I was in Hong Kong during the “Establishment Day” demonstrations on July 1st, the day that Hong Kong and China memorialize the handover from the British Empire to the PRC. It’s known popularly as the 回歸, the repatriation, the homecoming; but my Hong Kong friend prefers to refer to it coldly as the 主權交接, the transfer of sovereignty. Hong Kong was never part of the PRC before, so it didn’t feel like a homecoming to him.
The following is a post I wrote for parents on the student group’s travel blog; they had asked me about the “riots” that they had seen on the news, and asked what the atmosphere was like the next day. Here’s a redacted version of what I sent them.
July 2, 2019. Here’s what I saw and how I personally understand the situation. Others will have different perspectives and different interpretations, and I certainly welcome the discussion.
Yesterday was the 22nd anniversary of the “Handover,” the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China.
Hong Kongers mark the anniversary by wearing black and marching down the main roads across the island, chanting slogans and airing grievances against the territorial government. The main demands yesterday were:
- Scrap the proposed extradition treaty with PRC.
- End police brutality against demonstrators.
- HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation.
The march started in Victoria Park in the east, across the city to the Central Government Complex near MTR Admiralty Station. Thousands and thousands of people crowded the streets to support this demonstration, including a few or our students.
We had been assured by our colleagues at Wah Yan College that this big march would be a family friendly, festival atmosphere, with no danger of violence. WYC had an official no-comment policy about the demonstrations, but most of our counterparts told us privately that they were joining the demonstration with their families.
Early in the day, I sent a message to our students, telling them to carry their umbrella (for rain and sun), carry water (for hydration), to stick with their buddies for safety, and to stay away from areas where clashes might happen. Signs of clashes: police in riot gear, protesters in yellow helmets.
I started getting messages from friends around town that clashes between activists and police were happening at the expo center, where the flag raising ceremony takes place. The disruptions to the ceremony seemed minor and isolated.
Later, I saw on the news that protestors with hard hats and other protective gear were gathering at the Legislative Council (LegCo) building. Since we didn’t have any programming for this territorial holiday, the students had not checked in with us, so I put out a general call over WhatsApp to please stay south of Harcourt Road, away from the Central Government Complex.
It was at that point that we started seeing on the news that protesters were attempting to smash a single plate glass window at LegCo. Squads of police were inside of the hall where the plate glass window was being smashed, but they did not engage with the protesters. When the protesters did manage to breech the plate glass window, they did not attempt to engage the police or enter the building. I watched the events unfold on TV news, both local coverage and CNN.
When I saw that the protesters and police were not actually engaging each other, I left my hotel room to see the demonstrations for myself. I ended up in a stream of people that went past the police station, jeering, and down toward Harcourt Road and the Central Government Complex.
What I saw was thousands of people crowding the park, the plaza the streets, and the boulevards. There were people of all ages, but what stood out was that young people–high school and college age–had created a supply system. Someone down near the government complex would shout what they needed, and the young people dispersed throughout the crowed would both pass along the message, and then shuttle supplies to the front. They were asking for helmets, gloves, zip ties, water, umbrellas, and scissors. There were very few phones in the air, and in fact a young lady yelled at me when I put my own phone up to take a picture. Then I remembered that the PRC has a vast facial recognition initiative, and that my photos might be putting these kids in danger for the rest of their lives.
I myself did not cross Harcourt Road. In fact when it was starting to get dark, I left to go back to my hotel.
Back in the hotel, I was very disappointed to watch CNN’s coverage. They seemed to be ignoring the massive demonstration on the main boulevard, and focused all their attention on the broken plate glass window at the LegCo building. They called the protesters’ actions as a violent act of blind rage and characterized it as a riot; they wondered aloud why the police hadn’t cracked down yet and wondered when the crackdown would start; they wondered how this protest would disrupt the economic activities of this international financial hub. CNN’s anchor said several times that the protestors seemed disorganized and without leadership.
When I woke up this morning, I saw in the news that the protestors had, in fact, briefly occupied the LegCo chambers. They vandalized some key objects (officials’ portraits, symbols of the PRC), but marked certain objects as national treasures and warned others to not harm them.
So my personal conclusion was that CNN’s coverage was not well informed. The protestors did seem to me very highly organized, highly principled highly disciplined; they did not engage the police and seemed to put very clear limits on what they would vandalize. They did not injure any people or damage private property. They clearly had the support of the thousands of people, who showed up in the streets, bringing supplies and chanting support. Breeching the plate glass window seemed symbolic, something that might be interpreted as a protected act of political speech. The message: our government should be open to the people and to the outside world.
The police, for their part, did not engage the protestors with force, as for the most part the police were not personally attacked. When the police announced that it was time to clear out the LegCo building of occupiers, they allowed a few protestors to do a final sweep of the area to make sure that everyone had evacuated.
Today we checked in with the students informally, and they didn’t seem to be anywhere near the LegCo building. Many had spent the day at beaches on other islands, getting sunburnt (which is also alarming but it’s a separate issue).
This morning, Hong Kong went back to business as usual. Repairs were started in the LegCo building, and economic activity in this international financial hub did not seem to be affected in the slightest. The PRC issued statements condemning the lawlessness, the chaos, and the violence of the protests, which is some spin.