The Fight for Cultural and Political Freedom (Hong Kong)

A projector on the side of a building, showing tweets in support of local protesters.

A projector on the side of a building, showing tweets in support of local protesters.

Hello everyone! I am finally back in the USA from my trip to Hong Kong to cover the pro-democracy protests that have sprung up recently. It has been quite the adventure!

You can find my published article about the protests on Wheat City Magazine‘s online site (or here’s a direct link).

It was quite inspiring to see the residents of Hong Kong, young and old, students and activists as well as local shop owners and businessmen and women, all come together in the fight for true democracy. As my article states, it was very apparent to these protesters, and to most Hong Kongers, that this struggle for democracy belied a truer, more essential goal–to preserve the cultural of Hong Kong itself.

I’ve covered several protest movements across the world (Egypt, Ukraine), and while Hong Kong’s protests were very similar to the others that I’ve

An artistic rendering of the goals of the Umbrella Movement, taped to the side of a plastic barricade.

An artistic rendering of the goals of the Umbrella Movement, taped to the side of a plastic barricade.

covered, they were also unique. It’s fascinating to me to see how each culture handles it’s own growing pains and to see the drive to protest for a better, brighter future filtered through the lens of each distinct culture. In all of these protests, university students formed the main core of the protesters, and historically, most political rallies begin on college campuses and in the classrooms of local universities. Each of these movements was also mainly co-originated and communicated to others through Twitter and other social media sites (Instagram in Hong Kong, Facebook in Egypt, VK in Ukraine). With the advent of social media and smart phones, it’s made spreading the word about rallies and giving directions to protesters about movements and updates so much easier. This, in turn, has lead to larger crowds, more mobile and reactive crowds, and I would like to think less violence towards these mostly non-violent protesters than we would have seen 40 years ago. With everyone so plugged in, and with cameras on phones at the ready, most governments think twice before using force to disband protesters and this has given them all the much more power to have their voices heard.

Unfortunately, violence is still used, and oftentimes in the form of plainclothes

Protesters in the central business district of Hong Kong hold up cell phones with their lights illuminated in a show of solidarity.

Protesters in the central business district of Hong Kong hold up cell phones with their lights illuminated in a show of solidarity.

“distrupters.” Because governments feel their hands are tied about any sort of force used on protesters, for fear of blowback from the international community, and, of course, often times too a fear for their own seat of power, they have taken to using “pro-government protesters” as a way to disrupt these rallies for freedom and democracy. Basically, instead of using state forces (military and police), these governments find local agitators to fight against the crowds instead, and simply tell their state forces to stand down and let it happen. This has occurred in every single protest I’ve covered. I’m sure that some “pro-government protesters” are genuinely pro-government citizens fed up with the protests in their neighborhoods, but oftentimes I am quite sure that these elements are paid and sent by governments seeking to use the disruption and violence they cause as an excuse to end the protests. It’s much cleaner for governments to act through non-state forces and most cities don’t lack a criminal element willing to take money to cause civil agitation. In Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that most of these clashes between local pro-democracy and pro-government forces happened in the Mong Kok neighborhood. Throughout most of Hong Kong’s history, Mong Kok has been the seat of the local gangs, called the triads, and during most of the clashes between protesters and pro-government “citizens”, many rumors swirled regarding who these people actually were. Though the triads have been officially banned and “wiped out”, they do remain underground, and still quietly influence the Mong Kok area to this day.

A local leader rallies the protesters in Hong Kong.

A local leader rallies the protesters in Hong Kong.

As with Egypt (which was oftentimes filled with rumors of agitators paid by Gulf states wanting political instability in Egypt for financial reasons) and as with Ukraine (who’s pro-government protesters were plainly Russian military without official uniforms), the Hong Kong protests suffered some violence and as soon as they did, it was immediately blamed on the protesters themselves, and used as an excuse to end the protests. I have to state that as someone who was there on the ground, and there during the moments when the protesters were attacked (yes I would use that word) by these “pro-government” people, none of the Umbrella Movement, pro-democracy protesters responded with any violence at all. It was amazing and quite admirable how little hostility the crowds showed towards these attackers, even when being pummeled in the face by them and even when they ripped up student’s tents and yelled wildly insulting things into the crowds. I think it should speak highly of the integrity and character of not only the protesters, but the movement itself, that despite the Mong Kok attack and despite the tear gas and pepper spray used earlier in the week, the situation never devolved into angry,

Protesters in the Occupy Central movement hold up a sign during a night rally.

