Read part 1 of the series here.
When I speak of my love and respect for the pro-democracy movement in HK, I must emphasize that I mean everybody in the pro-democracy movement. Everyone has played a role. While we may often appear disorganized and divided, our diversity is also a strength. The diversity produces new ideas, new actions, new initiatives. The movement does not hang its hat on a single peg; it does not become stagnant and stale. It has the ability to re-energize, re-generate. There’s always something new coming at the HK government and the CCP — they never know quite which way to turn. They attempt to isolate, suppress, harass, intimidate, imprison, demonize this mole, and another mole pops up there.
There are the pro-democracy political parties, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and a few other groups which are amongst the oldest elements in the movement, dating back to the 1980s. They have often been criticized over the past year, for being the old guard, for having failed to achieve much, for having ceased to develop, expand, grow the movement, for being stale and just doing the same thing over and over again, for having been co-opted by the establishment, for having lost their way. Much of the criticism has more than a grain of truth to it. And yet, these people have stayed the course. In the moments when the chances for real democracy in HK appeared most remote, they persevered, often, it seemed, without a great number of people supporting them. They kept the flame alive. They have been constant. They have stayed the course. And of course, in a very real sense, the defeat of fake suffrage depended on them. People (myself included) feared some might bend or break under the pressure. But they didn’t. And when push came to shove, every one of the 28 voted their conscience, voted as they had vowed to do, and defeated fake suffrage. Not only that, but in the eleven hours of speeches in the Legislative Council leading up to the vote, in their 15-minute speeches, one after one they spoke truth to power, telling the dictator to go stuff it. It is not often in formal politics these days that you see politicians standing up and saying it like it is, so freely, so eloquently, speaking both from their heart and from their head. People say words don’t matter; only action. But words do matter, and not only their vote but their words were inspirational on the day they defeated fake democracy, June 18, 2015.
Much of the credit for promoting the concept of civil disobedience as a means of confronting the denial of a basic right must go to Occupy Central with Love and Peace. The three co-founders shared, in age, in outlook, in temperament (especially the inclination towards moderation) much with the pro-democracy political parties. Especially after the amazing success of its referendum from June 22 to 29, 2014, when 800,000 voted decisively for genuine universal suffrage, OCLP was criticized for its limitations, and indeed, its limitations were significant, especially in terms of strategy, leadership, mobilization and growing the movement. But it put principled, nonviolent civil disobedience on the map in HK. The actual way in which the occupations eventually occurred was something that virtually no one could foresee, and when they did occur, OCLP was essentially along for the ride, no longer in the driver’s seat, but without OCLP, it’s hard to imagine that the HK people would have been intellectually and psychologically prepared not only for civil disobedience in a one-time-only, one-off sense (as on July 1, 2014 when 511 people were arrested for a sit-in in Central, a kind of precursor to the occupations) but for the grueling months of occupation. The OCLP co-founders left the scene early, but by that point, they had already passed on their baton to others, having done indispensable service to the movement.
Then there are the young people, the students, the magnificent young people and students. They are the age group most staunchly opposed to the CCP trampling on HK. They are the age group that appears to best understand what’s really going on here, and the age group most willing to do something about it. With the onslaught of CCP-directed mainlandization which will continue apace regardless of the defeat of fake suffrage in the Legislative Council yesterday, the people under 30 are perhaps HK’s best hope for the future. If they stay the way they are now and maintain their opposition to their rights being trampled, the future of their city being taken away from them, then there’s a chance. Of course, it was the young people who triggered the occupations with their class boycott of September 23 to 27 leading to a small number of them occupying Civic Square on the evening of September 27, people coming out in their thousands to support them the next day, the 28th, the police responding with pepper spray and tear gas, and the people responding to that with occupations. And with the occupations, their leading groups, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, came to the fore. Previous to that, they’d been forced to take a backseat in the triumvirate of OCLP, pan-democratic political parties and student groups, but now they were in the lead. That, of course, was a very difficult position to be in, to be leaders of an essentially leaderless occupation, but they pulled it off with magnificent energy, verve and maturity. Even if we can discuss the tactical mistakes they might have made, it’s hard to hold them solely accountable for those: they had to contend with the weaknesses of the movement, for example, its inability and/or unwillingness to escalate to the level of general strikes and boycotts outside of the zones of occupation. It’s also the young people who are perhaps the most disenchanted with traditional ways of doing things in the pro-democracy movement — the low number of young people at last Sunday’s march was notable. Whatever means they decide to adopt instead, whatever positions they decide to take will to a great extent determine the direction of the movement in the future.
