By Peter Kauffner
24th November 2019 – (Hong Kong) From the chaos of street protests to victories in the High Court and in Washington, this has been quite a week to be in Hong Kong and witness “the revolution of our times.”
On Friday, I was teaching at a university in Jiangxi Province in southern China. I announced to a class that I would be taking a trip to Hong Kong the next day. Big mistake. Up to that point, my students had appeared to be apolitical and docile, if not terribly studious.
At this announcement, they erupted. “It’s dangerous now!” they cried. “Why are you going?” I was once a reporter in America, so I wanted to see the news for myself, I explained. “Do you support Hong Kong independence?” they demanded to know. “Do you support China or Hong Kong?” I did not answer either of these dangerously loaded questions.
On the train the next day, a message to the university community was relayed to me by a student. It stated that my “remarks” had insulted the Chinese people and that my classes would be cancelled for a least a week. A manager called me a few days later and confirmed that my services were no longer required.
Hong Kong did not disappoint in terms of witnessing news. The death of student Chow Tsz-lok on Friday led to several days of intense protest. My hotel was just a few blocks away from the protest epicentre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
While taking a Sunday evening stroll on Nathan Road, I got my first experience of tear gas. After a canister was fired, the crowd surrounding me started running. I ducked into a side street just ahead of a gas cloud. A few minutes later, I pulled out a handkerchief to cover my nose and mouth. An EMS worker noticed right away and ran over to apply saline solution and ask me to gargle. I teared up briefly and there was odd sensation in my throat for a couple of hours. After talking to several local residents about their experience with tear gas, I must say that I really don’t have much to complain about.
Monday was a day of rage. I watched “frontline” protestors carry flammable liquids and assemble petrol bombs in the median while hiding behind umbrellas. There was a masked protestor who went around opening up the traffic signal poles. Then he’d reach in and rip out the circuits. It looked like something he could do professionally if ripping out circuits was a job.
Other protestors pulled bricks out of the sidewalk to throw them on the street and block traffic. Support for the protests was obviously broad since bystanders joined right in. I saw a pretty girl in a nice dress kicking bricks into the street. Did she ask the shop attendant, “Which colour do you think goes best with vandalizing a public thruway?”
Despite the mask ban issued by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on October 5, I saw masks everywhere as most protestors were spotted wearing them.
I was waiting for a light on a corner of the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station. I checked my back and noticed twelve policemen, one armed with an AR-15, charging down the street straight at me. To my relief, they ran past me and grabbed a kid standing next to me. I won’t forget the terrified look in his eyes when the cops slammed him against the wall. I am pretty sure he wasn’t a protestor and he certainly wasn’t doing anything suspicious. He was just a guy wearing a black mask to protect himself from street dust. This was the same day that the High Court declared the mask ban unconstitutional. With the city in chaos, the cops were enforcing a peevish rule, frightening civilians, and giving the court a spiteful reply.
The next morning, I got up early and joined the cleanup crew on Nathan Road. The entire length of the road was covered with debris at that point. We picked up bricks and tiles left by the protesters. It was a proud moment when the first taxi made it through and the driver gave us a thumbs up and a heartfelt haode (good).
The physical damage inflicted by the protests can be repaired surprisingly quickly. By Wednesday, Nathan Road was a functioning shopping street once again. The protestors, bricks, and bamboo poles were gone. Shoppers, hawkers, and, yes, working traffic signals, were back. Tsim Sha Tsui subway station was open again. Private cars were still staying away. Perhaps the drivers were skittish after watching the videos of burning hulks on nearby Salisbury Road over the weekend.
After Chow’s death, protestors began chanting, “Hong Kongers, get revenge!” The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that the U.S. Congress has unanimously approved and sent to President Donald Trump will stick it to Beijing harder than any protest action could. This act is very much an accomplishment of the protesters, so they can feel avenged.
The district council elections on Sunday could begin process of selecting a government that is no longer tainted by the election rigging and disqualifications of 2016. When Beijing robbed Hong Kong of responsible government in 2014-2016, the city protested mightily but politely. With PolyU and other campuses under siege by police, it’s bricks and catapults, bows and arrows. The city’s mind has filled with dark thoughts of Tiananmen and out-of-control police. There certainly hasn’t been much to celebrate in the last six months. A last stand mentality can lead only to destruction.
Peter Kauffner is a teacher and former reporter from the United States who has travelled to Hong Kong several times.