Hong Kong Uprising: An Outsider’s View from the Inside

19 comments
General

Unless you’ve been stranded on an island without WiFi or television, or hiding under a rock, you just may have heard a bit on the news about what’s been happening in my adoptive hometown of Hong Kong. OK, in fact, the updates had been pervasive across news channels. More so than I would have anticipated. Now that mass media on the topic has died down, but the protests linger on, it’s worth taking a step back and reflecting.

One of the main protest zones in Hong Kong (Admiralty) - during the highly publicized October 21 talks between student protest leaders and government officials

One of the main protest zones in Hong Kong (Admiralty) – during the highly publicized October 21 talks between student protest leaders and government officials

The idea of democracy is an oft-lauded ‘ideal’. It’s seductive, particularly to the western world. So perhaps it’s really no surprise at all that the largely student-run, pro-democracy movement in HK resonates with such a broad audience. Don’t think that point is lost on the students. Young as they are, they understand fully the power of media and have been quite successful in harnessing that power.

To the left of the umbotron, student protest leaders address and inspire their supporting masses following the talks

To the left of the jumbotron, student protest leaders address and inspire their supporting masses following the talks

The press were out in full force covering the aftermath of the stagnant talks

The press were out in full force covering the aftermath of the stagnant talks

_DSC7622

On the fly, a handwritten and hand-scrolled narrative serves as a makeshift teleprompter for a TV reporter

_DSC7510

About 6 weeks ago, the city I once considered quite tame, unquestioning of authority, respectful of rules – began to overtly rebel. I must admit, my first impression on learning of the uprising was – well, I was surprised.

But I should not have been. Yes, the leaders of Occupy Central, and now, more the students, are fighting for democracy – and more specifically (at least ‘on paper’), the right to select their own candidates for election to the highest post of Chief Executive in 2017 (as opposed to being forced to select from a pool of candidates pre-screened and selected by the mainland). But there are other factors underpinning this movement.

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, Hong Kong’s status as a SAR (special administrative region) of China, many local Hong Kongers are principally against mainland China’s politics, beliefs, even the behaviors and ‘etiquette’ of the people of the motherland. Especially the students are increasingly aware of what they consider the infiltration of HK by mainland Chinese.

It would be hard to ignore this phenomenon, even as a relative bystander or mildly observant tourist. For example, go to one of HK’s numerous luxury malls, and you may see someone (most likely a mainlander) literally carrying a shoebox of cold hard cash into Louis Vuitton – prepared to offload tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. But those who have been in HK longer, and of course, the real locals, have more personal and deeper reasons they are wary of the mainland’s growing presence in HK. Students in particular may be peering into the future and increasingly seeing their place in HK slipping away to mainland Chinese. The rapidly growing upper crust of the mainland is quite literally buying up HK – not just luxury goods, but also much of its real estate. Importantly, they are also playing a much larger role in the HK job market.

These apparently fearless students are likely fearful for their own future. And acting now to try to protect it.

The 'Umbrella Revolution' rallies together again after the October 21 talks

The ‘Umbrella Revolution’ rallies together again after the October 21 talks

The protest movement doesn’t have one absolutely clear leader (even more impressive that it’s succeeded in achieving such traction), but relative long-time activist, Joshua Wong, and Federation of Students secretary-general Alex Chow, are seen as key champions. Notably after last week’s initial, predictably stagnant talks of the ‘T-shirts’ (students) vs. the ‘suits’ (current government representatives, namely current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s second-in-command – Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam), a few other students (Lester Shum, Yvonne Leung, Nathan Law, and Eason Chung) have also seemingly achieved rock-star activist status.

Alex Chow, Lester Shum, Yvonne Leung, Nathan Law, and Eason Chung motivate the crowds in Admiralty following the failed talks

Alex Chow, Lester Shum, Yvonne Leung, Nathan Law, and Eason Chung motivate the crowds in Admiralty following the failed talks

"An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Civil disobedience is the inherent right of the citizen." - Gandhi

A famous quote-cum-motto used by the Federation of Students leaders: “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Civil disobedience is the inherent right of the citizen.” – Gandhi

And make no mistake, these students are largely seen by supporters as rock stars – as evidenced by their reception at the main Admiralty protest zone near HK’s government headquarters, immediately following those now-infamous talks. Describing what I observed last Tuesday evening as a standing ovation would be a gross understatement. These students were received as celebrities, celebrated for their bravery and outspoken defense of HK.

_DSC7590

_DSC7609

_DSC7619

Having been away from HK since the inception of the protests, I was eager to witness the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ first-hand. While wandering amidst its supporters  – I must admit, it was challenging not to get caught up in it all. The energy of this movement is beyond palpable, it has a robust heartbeat. And despite its label as a student movement, it actually crosses generations – at least to some extent.