Then there are the so-called “radical” groups. First of all, I hate the way the term “radical” is used in HK and elsewhere — it is used to dismiss, to denigrate, to marginalize, to suggest that a group is beyond the pale, not serious. “Radical” comes from the Latin “radix”, which means “root”. So “radical” etymologically means “getting to the root”. If you take “radical” to mean someone or something who gets to the root of things, then I consider it a term of approbation, and it’s in this sense I use the term. Some of the groups, such as Civic Passion, pre-existed the occupations. Others, such as HK Indigenous, emerged from the occupations, as a reaction against the perceived failings of the occupations, and to assert more strongly a HK identity as distinct from and in opposition to the mainland, especially the mainland under the dictatorship of the CCP. Apart from their direct actions after the occupations, in particular, the anti-parallel trade demonstrations in the New Territories and their support of hawkers in Kowloon during Chinese New Year, these radical groups have been very influential, again especially amongst young people, in putting this assertion of Hong Kong identity on the map. What they say is, yes, genuine universal suffrage in formal politics is important, but in addition to CCP attempts to bring the political system under its full control, one of the greatest threats to HK is mainlandization, which occurs in a variety of ways (a far from exhaustive list can be found in this article) and is the CCP’s surreptitious way of subordinating HK. They are also changing HK for the worse, are powerful forces, and need to be combatted. It remains to be seen how effectively these groups will be able to play a role in combating them, but they have at least succeeded in putting the issue firmly within the sights of the general populace and media, and in this sense have done a great service to HK and acted indirectly as a support to the struggle for genuine universal suffrage, even as some “moderate” pan-democrats sought to distance themselves from their perceived “radicalism”. To draw a semi-lame analogy, they are Malcolm X (and the eventual Black Power Movement) to OCLP’s Martin Luther King, Jr., also in the sense of taking direct actions that are more confrontational. The CCP has to see that if they continue to refuse to address the legitimate democratic demands of HK people, they will face not acquiescence but greater opposition and disillusionment with their rule over HK amongst a growing number of people. In numbers, these “radical” groups are small, but in influence large. The referenda to dissociate from Hong Kong Federation of Students and the decisions by the HKU student union and HKFS not to take part in the June 4 candlelight vigil this year are largely a result of this influence. Many see it as pernicious, and indeed, if it basically turns more “moderate” allies into enemies it could prove to be so, but a lot of this is the fallout from the occupations and represents a transformation of the movement which may be painful but necessary. At any rate, the contribution they have made to a stronger assertion of a separate HK identity and stronger opposition to mainlandization is salutary.
Besides these, there are many other groups who have contributed to the pro-democracy struggle. Indeed, since the occupations, they have proliferated. Professional groups, youth groups, cultural groups, rights groups, groups to contest upcoming District Council elections. I know the movement fairly well, but I still come across groups I haven’t encountered before. For example, at the march last Sunday, I met Cooks for Universal Suffrage (their banner said, CY Leung should be fried like a squid- a Cantonese idiom meaning he should be fired), Radiographers for Universal Suffrage. And on and on and on it goes. The society is in ferment. The roots of the desire for genuine democracy, genuine autonomy are spreading and deepening.
Then, last but first are the people of HK. Without ordinary HK people, the occupations would never have occurred. They are the ones who came out to support the students surrounded by police in Civic Square on September 28. They are the ones who stayed on and demanded their rights once the students were removed and arrested. They are the ones who burst into the street when their numbers became too many to be contained on the sidewalks. They are the ones who stood up to gratuitous police attacks of pepper spray and tear gas. They are the ones who spread out and occupied different parts of the city. They are the ones who remained for seventy-nine days. They are the ones who have turned out to events and activities in their thousands again and again and again over the years and in the past year in particular. At the height of the occupations in October, Ming Pao conducted a survey of occupiers which showed that only 26% of them were students. Most of the occupiers were ordinary people, ordinary working people. It was truly grassroots citizens movement, largely leaderless, though various groups, especially the student groups tried to mediate and provide some modicum of necessary leadership.
Out of these millions of people, there are too many stories to tell, and many have been told well elsewhere. To me, at the moment, four come to mind in particular, all from the assembly outside of Legco on Wednesday evening, after the first day of speeches in the Legislative Council and before the momentous defeat of fake universal suffrage the next day. On that evening, we were not many — again, not nearly as many as I thought there might be, perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 and most of those went home early, before 10 pm. But there was a special feeling that evening, a feeling that something was coming to an end, a stage in the struggle for democracy. On the one hand, we felt gratified because we were about to accomplish something we’d fought hard for for over a year, the defeat of fake suffrage. On the other hand, there was melancholy about the end of this stage, and relief, and uncertainty about the future. There was again, as many times before in the last year, that feeling of being part of history, of being part of something larger than ourselves.
