Dissatisfaction and distrust in the Hong Kong government and law enforcement agencies have run through the semi-autonomous city after months of civil unrest, triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill.
In recent weeks, peaceful rallies and marches in Hong Kong have ended in violent clashes between anti-government protesters and the riot police, armed with crowd control weapons.
Since June, police have fired more than 2,000 tear gas canisters into crowds, along with other chemical agents including pepper spray, while protesters have ramped up their tactics, throwing petrol bombs and rocks at officers.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, sales of gas masks and filters have increased over the last month, according to several retailers in the capital, Taipei. Hongkongers have turned to the island to purchase protective gear after mainland Chinese authorities blocked shopping websites from selling such goods to the city.
In the meantime, a number of Taiwanese organisations have called on people to contribute supplies such as helmets, gas masks, and goggles to protesters.
A democratic defence
The idea behind the action was to “turn the support of Taiwanese people into substantive action,” said Nâ Sū-phok, chief of staff of the Taoyuan Empowerment.
The NGO held an event last month to collect protection gear at an open-air food market in Taoyuan, a city neighbouring the capital. One Saturday evening, while many were busy buying food, more queued to make a donation.
Throughout the four-hour event, the organisation collected 700 helmets and roughly 1,000 respirators and filters. The supplies were entrusted to a Hong Kong student group in Taiwan — the Hong Kong Outlanders — which has managed to deliver thousands of donated items to the city over recent weeks.
“What we do is based on humanitarian grounds, but we are also putting up a democratic defence,” said Nâ.
For the Taoyuan Empowerment, another motive for holding such an event was to raise awareness among Taiwanese people of the situation in Hong Kong, which protesters say is under the growing influence of the central government.
Hong Kong’s protests broke out around the same time as the presidential race in Taiwan began heating up. In less than five months, the island’s residents will cast their vote in an election which many believe will determine the future of Taiwan’s relationship with China.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a Chinese territory and has threatened to bring the democratic nation under its control by military force if necessary.
“If we don’t stand up for Hong Kong’s people, Taiwan could be next,” said Ms Liu, 29, who had donated two helmets and two sets of goggles. Liu, who lives in Taipei, travelled back to her hometown to deliver the goods.
“This is the most straightforward way I can think of to show solidarity with the people of Hong Kong,” she said.
“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors”
At the entrance of the Chè-lâm Presbyterian Church, boxes of filters and different types of gas masks are piled high on two long tables by a porch.
“These were sent to us this morning,” said Huang Chun-sheng, head pastor at the church. “We are still receiving dozens of items every day, from different parts of Taiwan,” Huang said. “We’ve also received two parcels from China recently,” he added, with a smile.
In the past three months, the church has become a hub for collecting and distributing donations of supplies, and churchgoers have delivered more than 1,000 sets of protection gear to Hong Kong, through either logistics companies or friends travelling to the city.
“Every gas mask is packed with four filters and two boxes of cotton filters. If the respirator is not a full facepiece, such as model 3M 6200, we [will] add goggles,” said Huang. The senior pastor carefully explained how church members sort out the donated equipment, with astonishing familiarity with the different types of respirators and filters.
“A lot of young people do not replace their filters and cotton regularly because they do not have money or they don’t want to spend money on that stuff. But this means that they will eventually inhale smoke. We have to prepare [filters] for them,” said Huang.
While explaining details about the equipment, Huang repeatedly referred to the dangers Hong Kong student protesters might face. Though his voices remained calm and gentle, he was clearly worried for the young people.
“We will provide supplies as long as Hong Kong people need them,” said Huang. The church will also adjust which items to send depending on what protesters need, he added.
In addition to respirators, Huang said the church also accepted other equipment including helmets, portable eyewash stations, kneepads, and gloves.
When asked if he had ever been concerned about possible criticism of the church’s activities regarding the protests, which were politically sensitive, he simply replied: “Do we just stand by and watch Hong Kong people suffer and be oppressed?”
“The Bible tells us to love our neighbours. Our neighbour Hong Kong is experiencing the crisis, and we are just doing what we can,” he said.
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