_DSC7476

As you have seen and read, it is highly organized. The movement has a well-equipped A/V team to supports its rallies and press efforts, essentially outdoor ‘offices’ complete with desks, lamps, and computers – and of course, most significantly, thousands of supporters, prepared to wait out long hours, days, nights, weeks – to try to secure what they seek.

A behind-the-scenes look at the student-led protest speeches - supported by a dedicated A/V team directly behind their platform

A behind-the-scenes look at the student-led protest speeches – supported by a dedicated A/V team directly behind their platform

A testament to the protesters' organizational capabilities - exemplified by 'office' set-ups in the heart of the Admiralty protest zone

A testament to the protesters’ organizational capabilities – exemplified by ‘office’ set-ups in the heart of the Admiralty protest zone

_DSC7408

Outdoors stores must be enjoying the surge of retail activity – supplying those rows and rows of tents that have now become almost as emblematic of this movement as its umbrellas (the original ‘guards’ against the elements – rain, sun, and of course, the tear gas and pepper spray that police released in weeks past). And as you have likely also heard, protesters are largely, to the surprise of many around the world, quite orderly – they pick up their trash, even recycle. One must admit, it is pretty impressive.

_DSC7624

Peering down on the pervasive tents housing tenacious protesters

Symbols of the HK protests illuminate the scene in Admiralty - umbrellas and masks

Symbols of the HK protests illuminate the scene in Admiralty – umbrellas and masks

Chalking up the streets of Admiralty with the now-pervasive umbrella symbol of the protests

Chalking up the streets of Admiralty with the now-pervasive umbrella symbol of the protests

_DSC7455

_DSC7537

_DSC7470

_DSC7637

_DSC7636

But let’s return to the fundamental platform of the protest movement. Government leader Lam chided the students during the recent talks for being more ‘idealistic’ than ‘pragmatic’. Of course, she was loudly ‘booed’ by protest supporters for such words. It’s tempting to want to vilify this sentiment. But is there possibly any truth to what she says?

Democracy might be a worthy ideal on paper, but we have certainly observed several examples of failed attempts to establish democracy in the past decade, and there are arguably ‘democratic’ societies that are messy at best. As an American who has directly enjoyed the benefits of democracy, sure – I support the idea of it, I appreciate its upside. As a very simple example – while I’ve had to delay posting this because I simply haven’t had access to my own blog while traveling on business in Beijing, I have become sensitized to even the impact of censorship as a denied freedom. But democracy does not always succeed. The reality is, democracy isn’t necessarily the best system for all countries. Would it be the best system for Hong Kong? To be honest, I can’t say for sure.

Another reality? Hong Kong is after all part of China. ‘One country, 2 systems (sort of)’. Mainland will not relinquish much of their stronghold on the region for various reasons, not least of which is the signal such a compromise would send to other restless parts of China. It is unrealistic to expect that the mainland will make any decisions for HK that will jeopardize the mainland’s control over the region.

And how much support do the protesters honestly have? If you ask a broader cross-section of HK’s population what they think, many are actually not avid supporters, especially now that the protests have dragged on for weeks – despite the masses at the protest zones showcased in the media. There is a level of respect for the movement’s intent and to some extent, the tenacity of its proponents. But many folks – whether taxi drivers or businessmen and women – are also tiring of the toll on the city. Many see no productive end without compromise – or even potentially violence. More are admitting that they see the protesters’ requests as naive. Hong Kong has never enjoyed such freedoms, even under British rule. Some argue that China’s dominance has actually done HK some good. And many actually sympathize with the local police, who despite their tabloid-friendly challenges with ‘inopportune’ decisions to release tear gas and a notorious beating of an unarmed protester – have arguably exhibited quite remarkable restraint throughout weeks of exhaustingly amplified working hours.

As a relatively recently relocated expat, I am obviously still an outsider looking in. I can’t pretend to know or understand all of the nuances of what is feeding (and what could stifle) this uprising nor assert what would be best for HK. Clearly, there are no easy answers. And no one really knows exactly how this standoff will end.

_DSC7601

To be frank, the mainland could crush this on a moment’s notice. I don’t think they will, at least not in any overtly oppressive way – Hong Kong is a significant success story overall for China, and the world is watching closely.  But realistically, the protesters will not be granted what they want – at least not the current iteration of their expressed demands. The idea of expulsion of CY Leung from his position has been floating in the ether (himself a beneficiary of the current system, he certainly has not helped his case by making inflammatory comments about the danger of democracy leading to the ‘poor’ dominating politics). But the mainland would likely just appoint someone else to the position – and the protesters know this all too well. Special follow-up ‘reports’ were proposed by the government during the recent talks, but we all know they won’t change anything substantively. Neither side shows any sign of surrendering.

