For the last nine months I have been living in Shenzhen, where I can see the mountains of Hong Kong from my apartment building. I cross the boarder about once a month, and each time it looks more and more like a war zone.
When I first visited Hong Kong back in March, it reminded me a lot of London. The infrastructure is very similar, it’s very multicultural, and there are M&S stores all over the place. This is a sharp contrast to Shenzhen, where very few buildings are older than 40 years old, most people are Chinese (though most not from Shenzhen), and M&S doesn’t exist. On top of this, Hong Kong felt like London because most people their can speak English, which isn’t quite the case in Shenzhen..yet.
The view I had of HK after my first visit prevails today, however now also features tear gas, water cannons, guns, a lot of police, and a lot of extremely angry people. At an anti-Brexit protest I attended in London last year there was plenty of anger, but the level of anger I’ve seen in Hong Kong, on such a scale, makes the anti-Brexit protests seem very PG. I understand why people are angry about Brexit – but I’m not sure how many would be willing to die to stop it. In Hong Kong, of the ten young Hong Kongers I’ve spoken to about the situation, all say they are willing to die for the cause. And they mean it.
Hostility towards China in Hong Kong is nothing new. On my first visit, it was particularly notable at metro stations, where I’d often witness Hong Kongers huffing and puffing about the large numbers of Chinese tourists who used to visit at weekends, and who often struggle to grasp the concept of standing to one side of the escalators. But this muttering hostility has now escalated into full-blown violence – though primarily between Hong Kongers and the police, rather than visiting mainlanders (many of which are now too frightened to cross the border).
When I speak to my friends in Hong Kong who have been regularly protesting, it seems it is the behaviour of police that gets them most riled up. They are immensely anti-China also, as the graffiti now decorated around the city suggests, but I do wonder if the scenes we are seeing now in Hong Kong might be slightly less terrifying had the police dealt with the situation better from the start.
A significant chunk of Hong Kongers have lost complete trust in the police, and that is incredibly dangerous for any civil society. It is the police, after all, who are working on the front-line of a society which has become increasingly aggravated by the people who govern.
Two months ago, I visited some friends who have been fighting on the ‘front-line’ of the protests, one of whom has been badly bruised by a police baton, and was lucky to avoid arrest. We met in a shopping centre in the afternoon, where the protest was large but peaceful, with thousands of people singing the new Hong Kong national anthem.
Then the police arrived, and chaos erupted. The majority of people ran, including my friends and I – one of them hastily instructing me to change out of my black t-shirt to avoid being met with force. A minority of people, who on this day were fighting on the ‘front-line’, stayed in the shopping centre, and tore down anything they could find to barricade the entrances so the police couldn’t get in.
I wanted to stay and see what would happen next, but the friends I was with told me that by staying, without any protective gear, I would be a hindrance to those that had it, for they would have to protect me as well. So we left, and an hour later went back to a scene unrecognisable to the glossy shopping centre that existing an hour earlier. It had been completely smashed up, and a lot of arrests were made.
Scenes like this have continued every weekend since then, and are getting worse.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to the current crisis. I’m always of the belief that for a democratic protest movement to be successful, then the movement must have a leader who is able to challenge the existing powers with dialogue, and to have widespread support from the public. Some of the Hong Kongers I’ve spoken to feel the same way; some don’t. At the moment there is no obvious leader of the movement, and to me that is a problem. The millions of protesters, I think, would benefit from throwing their support behind one charismatic leader, who essentially needs to challenge Carrie Lam in a popularity contest. This person needs to have a clear and realistic vision of how they want Hong Kong to be governed.
Of course, I realise this is easier said than done, seeing as it is arguably the Chinese Government, and not Carrie Lam, that needs to be challenged by someone. The latter isn’t exactly open to dialogue on this issue, or at all. But the way things are heading, they are only going to get a lot worse before they ever get better. My friends in Hong Kong say they are willing to die for this cause, and I fear they might.