Opinion Politics & Protest

After the Umbrella movement: healing a divided city must start with truthfulness

Three years ago this week Hong Kong witnessed the start of the largest and most sustained protest in its history. Occupy Central with Love and Peace, and the resulting birth of the Umbrella Movement, will most likely be remembered around the world as a uniquely orderly and peaceful mass protest. Yet for many in Hong Kong, all it represented was inconvenience and intransigence.

One of the most iconic images of the protests is of a student standing beside a lone policeman in heavy rain with two umbrellas, one of which he holds above the policeman’s head. For me this image is especially touching as I was there, a few metres away under the bypass, as it happened. What the picture did not capture, but what I remember clearly, was the way this simple act of respect completely changed the man in uniform.

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A student holds an umbrella for a police officer. File photo: Daily News/Baptist U.

When the students first approached the barrier at which he was stationed, his face and body froze. You could almost sense the adrenaline. Writ large across his face was both suspicion and fear. However, discipline compelled him to stay.

When the student reached out with the umbrella so he might stand in its shade, there was a moment when it looked as if the calm might be broken and the policeman might lash out. Instead he remained, and his discipline held firm.

It was this discipline that would relieve suspicion and mistrust. Eventually, after a few minutes, and once the policeman realised the innocence of the student’s gesture, his face turned. I saw him smile, and in his look I sensed two further feelings, that of surprise and also pride.

Never was there a better demonstration of what so many of us know in our hearts: the almost unique innocence and good nature of so many of Hong Kong’s youth. Idealism and politics could not hide this from the world.

However these were not the only images, and to their great discredit, there were many who for reasons of politics choose to see only what they wanted. These were the images of undeniable goading and violence that presented a very different view of the protests.

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Standoff between police and protesters during the clearance of the Occupy protest site in Mong Kok. Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

While both pro-democracy protestors and police were guilty of both, it was ironic and also damning that the most provocative and aggressive elements were a minority of organised and thuggish gangs among those wearing blue ribbons — a symbol that had initially stood to show solidarity with the police.

In those innocent early days there was even a suggestion that there should be a green ribbon, to represent those who saw no contradiction in supporting both the democratic aspirations of the students and the police. This idea never took hold. Events quickly proved that there was no middle ground.

It also became increasingly clear what the majority took the blue ribbon to mean: rather than solidarity, blue became the colour of the CCP establishment, and a sign of opposition to the protests.

Although they were heavily outnumbered by pro-democracy protesters and police deployed, those wearing blue ribbons accounted for the majority of violent acts reported — against protesters, civilians passers-by, the police and journalists.

Documentation, an exercise in objectivity, had become a target for the blue ribbons who labelled the presence of international media as foreign interference and international opinion as both biased and an intrusion on Chinese domestic affairs. These are the types of allegations that would once have been considered unbecoming of an international city of Hong Kong’s standing.

During Occupy we witnessed the best and the worst of Hong Kong. And the line is by no means clear.

Students showed a passion, invention and determination that surprised many. We witnessed student protesters erect homework stations and arrange classes and lectures. They drew flowers on the road surface, and planted them in the cracks between road sections.

They plastered the space with poetry, design and reminders to those visiting to follow the protest rules. With bottles and iron railings readily available, they chose instead to line up opposite fully equipped riot police armed only with cardboard shields.

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Yet the very innocence of our youth also fuelled an idealism that practically would never bend the ear of our masters in Beijing. Their very good nature meant that when viciously condemned and slandered, their reaction was to be ever more bold in their sense of righteousness.

When hurt, emotionally and physically, our sheltered youth became recalcitrant. All these traits were sadly and increasingly evident as the protest drew on. It is therefore unsurprising that many reasonable minds turned from their cause.

Then there was a leadership that epitomised the generational gap. Even having made a point with support bleeding each day a divided leadership failed to call time. Older, wiser and more moderate voices whispered too quietly, crippled by their own fears that they may lose their young audience.

Like overprotective parents they failed to discipline their children when events got out of hand; and like spoilt children our student leaders found themselves unable to concede that they might be wrong.

Much was written about the meeting between government representatives led by Carrie Lam, and the student leaders. But like so much of our government, and power politics in Hong Kong in general, it was little more than bad theatre.