Protesters in the Occupy Central movement hold up a sign during a night rally.

violent mobs. It’s easy to respond to violence with violence, and harder still to turn the other cheek and simply remove and/or ignore protesters who become violent. As soon as the Occupy Hong Kong group saw violence, they closed ranks, removed and contained the agitator, and got immediate medical help for the wounded, allowing ambulances through the thick crowds easily and swiftly. If there was any sort of malice in the movement at all, the entire situation would have quickly escalated, but as it was, there could be no more of a dedicated effort to peace and non-violence than the one they made. I was truly impressed with the control of the Hong Kong protesters, because as we all know, large scale demonstrations, and large groups of people usually bring out the worst in human instincts; hivemind usually leads to violence, sexual assault, and destruction of property. None of this was noted, not a single case of it, during the entire week of the protests. That should speak highly for the protesters themselves, and for the people involved, as well as the Hong Kong culture of tolerance, globalism, liberalism, and peace.

In addition to their excellent handling of violent attacks, the Hong Kong protests also struck me as the most organized, civil-minded group of protesters I’ve ever seen. The willingness of the protest leaders to organize everything from medical aid, to cell phone charging stations, and to recycle stations for used water bottles and other refuse, was utterly astounding. Essentially, in less than a few days, an entire mini-city, complete with public services was set up at the protester’s central camp near the

A sign posted outside a government building, near the protest camps.

A sign posted outside a government building, near the protest camps.

Admiralty MTR station, in the central business district of Hong Kong. There were protesters dedicated to picking up trash and disposing or recycling it (the camps were breathtakingly clean), as well as many tents dedicated to medical help for hurt or injured protesters (the Red Cross building was also helpfully located alongside part of the camp). There were also tents handing out free food and water to protesters, and lots of volunteers standing with bottles of water, spraying down the crowds, to keep them from overheating (it was brutally hot and humid during the protests–30 C with 60% humidity). There were also many open political forums with university teachers coming to create open-air “democracy classrooms” where protesters could sit and listen to democracy theory, ask questions, and provide input into whatever was being discussed. There were also a couple of different religious booths supporting the protesters with social comfort and aid. A Buddhist tent stood right next to a Christian tent, and both happily co-mingled, providing goods and services to the protesters. Eye coverings to protect against pepper spray, plastic body coverings for the rain and tear gas, face masks, and of course, the ubiquitous umbrellas, were also made freely available to all protesters. It was truly one of the most civic minded groups of protesters I’ve ever seen, and all of them were polite, dedicated to democracy and non-violence. The local businesses also must be noted here for being very supportive and understanding to the protesters who shut down the roads near their stores. Not only were these shopkeepers supportive, they also allowed protesters to use their facilities and offered free or discounted products to them, which was very helpful, considering many of these protesters camped there for upwards of several days.

Overall, the Hong Kong protests were up against some really strong and powerful players, but they did what they could do to make their voices heard, and I sincerely hope that their efforts are not in vain. Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in all the world and has an incredibly unique and open culture that deserves preservation and support. It would be a worldwide tragedy to see Hong Kong begin to close ranks with the rest of China, to see it lose that special openness and freedom that has made it one of the world’s true global cities. The loss of Hong Kong’s culture and political and social freedoms would not only negatively impact the lives of its residents; it would also affect the rest of the world. As it stands now, Hong Kong is one of Asia’s largest financial centers and is home to many mainland Chinese artists and writers who have fled the heavy censorship of the Chinese government. To lose Hong Kong’s social freedoms would mean to also lose a lot of it’s financial stability as well as most of China’s most talented artists, writers, and thinkers. It’s not hard to see why Hong Kong, and it’s fate, matters greatly to the world. One can simply hope that a conciliation can be made between the PRC’s government and the residents of Hong Kong. While it doesn’t look likely, that is what I hope for, and what the people of the great city of Hong Kong surely deserve.

(All photos and video copyright Suzanne Borders; please do not use without permission!)

6 Comments on “The Fight for Cultural and Political Freedom (Hong Kong)

  1. Well done. China will just try to tow the line and slow down this movement as much as it can, but it’s inevitable. The citizens will demand more power. Will be interesting to see how they react. No amount of hiding the world form their citizens will allow their isolationism to continue. Be safe.

    • Thanks! I will. 🙂 It’s true, eventually the situation will come to a head and either Beijing will learn to be flexible or they will be (possibly violently) toppled from power. China may be a rising force but it won’t be a true world power until it handles it’s political issues at home. As is said, true power is flexible by nature and it’s in the very rigidity of it’s rule that China will lose in the long run.

  2. I was interested to learn that the protesters were more than just students- that all ages are involved because what is threatened is the culture itself. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 with China’s promise to leave it alone, many thought it was only a matter of time before China would subvert the freedoms. I’m glad there is resistance.

    • Great Britain and the US promised to protect the freedoms of Hong Kong in ’97 because many people had the same concerns. So we, as well as the UK, are technically obligated to step in if things get too hairy!

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