Inside Story

A city divided

The sense of a new political awareness was tangible in the last days of the Hong Kong protest, writes Duncan Hewitt. The challenge will be find a way forward without further alienating citizens who oppose the Umbrella Movement

Duncan Hewitt 22 December 2014 2572 words

“People are awakened”: Causeway Bay on the last day of the protest. Pasu Au Yeung/Flickr

The traffic is flowing again on the Harcourt Road flyover. “Democracy Bridge,” the hand-built wooden staircase across the central divide, with its carefully labelled up lane and down lanes, is no more. The quiet “Study Room,” with its homemade desks and chairs, has been crushed and removed. And few faint marks on the concrete are all that remain of “Lennon Wall,” where tens of thousands of people stuck post-it notes describing their dreams of a brighter future.

After more than ten weeks in which the busy highway outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters became an unlikely pro-democracy encampment, the city’s Umbrella Movement (named after the everyday tool the protesters used to defend themselves against tear-gas and pepper spray) is, on the surface at least, over. In the end the protesters went fairly quietly, packing up their tents and their schoolbooks as police moved in to enforce a court injunction to clear the roads. Even the 249 who sat-in outside the city’s legislative building on the last day offered little resistance as they were arrested and removed.

It was, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that many in Hong Kong, including some of those who had attended the camp, were wearying of the sit-in, and of the anger it was provoking from some sectors of society. But many of the protesters spent the last days of the street camp making banners saying “We’ll be back”; and the identity of those arrested is a reminder of how the movement, which began as a protest against China’s plan to limit the choice of candidates for 2017 election of the city’s next chief executive, has left Hong Kong more politically polarised than ever before.

From media tycoon Jimmy Lai to students, pro-democracy legislators and lawyers, those calling on China for greater and earlier democracy have come together in ways previously unseen. Their numbers even included a bona-fide Cantonese pop star, Denise Ho, one of many celebrities who expressed their sympathy for the Umbrella Movement, and risked their often-lucrative careers in mainland China. (Dozens, including movie star Chow Yun-fat, are reported to have been blacklisted by China for their troubles.)

The latest opinion polls confirm that the city is now deeply divided: a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, in mid-December suggested that 51 per cent of the population were dissatisfied with how the city’s government had handled the protests, and 43 per cent specifically opposed the Beijing-backed package of political reforms – including the rules for selecting the next chief executive – which is due to be voted on by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in the coming months. But 38 per cent supported the government’s political reform package – up sharply from just 29 per cent in late September, when the protests began. In other words, the middle ground in Hong Kong politics has been squeezed. As Ma Ngok, head of the department of government and public administration at CUHK, puts it, “the current situation leaves no ground for the moderates.”

The divisions of opinion are not all along obvious lines. In the last few days of the encampment, business people in suits came to take photographs for posterity, middle-aged parents offered their support for the young students (some of whom were on hunger-strike), and elderly people took a stroll for a last look or, like Mr Chan, a retired businessman in his seventies, to help out. “I’ve come here every day since late September,” he said, as he sawed wooden stencils alongside a young student in a bandana, before arranging them on a piece of yellow cloth to form the three English words, “We will back.” “The election rules are not fair,” he explained. “I’ve traded with China for a long time, and I don’t think we can change Beijing’s mind – but you have to express your feelings.”

Nearby, Eleanor and Claire, two women in their forties who had become friends as a result of the movement, explained they had been spending nights at the protest camp on weekends. The former worked for a mainland Chinese real estate company in Hong Kong, and didn’t dare to discuss her political views with her colleagues, but she told me that she felt compelled to join the protests as a result of what she saw as a decline in Hong Kong’s freedoms since Beijing-backed businessman Leung Chun-ying – known as C.Y. Leung – became the city’s chief executive in 2012.

“It seems he’s doing more and more things to damage Hong Kong’s values,” Eleanor said, “like our social fairness, and freedom of speech and freedom of news, and the independence of ICAC.” (In recent months ICAC, Hong Kong’s anti-corruption commission, has been accused of targeting pro-democracy politicians and tycoons.)Claire agreed. She used to work in the mainland, but had closed her company’s office there in order to spent more time with the protesters.

And such decisions seemed common among the protesters. I spoke to people who had resigned from good jobs with mainland companies in Hong Kong because of political differences over the protests. There were also frequent stories of people “de-friending” each other on social media sites after it became clear that they held different views about the upheaval.

Just how bitter such divisions may become is highlighted by Fernando Cheung, an elected member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and deputy head of the city’s Labour Party. An urbane professor of social work, Cheung supported the protest movement, and was detained by police right at its start when he tried to set up a speaker system to address the crowds who had gathered outside government headquarters. He has all along called for a peaceful approach, and sought to mediate between police and demonstrators on several occasions. But his association with the movement has led to what he describes as “some rather unfriendly confrontation” from people in the street.

“On one occasion a middle-class couple spent about twenty minutes swearing at me on a bus,” he says. “Of course it was about obstructing the streets, about misleading the students, using them to gain whatever, but the kind of anger they had was really beyond an ordinary level. They said that nine generations of my family should be severely punished, and that I should have disabled children for generations to come. It was really rather evil,” he adds, with an ironic laugh. “I think they really meant it. Society in general has become tenser, everywhere.”

Opponents of the protest point to the occupation of the main road in front of the government and legislature buildings, and particularly the occupation of busy shopping areas in Mongkok and Causeway Bay, as having damaged the city’s economy. They see this as a key reason for the ebb of public support in the protest movement after early October, when many ordinary citizens were initially galvanised by anger at the police’s use of tear-gas and pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators.