The police acted professionally and generally with considerable restraint, living up to their motto as Asia’s finest. Individually and as an institution they are, and Hong Kong is right to say so.

However, this does not mean that they should be beyond questioning. Quite the opposite: order is kept not by the baton but by trust — and trust is built on accountability. The manner in which the police as an institution have responded to legitimate and justifiable questioning should be a genuine cause for concern, and does represent a failure of standards and attitudes.

The firing of teargas on the first day of the protest must be acknowledged as a mistake and a gross overreaction. The police had clearly been briefed to expect something that did not happen.

Standing by the claim that teargas was only deployed to break up large crowds of protesters that posed a significant threat to police lines is to perpetuate a lie. I know this to be so, as I was one of those hit by teargas whilst I stood on the curb with notebook in hand.

The canister that landed beside me, a few feet away, was fired from behind – in direct contradiction to police statements.

The beating of activist and Civic Party member Ken Tsang while he was restrained and in police custody was also, sadly, not an isolated incident. It was only because it was captured on camera that a serious case could be brought. This incident and others like it bring shame to a service that had by-and-large acted with admirable professionalism.

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What was more shameful happened after, when the force accepted tokens of support and officers accepted gifts and money from blue ribbon support groups; and when, after the court found the policemen guilty, the force openly challenged the ruling and policemen took to the streets in protest.

Rather than build bridges with the community in an effort to restore public confidence, the police let themselves be perceived as politicised. What the police needed was genuine leadership. What it had instead was a political commissar.

The blue ribbons and Robert Chow’s Silent Majority, which was neither silent nor ever a majority, reflected yet another equally genuine Hong Kong identity.

Their actions, dressed either as wisdom or patronage depending on your perspective, and their values of realism and pragmatism are the evolved values of a city of immigrants. They are the values of an older generation for whom this city is but a place, and for whom home is found in their roots and filial ties.

It is the realism that accepts rule. The realism that allowed many to colluded with successive colonial administrations and still claim loyalty to the Party. Theirs is a pragmatism that overrode morality to first allow families to survive desperate poverty and then build empires of individual wealth.

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The Occupy protest site in Mong Kok. Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

These are conservative values not to be besmirched, as these values above all are very much a product of circumstance. In the right circumstances they are values that manifest great qualities: stoicism in the face of hardship; and piety in defence of family and tradition, and those immaterial institutions of faith on which human fortitude is built. To an extent, these are values I too share.

However these values may also absolve conscience. What the blue ribbon represents is not the considered conservatism of Edmund Burke or even Confucius, but of conservative Chinese traditions of obedience and order.

These people hark back to traditional Hong Kong, illiterate and often with wealth, status and face to keep. It is those Hong Kong “success stories” built on monopolies and the opportunities of history, rather than innovation, creation and ideas.

The Occupy protests were also a reminder that behind the veneer of order, Hong Kong remains a city in which an inordinate power still rest in the hands of the local big man. The power and influence of the Heung Yee Kuk, that represents the territory’s indigenous villagers, continues to be founded on the most base forms, as do the triads.

Their world remains territorial, as was witnessed in the Mong Kok occupation. In Hong Kong the veil of law and order has always lain very lightly across an uglier face.

The Occupy protest and the Umbrella Movement acted as a catalyst that has helped highlight the complexity and more subtle traits of our community. It did not open but rather deepened divisions within the community.

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A street sweeper at the Occupy protest site in Mong Kok. Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

Hong Kong’s future will be shaped by what foundations our government both here and in Beijing choose to build upon. If we cannot be honest about what happened we will never be able to address the difference of perspective that do exist.

In this case I see only regression — of home once again becoming merely a place, and a people once again homeless; and this city becoming once again a colonial outpost driven by empire builders, migrants and refugees.

What does not give me hope, and what discredits the pro-Beijing narrative of the protests that our government feels obliged to support, is that all mention of the protests are censored in our own country.

All that the majority of our countrymen will hear about the protests and about Hong Kong people is official condemnation, and all that they are allowed to see is anarchy and violence. As we are being told to better understand our countrymen and to love our country, what is our country telling our own people about us?

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After the Umbrella movement: healing a divided city must start with truthfulness