One of the people I met Wednesday evening was a fifty-something taxi driver. He’d been with the movement since the beginning of the occupations. An image of him from September 28 became infamous for gratuitous police violence: he was pepper-sprayed directly in the face by a police officer though he stood a good distance from the barrier separating demonstrators from police and was making no aggressive action toward the police. Once the police started tear-gassing the people, he stood amongst the several hundred young people most directly defying the police. After the end of the occupations, once his taxi-driving shifts were finished, he would come to Tim Mei Village, the small occupation that continued at Legco long after the main one was cleared, park his taxi there, and sleep in it at night. He would often ferry occupiers to places they had to go, or bring take-out dinners to them. That Wednesday, he said: “We are at the kindergarten stage in the struggle for democracy. We still have a long long way to go.”
Another person I met that Wednesday was a middle-aged member of the Progressive Teachers Alliance, one of the groups to emerge from the occupations. The Professional Teachers Union is the largest pro-democracy union in HK, but it’s been pretty lame in the past year. After the police tear-gassing, the PTU called for an indefinite strike, but there wasn’t much response, and since then, we never heard from them. Some teachers became frustrated with the sluggishness of the PTU and set up the Progressive Teachers Alliance. I asked her what she thought about opinion polls that consistently put support for the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposals at 40 to 50%. How can that be? I wondered. Do you think they’re accurate? “Well,” she said, “most HK people deep in their hearts want democracy, want freedom, don’t want HK to become more like the mainland, don’t want more CCP influence over HK. Polls over the last decades have consistently shown that 60 to 70% of HK people want democracy. That is clear. But then there’s greed, ignorance, political apathy. You have to remember that political awareness and involvement in politics are relatively new phenomena in HK. Then there’s the relentless government propaganda, from both HK and Beijing. There are people who just want a quiet life, don’t want any trouble, and think the best way to keep out of trouble is to just go along with what Beijing says as long as it lets them lead their day-to-day lives. Then there are the people who have the illusion that they can just stay out of politics. They don’t realize that politics affects them whether they like it or not. Then there is the minority of people at the top and those on the bottom who think their interests are best served by allying themselves with Beijing. The people on the bottom are deluded; the people on the top may be short-sighted; their alliance with Beijing is one of convenience, not of ideology or love. So when you take all these factors into account, maybe it’s easier to put those polls into perspective.”
The official program of the assembly ended around nine that evening. Very quickly, the stage was taken down, the floodlights turned off and disassembled, the sound system carted away. In the darkness left in their wake, one of the famous “mobile democracy classrooms” sprung up, with about twenty-five people taking part in a discussion that mostly revolved around looking past the vote of the next day to what the future held and how to carry on the struggle. Off to the side of it, two people, a man and a woman, had set a big battered metal pot. From it, they ladled a sugary lemony very cold drink into small cups that they went about offering to the discussants and passers-by. The drink was very refreshing on that hot night when even long past daylight you could feel the heat radiating off the pavement. They told me they had often done this during the occupations; it was their small way to contribute. The earnest sweetness of their act of gratuitous kindness was a characteristic I have often come across in pro-democracy activists, and is why I’ve said time and again that the pro-democracy movement shows the very best side of HK.
Then there was the most startling, surprising encounter of the night. It occurred as I was leaving. Way back in September, I was leaving the student class boycott, whose activities for most of the week were centered around Tamar Park, where they had a big main stage. Near the harbor, I passed a young man off by himself strumming guitar. He looked up at me, and I stopped to talk. I asked him what he was singing.
He said, “I’m composing a song for when we get democracy.”
“When will that be?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “maybe a long time,” and smiled.
“Can I listen?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, and I sat there listening while staring out across the water over to the Kowloon side. The music sounded very soft, wispy. I don’t remember his words, but I remember thinking they sounded earnest, idealistic. I’d since thought of that guitarist occasionally, but never saw him again.
Until Wednesday evening. I was coming across Tamar Park, where that evening the pro-CCP contingent was headquartered. But they’d departed punctually at 9- rumor had it they’d gone to tour buses at Central ferry pier 8 to collect their money for the day and get a ride home. They’d left all of their things behind, including chairs and tents. A few pro-democracy young people had moved in, to talk and enjoy the view; amongst them, my guitarist. He was playing his guitar and joyfully making a huge racket. Rather than soft, earnest music, this was punk, hardcore. And the words weren’t idealistic but in-your-face:
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
HK is mine, mine, mine
HK is not yours, it’s mine
HK is mine
His friends were laughing and helping him to improvise:
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
UK, you can stick it up your ass
EU you can stick it up your ass
Whole goddamn world you can stick it up your ass
HK is mine is mine is mine
HK is not yours, it’s mine
HK is mine
How’s that for an alternative ‘national’ anthem?
After the song ended, I applauded and asked if he remembered me.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“So long. Do you remember the song you were composing? You said it was for when we get democracy.”
“Yes,” he said.
“What ever became of that?”
“Well, we haven’t gotten democracy yet, but at least we’re about to stop the fake kind. I think I still have a while to finish that song.”
In such a short time, we’ve come so far, so much has changed. And yet so much remains the same.