Reading the Riot Act

On the streets of Hong Kong, our writer witnesses the anger and fear at the heart of the Umbrella Movement protests

By Graham Boynton

September 23 2019

The backdrop is a glittering forest of skyscrapers – a dramatic mix of the ultra-modern, embodied by IM Pei’s Bank of China Tower and Cesar Pelli’s Cheung Kong Centre, and the classic colonial, represented by the Old Supreme Court Building and the Central Police Station. I feel as if I’m on a Ridley Scott movie set. It is hard to imagine a more surreal setting for the weekend riots that have become an integral feature of life in Hong Kong.

The demonstrations start around the middle of the day as an orderly procession of black-clad Hong Kongers, a veritable tide of protestors pouring along the Central district’s main streets, waving banners and chanting freedom slogans. These are teachers, students, office workers, schoolchildren, administrators, you name it. Many are marching with raised umbrellas – a reference to the beginnings of this civilian uprising in 2014, the so-called Umbrella Movement, which lasted 80 days. Before October, when the authorities banned wearing face masks, many would wear them to conceal their identities and protect themselves against the inevitable tear gas fusillades. They march past the symbols of Hong Kong’s prosperity – the famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel, one of the most luxurious in the world; designer boutiques such as Bulgari, Valentino, and Fendi – and past the posh restaurants. All in an atmosphere of good-natured mass dissent.

Although at this stage of the demo everything is calm, orderly and polite, the luxury shops in the Landmark Atrium shopping mall begin pulling down their shutters and close for the rest of the day as a precautionary measure. In the Mall I come across a long line of female demonstrators of all ages, mainly dressed in the regulation black, queuing politely and patiently outside the public lavatories. At the same time I see several protestors clearing up litter after the main body of the demonstration has passed by.

One group hold aloft American flags. A young woman carrying a sign imploring President Trump to “liberate Hong Kong and defend our constitution” asks me earnestly why the West has not intervened on their behalf. I have no answer and my heart goes out to them. They’re eager to tell foreign spectators that they’re protesting at the erosion of personal liberties being visited on them by the mainland Chinese government.

Although the trigger for this current uprising was the unpopular Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s imposition of a criminal extradition bill, introduced without proper consultation, discontent has been brewing for years. The “one country, two systems” principle was supposed to prevail until 2047. But according to a lawyer friend who has worked in Hong Kong for the past 30 years, the Chinese
government is obsessed with controlling Hong Kong and has been gradually eroding the freedoms that were agreed with the British prior to the 1997 handover.

“I’m afraid these brave young citizens are doomed,”  he says ominously. “They are up against an iron-fisted  autocracy that’s itching to teach them a lesson.”
“I’m afraid these brave young citizens are doomed,” he says ominously. “They are up against an iron-fisted autocracy that’s itching to teach them a lesson.”

“They agreed to preserve the law and the independent judiciary, all the
freedoms associated with that – human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and so on,” he says. “But they changed their mind and now only political candidates pre-approved by Beijing can be elected. It was that announcement that led to the Umbrella Movement. “I’m afraid these brave young citizens are doomed,” he says ominously. “They are up against an iron-fisted autocracy that is itching to get involved and teach them a lesson.”

By early evening the iron fist makes its appearance. Phalanxes of Hong Kong police in full riot gear confront the radicals in the demonstrators’ midst and pretty soon tear gas is being fired, Molotov cocktails are being thrown and an atmosphere of menace envelops the streets. Out come water canons spouting blue dye. So-called ‘raptors’ – Special Tactical Squad officers – swarm out from police lines, grabbing protestors, beating them with truncheons, and hauling them to jail. “It’s too violent now. Too dangerous,” a limo driver, who asks not to be identified, tells me. “I have three kids and they’re not marching now. Three months ago my wife was marching. But I told her she was too fat to run away from the police and now she’s stopped.”

There is a lot of local resentment against mainland Chinese, he says. “After 1997 they came here and bought all the property and pushed up the prices. The Chinese authorities want the Hong Kong schools to have their lessons in Mandarin but we are international and we speak English here. Everything is changing,” he sighs.

The presence of China looms large – just across the border in Shenzhen there has been a build up of People’s Liberation Army troops and armoured equipment, with The New York Times reporting that 12,000 police officers, tanks, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles are now in place. And the question is being widely mooted as to whether many of the Molotov-throwing provocateurs are, in fact, undercover government agents tasked with upping the stakes and thus allowing Beijing to bring in the hard-line troops from across the border.

All of this is doing significant damage to the Hong Kong economy. Tourism is down by 40 per cent on last year, and forward bookings for 2020 look dire. Two of the bespoke tailors I visit say their orders are down 60 per cent. And over two days in August, while the demonstrators were causing disruption at Hong Kong International airport, hundreds of flights in and out had to be cancelled, making a bad economic situation even worse.

I can’t help but feel great sympathy for the people of Hong Kong. This is both a brave expression of their need for democracy and an economic suicide note. What the majority of Hong Kong’s eight million citizens fear is that this unrest will scupper the economy. The signs are already there – the tourist industry is on its knees and hotels are running at below 50 per cent occupancy with newly opened hotels such as the 400-room Rosewood having single-digit occupancy and the spectre of having to lay off many of its staff.

It’s all very well for The New York Times’s mildly absurd correspondent Nick Kristoff to wander around the demonstrators wearing a crash helmet, pontificating about freedom of expression when he’ll be flying home to his Manhattan apartment and spending the following weekend at dinner parties in the Hamptons, regaling his admiring companions with tales of front-line reporting. The way things are going, the demonstrators and their families may well be out of work in a few months time. Then what price their political freedom?

I leave Hong Kong with a heavy heart and overwhelming sense of foreboding. A Ridley Scott movie set it may be, but this is a story without a happy ending.