The blues get vandalised and the yellows are rewarded with increased patronage. Hong Kongers have a strong sense of civic duty but now clearing roadblocks and rubbish from the streets can lead to injuries and death as in the recent case of the 70 year old cleaner, who was complaining at clearing up the rubbish and then died from his injuries after a brick throwing skirmish.

The emergence of the PLA troops from their local garrison in Hong Kong was seen as a signal from Beijing that they will send in the troops. Beijing is highly cautious and it is unlikely that they will outwardly interfere, preferring to give orders through the HK government.  There was certainly political mileage from the PLA presence but the reality is that very occasionally they have come out in public. Last year after a devastating typhoon, they came out to help clear the roads and in the more recent case their garrison is next to the Polytechnic University. The more worrying note of what is to come is not a few troops coming out to clear the area. It is the recent statement from China that they have the ultimate say in deciding the Hong Kong constitution. This was in response to the Hong Kong High Court’s decision that the recent emergency anti mask legislation was unconstitutional. In addition, it seems as ‘education’ will be strongly advocated in HK and this will impact the ‘liberal arts’.

The trashing of university campuses throughout the city is deeply saddening and it will take weeks and maybe months of repairs. What is not so easily repaired is the reputation and economic losses of Hong Kong. For the universities, this means less enrollments both from mainland Chinese students and foreign exchange students. As a long term resident in Hong Kong, it angers and saddens me to see this disintegration. Families are torn apart over the protests, people’s jobs are affected and the present forecast is that Hong Kong will remain in recession leading to a bleaker future. It is a city however of resilience and courage and it is a mistake to ever underestimate a Hong Konger and that perhaps is the real hope for Hong Kong.


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