But those who sympathise with the protests remain united in their dissatisfaction with Leung, whose wooden performances and explicitly expressed disdain for the principles of democracy are a visible reminder that he had little experience of Hong Kong’s relatively sophisticated political environment before being parachuted in as a candidate for the post in 2012. And the police’s use of tear-gas, their perceived collusion with violent anti-protest demonstrators in Mongkok, and in one case their on-camera beating of a pro-democracy politician,have been seen as further evidence of an erosion of Hong Kong’s civic values.

“I think the legitimacy of both the government and police were very much affected by this movement,” says Ma Ngok of the Chinese University. “Hong Kong people have long believed that the police force is impartial, and therefore rational, but I think this time, after what happened in Mongkok on October 3rd, or what they did using batons against innocent people, its image was tarnished.” Legislator Fernando Cheung goes further: “I think people are afraid that Hong Kong is going to become a police state,” he says.

So where does this divided society go from here? C.Y. Leung has made it clear he has no intention of stepping down early – even despite allegations in the Melbourne Age about his financial dealings – and Beijing, which all along has branded the protests illegal, has shown no sign of being willing to make concessions. If anything, Chinese officials seem to be hinting that Hong Kong needs a greater emphasis on law and order, and less focus on democracy. C.Y. Leung is sympathetic to such views, and Chinese officials have also hinted that Hong Kong people need more education about their place in China’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula.

In other words, a Chinese government which, according to protesters, provoked the demonstrations with its minimalist interpretation of the “universal suffrage” it promised to Hong Kong for 2017, does not seem to be in the mood to change its approach. All the more so, perhaps, because of its longstanding fear that upheaval in Hong Kong could encourage similar protest in the mainland.

At the same time, there seems little evidence that the protesters are willing to give up. Fernando Cheung recalls trying to persuade demonstrators to leave the streets on the first night of large-scale protest, amid rumours that police might fire not only tear-gas but rubber bullets. “I was using a loudspeaker, asking people to leave, and people started yelling at me,” he says, “shouting ‘You go home if you don’t want to stay, we’re staying.’ So I certainly saw the determination of the people.” And, he adds, “This whole campaign has astounded me – people are awakened.”

Such a sense of political awakening, particularly among the young generation, has been widely discussed in Hong Kong, with many pointing to the leading role of student groups, such as Scholarism, which was founded by high school students. Scholarism spokesman Oscar Lai (at twenty, now a veteran campaigner) notes that even younger students have founded similar groups over recent months. And while he acknowledges that “it will be hard” to get the rules changed for the 2017 elections, he insists that activists need to seize the moment in Hong Kong.

“In any movement you have to plan for the worst ,” he says. “But this is still a good time for us [to press our case] – at the moment there are so many people fighting for democracy. In twenty years’ time mainland China may well have completely spread its influence into all sectors of Hong Kong, and then it will be too late.”

And among those on the streets in Admiralty in the last days of the protest camp, the sense of a new political awareness in Hong Kong was tangible: Eva, a twenty-five-year-old receptionist and former art student, said she used to “hate” politics: “In the past I didn’t normally read the news and I didn’t really care about it. Then I saw the police firing tear-gas at unarmed people, and I felt I should stand up. So this has changed the minds of the next generation,” she said. “We used to spend our time chatting about makeup, how to be pretty – now it’s like, ‘no, the government!’ From this point, you start to research some of these issues, and you learn about political things.”

Eleanor, the professional woman in her forties who had joined the protest camp, explained that “we grew up under the British system, we were taught to be ‘gentlemen and ladies,’ to be obedient, respect regulations. I used to be very polite,” she went on, “at school I obeyed everything. I’ve always obeyed the law, paid tax on time – because we love our society, but now I cannot stand it any more. I’m so angry.” Her friend Claire echoed her sense of the need for a tougher stance. “We see that the Chinese government is so crude and rude,” she said. “Oh my goodness, how can a gentleman fight with a thug? So we have to take a different approach now.”

The challenge for these newly awakened citizens may be to maintain unity among the disparate forces involved in the protests – and to find new means of expressing their views without further alienating other sectors of Hong Kong society. The passage of the government’s political reform bill through the legislature is now expected to become a focus of attention, along with attempts to encourage voter registration and broaden the voting base of the selection committee that chooses candidates for chief executive. The fight against government efforts to water down Hong Kong’s liberal studies education curriculum, which is seen by many as having encouraged the young generation to become more socially engaged, is also likely to become a bitter one.

Fernando Cheung believes it will be vital to seek solidarity between the various pro-democracy factions in order to continue to wage what he calls “a war to protect Hong Kong’s values.” He acknowledges that this could be a challenge, and that the city’s established pro-democracy political parties, generally seen as lagging behind in the recent movement, have a lot of work to do to convince the young generation that they offer a real alternative. “The parties really have to be reorganised,” Cheung says. “People do not trust them, and it’s getting worse. So I think there might be a lot more new faces in the next Legislative Council election in 2016; I think independent candidates might stand a better chance than people associated with political parties!”

For Hong Kong’s leader CY Leung, that’s unlikely to be reassuring – especially if the city’s new generation of activists start entering the political system. Leung recently aroused irritation by suggesting that young Hong Kong protesters ought to go abroad to learn more about the real world, and come back when they had some useable skills; in the meantime, he suggested, Hong Kong could import better qualified postgraduates from the mainland. At the moment, though, it seems that members of the city’s young generation, many of whom have little hope of being able to afford to study overseas, are unlikely to just fade into the background.

The traffic may be flowing again in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district, but it seems unlikely that business as usual will resume any time soon, after the city’s unprecedented ten and a half weeks of people power. “Hong Kong has changed,” says Fernando Cheung. “It could never be the same again.” •