By Nick Webber
As we enter a second month of civil disobedience, this is an eyewitness account of the events of late September. Written just after the police fired dozens of tear gas rounds at students and protesters, it is an account of the events that have changed our city.
30th September, 2014
When news of the week-long student boycott broke in early September, my initial reaction was one of guarded optimism. I was encouraged by the idea that this form of activism was finding (or forging) a platform in Hong Kong, but like many other people I spoke to during the time, I remained unconvinced that uptake would be sufficient enough to really make a noticeable difference. And as the boycott drew closer, and talk of “catch-up classes,” emailed readings and non-participation began to circulate, it seemed as if this reticence was pretty well founded. The peculiar intensity and results-driven environment of Hong Kong’s higher education system, I reasoned, would help to undercut the movement just as it was beginning to find its feet.
And this is without taking account of the core message (or aim?) of the boycott itself: greater democracy for Hong Kong; a 2017 electoral system without loaded dice; an agentive rather than Hobson’s choice. That such aims appear lofty within the broader context of Hong Kong-China relations is undoubted, and a common (if myopic) critique of the movement focussed precisely on this question of outcomes. What did the students hope to achieve through boycotting class? Where was it going to end? And if it wasn’t going to achieve all that much, then why bother in the first place? The problem with this criticism, of course, is that it drastically undervalues the consciousness-raising work that even the most abortive of resistance movements can—maybe—help to produce (as has been played out to such staggering effect these past few days). But this does not mean to say that it did not (and does not still) have its adherents (as well as its partial truths), and it certainly helped to contribute to what I saw a few weeks ago as the faint air of negativity and/or cynicism surrounding the proposed strike.
It was not a great surprise to me, then, that as the boycott began on September 22nd, the University of Hong Kong’s campus seemed relatively normal—which means, in the context of this semester at least, that is was teeming with students, a fraction of whom were wearing the yellow ribbon now so strongly associated with recent events. Whilst I occasionally read of students in other universities across Hong Kong taking a more active and en masse approach to the boycott, I learned from colleagues in HKU that class attendance figures were more or less stable, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that as the week went on, the boycott almost completely fell from my thoughts.
Student protest at Government HQ
The extent of the protests at LegCo on the final day of the boycott (Saturday 27th September) was therefore unexpected. Whilst nothing compared to the crowds seen across Hong Kong in the past few days, it was already possible to see in the assembled hundreds evidence of the cooperation, efficacy and determination that have characterised the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” as a whole. Each time the police line retreated, the barriers (initially deployed by the authorities to contain the crowd) were put to work as networked barricades; once the order was given, the whole process took no longer than five minutes, and gradually the demonstration space expanded to accommodate new arrivals.
When I arrived on the site, the “storming” (as I’ve sometimes seen it phrased) of the government HQ courtyard had already taken place, and the high-profile arrests already made. People were by and large settling in for a long night, and not without a good deal of trepidation. Already the iconic umbrellas were being deployed as possible shields for pepper-spray; protesters often spoke warily of police advances; a legal-aid text number was written on people’s arms in case of arrest; there were reminders also to conserve battery so as to avoid being out of contact.
After I left the demonstration site, I heard from protesters still on location that Benny Tai, one of the key figures in the Occupy Central movement, had decided to launch the civil disobedience campaign initially intended for National Day on October 1st. And although this call was not received too favourably by many of the students, who accused Occupy of bandwagon opportunism, it was (partly) through this “hitching together” that the consciousness-raising student boycott became what is now headline news around the world.
Occupy Central (Day 1)
The real catalyst, though, came on the Sunday evening, with the police’s use of pepper-spray, baton charges and tear gas. The question of provocation is of course particularly vexed here, especially given that police representatives have recently stated that the wearing of protective devices against such weaponry (and by “devices” I mean something as simple as cling-film) can be cited as evidence for the wish to engage, provocatively, with the police (“cause, allow me to introduce you to effect …”). But Lewis Carroll nonsense-logic notwithstanding, it is safe to say that one can lay the charge of provocation rather squarely with the (overworked, exhausted, sometimes frantic) police force.
