Like many foreigners who have lived in Hong Kong for decades, I do not consider myself an expat. Expats are those who come to work in Hong Kong for a few years with the intention of returning to their home countries. Expats are those who, when they travel to their country in the summer or over Christmas, say they are ‘going home for the holidays.’
For me Hong Kong is home. When I visit Canada, I am visiting Canada. I am not ‘returning home.’ Even though I spend much of the year in New Zealand I still consider Hong Kong home.
Hong Kong has always been a chaotic, boiling cauldron of intensity. And the local people’s grit, energy and resilience is the fabric that make Hong Kong both unique and one of the great cities of the world.
As foreigners, it is where the most enduring and best friendships are established. It is where friends are more like family than friends because we all walked off a plane at some point knowing not a soul.
I have an interest in seeing that my home does not tip into total anarchy that extends far beyond my business in the city. I hope desperately for a miracle to walk us back from the abyss that we edge closer to every weekend.
The last time I was in Hong Kong was July, and the protests were relatively peaceful and taking place on Kowloon side. I did not experience the faintest whiff of tear gas nor see a single protester during the three-week trip.
However soon after returning to New Zealand, I watched in dismay the online coverage as the peaceful protests descended into dystopian scenes of extreme violence and destruction. The first thing I have done each weekend for the past two months when I wake up is reach for my phone and check Hong Kong media sources to see how bad the mayhem was overnight.
And so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I returned to Hong Kong last Saturday morning. Would the airport be blockaded? Would the MTR be operating? What about the roads? How would I get home? Fortunately, we arrived early enough not to encounter any problems commuting into Central.
I had been told the city had changed since July. And I could immediately feel it.
Central is of course normally bustling on a Saturday afternoon but as I walked through on the way to lunch all was quiet. Many of the shops were shuttered against impending havoc, some permanently. No need to queue for a cab. Hong Kong’s transportation aorta, the MTR, was completely offline, smashed and burned the previous night.
Over a very sombre bowl of pho, I flicked through videos of the previous night’s unprecedented carnage wondering how and when this nightmare will end.
The government’s position has been very clear – ‘the lady’s not for turning.’ Nor is the CCP.
But what about the protesters? How dug in are they? Will intimidation and arrests convince them to yield? Will they eventually burn out and give up the fight?
With this in mind, the next day I pulled on my gas mask, helmet, yellow vest and slung a press pass around my neck before setting out for the front lines of the protests.
I spent the afternoon dodging tear gas in Wan Chai and the late evening in Mongkok trying to avoid the ferocious charges of an army of riot police, but for the most part, I took the opportunity to speak to dozens of the protesters, both those on the front and back lines.
This is a summary of responses to a range of questions:
AX: You have changed tactics initially using mass rallies to voice your demands and now have turned to violence. Why is that?
Protesters: We tried peaceful protests in 2014 and waited patiently for 5 years and we accomplished nothing. So now we turn to violence. Now we target the Hong Kong economy in the hopes that this will get the attention of the authorities and force them to act.
AX: I am sure you are aware of the collapsing tourism and retail numbers as well as the teetering property market. How do you feel about that?
Protesters: This is success. This is progress. We are hoping this will force the government to respond to our demands.
AX: But are you not concerned that if this continues without them responding that the economy will reach a tipping point and collapse?
Protesters: We are aware of that and hope that the government will respond to our demands before it comes to that. However, if the city’s economy collapses, we are fine with that because that will definitely force change. As it stands, for many protesters, our economic circumstances are already dire. We are living with collapse already.
AX: How widespread is the overall community’s support for the violence?
Protesters: Amongst students we think over 90% support the violence. In terms of the overall community perhaps 60% support the violence. The people of Hong Kong know we have tried peaceful protests with millions turning up and that had no effect.
AX: Are you not concerned that at some point the CCP will respond by deploying the PLA and imposing martial law?
Protesters: Not at all. We dare them to come because that will accelerate the collapse. The stock market and property markets will immediately collapse.
AX: How do you expect the protesters would respond to a martial law situation?
Protesters: We will not go to school. We will strike or call in sick for work. We will buy nothing. We have many ideas of how to continue the protests.
AX: I have read that the 5 demands do not cover everything that the protesters want. I am aware that the housing situation is a huge issue for large numbers of the protesters. Tell me about that.
Protesters: In Hong Kong we cannot afford to rent or buy a property and in recent years the situation has worsened. As adults we have no choice but to live with our parents in already very cramped apartments. The prices keep increasing but salaries do not keep pace so what future do we have? We look at Singapore and see that most people there live in government subsidized housing. Why can we not have this in Hong Kong? Hong Kong is a rich city.
How committed are these protesters? How deeply are they dug in?
After a relatively calm afternoon on Hong Kong side, I was told that Mongkok was where I was likely to see violent conflict. I jumped a cab and asked the driver to get me as close as possible to the police station and I’d walk the rest.
I arrived to a snarl of barricades at either end of Argyle street where a thousand or so protesters had gathered. A few front liners were attempting to set fire to one of the barricades by throwing Molotov cocktails but the rain repeatedly disappointed them.
Interaction was much more difficult than in Central as most of the people living in Mongkok speak limited English. However, I was offered drinks and food more than once and told to take care.
I wandered around for the better part of two hours inspecting the severe damage to the MTR; I saw no signs of the police. But around 10:30 there were excited shouts from the protesters and I was told that ‘the popo were coming’ It was very clear that they actually wanted the popo to come. They had been waiting all evening for them. They were daring them to come.
A constant drizzle had given way to a torrential downpour replete with foreboding cracks of thunder just before twenty or thirty police vans and a water cannon equipped vehicle roared onto what suddenly resembled a scene from an end of the world, apocalypse movie. An army of menacing riot police were disgorged and sprinted towards the protesters screaming and aggressively brandishing clubs and canisters of pepper spray.
And that was when it all became real.
My camera was malfunctioning due to the rain so I tried to capture the mayhem as best I could on my phone. At one point I was apparently too close and one of the policemen raised his club threatening to hit me if I did not back off. I quickly turned the phone away from him and scrambled backwards.
But the protesters did not retreat.
Instead they hollered a deluge of abuse at the police. The police responded by charging into the crowd and randomly snatching individuals. But eventually they were the ones to retreat covering each other’s backs as they loaded into their vans. They sped off towards the hive as protesters fired bottles of water at them and roared as if Man U had scored when each van raced away. It was over in less than 30 minutes.
The protesters returned to a state of calm mulling about under the torrential rain, peals of thunder and the eerie glow of neon lights. Eventually they began to disperse no doubt heading back to the despair of their tiny, ramshackle apartments. Waiting for next weekend to do it all over again.
The protesters are dug in hard. Real hard. Of that, I have no doubt.
The author, Paul Luciw, is the Founder and Managing Director of AsiaXPAT.