_DSC7506

But both sides refusing to back down significantly will obviously just perpetuate the standoff – which at best, will keep the city at its partially halted state. At worst, the situation could escalate to greater violence – particularly in the less stable protest zone in Mong Kok, where violence has already manifested and where there has also been a growing presence of the ‘triads’ (organized crime groups) who are generally against the protest movement.

There is no doubt we are in the midst of a fascinating period in Hong Kong, which will leave an indelible mark on its future history. Everyone hopes for a peaceful resolution – but for better or worse, this means the protesters will have to come to terms with significant compromises. No matter where you stand on the issues, though – you have to give the protesters some credit for their hutzpah (or cojones, or whatever term you prefer). They are certainly sending a strong message to the mainland that they will not simply roll over and play dead. Only time will tell the real impact on the people of this fair city.

_DSC7615

_DSC7567

_DSC7630

_DSC7483

_DSC7634

_DSC7462

_DSC7492

top

Posted by

Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

19 thoughts on “Hong Kong Uprising: An Outsider’s View from the Inside”

  1. Great post and photos. I am also an expat watching this unfold, and can’t help but be impressed by the students’ resolve. Mostly, I am astonished by the lack of leadership from either the pro-democracy or establishment camps of the more-or-less elected leaders of Hong Kong. No wonder things are at an impasse. Interesting times, indeed.

    Like

    • It is a fascinating time in HK, no question. The impasse is frustrating but not altogether surprising – yet for better or worse, I think the balance of power is quite clear, and the reality of that will need to play out – I hope soon, and I hope without violence. Thank you so much for reading!

      Like

  2. Thanks for this inside perspective on what’s going on there. It is a complicated issue that’s hard to really understand from here…but I think the whole world is in the process of coming to terms with China and it’s growing power. It’s an interesting time, that’s for sure…

    Like

    • Very complex, that is for sure. The world is coming to terms with China, and HK will need to do the same – exactly how remains to be determined. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Shelley!

      Like

  3. jed best says:

    As usual, great reporting and images. I appreciate your frank discussion of what is possible and what is not with respect to the goals of the students.

    Like

    • Thanks so much, Jed. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room, and there is so much press but still lots of confusion and misrepresentation. It’s just my 2 cents, but I felt compelled to comment on (and of course, photograph) this historic turn of events. It will be fascinating to watch this play out..

      Like

  4. thanks so much for the insightful photos and posts. i’ve been following my relatives in HK through facebook so i’ve seen the protest photos and spoken with them; many of their opinions are reflected in what you already mentioned here in your well rounded post.

    Like

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! I’d be curious to know if your family members have other opinions, as well. That has been most interesting to me – hearing what a broader cross-section of the residents/locals truly think of what is going on – especially since the press hasn’t really represented all of that comprehensively. Please feel free to post any thoughts you are comfortable sharing!

      Like

  5. I enjoyed reading this thoughtful post and appreciate your perspective on the matter. I’m dubious of the lure of democracy. In particular, there’s more to be sorted out than who one can and cannot vote for. Here’s a link to my post on this topic: http://taoofdirt.blogspot.com/2014/10/hong-kong-economic-and-political-rights-and-the-banking-class.html (I moved my blog to blogspot so I haven’t been blogging at WordPress anymore where we follow each other.)

    Also, if you need access to the outside world while in mainland China, I recommend VyprVPN. I’ve used it without too many problems while inside mainland China. I sometimes need to connect to a server in Oceania while there, but it does work. I can send you a link if need be.

    Cheers,
    DM

    Like

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I will definitely check out your post, as well. Certainly fascinating times – and I hear rumors that the protests will soon be ‘cleared out’. I’m not surprised by this (other than that it’s taken so long), and I do feel that the city is feeling the fatigue of it all. Just hope violence is not the outcome.

      As for VPN, thanks for the tip. I used my company’s and was surprised that I still could not gain access. But maybe I have to try Vypr. Thanks again!

      Like

  6. Pingback: Occupy Admiralty | Peter Lam Photography

  7. Very well-written post, Deb. I enjoyed reading your perspectives and agree mostly. loved the evocative photographs accompanying the fluidly written words… they give aare real feel gfor this fascinating movement. It’s ended now but I’ll be interested in seeing how it impacts this city going forward.

    Like

    • Thank you, Kan! I am glad I had the opportunity to immerse and attempt to understand the issues. It was starting to wear on me, I must admit, though. I respect the intent of the protesters, but it is tough to ignore the realities of being part of China. Really appreciate you reading and commenting!

      Like

  8. Pingback: Designing Hong Kong: Its Cooler, Artsy, Edgier Side (Part 1) | HONG KONG FONG

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s