After the first few volleys of tear gas were fired into the crowd, I did see a handful of protesters pick up objects to throw at the police, but this retaliation was quickly suppressed by fellow protesters. Since then, the only time I’ve seen objects picked up from the ground, they’ve either been placed into rubbish bags or sorted for recycling. This is conscientious stuff.
In some part because of the police’s disproportionate and violent response—which lasted well into the early hours of Sunday morning—the demonstration began to split into discrete areas across the territory. Before long, new (and frequently attacked) occupied spaces had been established in Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Chinese University. At the increasingly besieged epicentre of the protests on Gloucester Road, gas-masked, shotgun-wielding police tried their level best to remove an intransigent, cooperative and ever-resolute mass of protesters. It was never going to be a fair fight … the police eventually retreated, and the occupied spaces were secured.
Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution (Day 2)
If, though, the previous day’s violence was marked by a determined and organised solidarity under pressure, then the following day was more a question of consolidating the occupied positions in the face of a curiously absent police force, who, it seems, in a move mirroring the recent Ferguson riots, decided on a softly softly approach following their attempts at removal by force. By the time dusk rolled around, the crowds had swelled to astonishing numbers, and without a police presence, the mood had turned from fear to one of (almost) celebration (who was it that was provocative again?).
Walking from LegCo to Causeway Bay, I was able to witness what a peculiar, uncanny city Hong Kong has now become. From the teeming crowds on Gloucester Road—which now features a mocked up grave for C.Y. Leung, adorned with dead flowers and cigarette ends—the city becomes “itself” again by the time you reach Wan Chai Arts Centre. Another 15 minutes down the road, however, and you hear that now familiar hum of congregated folk, and encounter yet another city junction pedestrianised through force, a space made to speak the political will of its new inhabitants.
On our return home from Causeway Bay, my friends and I were (un)fortunate enough to be interrupted by two tourists looking for a place to drink (or, rather, to continue to drink). We told them that it might be difficult to find transport because of the protests (“I know,” said the girl. “It’s getting really annoying”—I’m fairly sure my eyes audibly rolled), and told them their best bet would be to walk 10 minutes down to Wan Chai. “Oh, I don’t walk,” said the girl … *roll* …
“Oh, I don’t walk.”
“Oh, I don’t walk.” It was a throwaway sentence, really, perhaps even a very poorly constructed joke (it definitely wasn’t—she was a prize diltoid). But it led me to reflect on what it is that I see as so important about the protests currently spreading through Hong Kong. In the past, the majority of Hong Kong residents expressed their own “Oh, I don’t walk-ness” through political apathy, through a blind retention of the status quo. But this has now changed, and changed for good. There is no “depoliticising” these students now. I know of middle-aged Hong Kong residents who’ve never protested before (nor even really thought about it), who have decided to take part in these acts of civil disobedience. I’ve seen old and young alike, facing down lines of police.
“Oh, I don’t walk” has become a determination to be active, to see Hong Kong differently, to engage space politically, through footfall, through critical mass.
Whether the “Umbrella Revolution” (or as I’d prefer, the “Umbrella Movement”) is a success or not is still more than a little uncertain—and if we’re being totally honest, very unlikely. China is a fiery beast that takes none too kindly to jabs and scratches. I’m fearful for the protesters as much as I am heartened by their resolve, by their enthusiasm to take part, to organise, antagonise. This is certainly no time for blunt sanguinity, but there is a communitarian energy and urgent vitality about Hong Kong at the moment that I’ve never seen present before … and long may that energy continue.
All images courtesy of Aaron Anfinson.
Nick Webber is a teaching assistant in the School of English and the former editor of the Alumni Magazine. You can read more of his posts at http://lefolly.wordpress.com.