On Monday afternoon as I waited in the transit area of Hong Kong International Airport for my flight back to Singapore with two friends, the roaring chants of thousands of protestors on the other side of customs in the arrivals zone got steadily louder and louder. It was a sound I will never forget, a visceral angry sound, like a powder keg preparing to blow. By Tuesday, it did, as protesters and police clashed once again, this time with a man believed to be an undercover police officer having been detained.
Last Sunday, Hong Kong’s police force, increasingly desperate to restore order to the city, had fired tear gas in an MTR underground station and a woman had been seriously injured in one eye by a bean bag round. The protesters’ fury at this increasing brutality was nearing boiling point.
We were booked on a Cathay Pacific flight which eventually took off at 17:59, a minute before the airspace closed at 18:00. Many were not so lucky, and many are still trying to negotiate routes home. I’d travelled to Hong Kong for the weekend as a tourist with two Cantonese-speaking Singaporean friends. Following government advice, we’d carefully avoided known protest areas, and, but for the television and social media reports, we wouldn’t have known anything was wrong.
With few tourists about, we enjoyed peaceful visits to Lantau Island and the Big Tian Tan Buddha shrouded in mist, we’d popped over to Macau on the ferry, and we caught up with several Hong Kong friends. Their attitude, and the attitude of many people we met, was that the protesters were irresponsible for disrupting the efficient working of the city. It’s an expensive city to live in, and for waitresses and many other workers trying to survive on low wages, the political demands of the protesters are not high on their priority list.
For some, there is even the hope that under the full rule of Communist China, their wages and the quality of their day-to-day lives may even improve. It is interesting that even protester celebrity Alexandra Wong, “Grandma Wong”, a 63-year-old woman nostalgic about British colonial times, who loyally supported the protests until she was finally arrested on Sunday night, screaming her lungs out and clutching a Union Jack, could not afford to live in Hong Kong because of the cost of housing, and had to move to nearby Shenzhen in mainland China.
The fact is that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is in an impossible position. She is appointed by Beijing but also has to appease the people of Hong Kong who see their rights, their passports and their very identity as Hong Kongese slowly melting like snow. She has warned that Hong Kong is fast approaching a “path of no return”, or an “abyss”. There is the economic abyss if the Hong Kong infrastructure is further disrupted. The other danger is the large numbers of Chinese forces already amassing on the border. If they enter the territory to impose order Tiananmen-Square-style, they won’t be using rubber bullets and bean bag rounds. The protesters are perfectly right in their demands, and they are right in their fury at the brutality of Hong Kong’s Police Force, but they must now exercise that virtue which is stereotypically Chinese: pragmatism.
Mainland China has had an authoritarian government for thousands of years, and demanding recognition of democracy from them at this stage is about as much use as asking a tiger to eat lettuce. Against China, they cannot win, and if China enters Hong Kong to impose order, the cost will be unimaginable.
The protesters have spoken out and got some of the things they asked for. They must now back down and disperse. They must let Hong Kong recover, and let foreigners return to their homes. 2047 and the scheduled expiration of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems”, is a long way off. Who knows what politics will be like then. There’s plenty of time to have dialogue and promote cultural change in their relationship with China. But if Hong Kong is plunged by protesters into civil disorder now, and if China is goaded into action, the protesters will get the opposite of what they want.