Eat, Sleep, Protest

Seven months in, Hong Kongers are still marching to defend their rights, and Canadians can feel it

A group of reporters monitor the unrest in Tsim Sha Tsui on Dec. 24, where police have been deploying tear gas and sending in the Special Tactics Squad. (Tristan Johnston)

In March, the government of Hong Kong introduced an amendment to the law which would allow for extradition between Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and Mainland China. The bill was spurred by a murder which took place in Taiwan, when a man from Hong Kong killed his girlfriend, though a lack of extradition structure prevented the police from charging him. However, what Hong Kongers saw in the bill was an attempt to subject them to the legal standards of Beijing, and after missing booksellers and the abduction of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, there were fears that the bill would enable Beijing to kidnap any Hong Konger they don’t like in their own city.

Even in December, and after Chief Executive Carrie Lam formally withdrew the bill, the protests continue, sometimes violently. Those in the protest movement consider the extradition bill to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it came after what many consider to be a slow reduction in the personal freedoms of Hong Kong. Many Hong Kongers view their colonial past, freedoms, language, culture, and economy as distinct from the rest of China, and many fear the loss of that identity.

Despite the situation, I was invited to visit Hong Kong last month by a good friend of mine. I grew up in Richmond, and even to this day, many of my closest friends are of the Chinese cultural diaspora, with most of them having strong familial ties to the city. This wasn’t even my first time in Hong Kong. It was my third, and every time I visit, there are always a few good friends in town.

My parents, however, weren’t happy to hear about my trip. They watch CNN, and they’ve heard about the police brutality there. My mother pushed me not to go, or to at least register with the Canadian government, and my father said that, while he knew I was capable of making my own decisions, he thought this one wasn’t smart.

It was already unlike my first two visits when I left the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station. There was plenty of graffiti on crosswalks, walls, and curbs, many in Cantonese, with some in English saying, “Free HK,” and “Five demands, not one less.” Otherwise, things seemed normal, at least on the surface.

My curiosity was getting the better of me. I joined the “Hong Kongers schedule” Telegram group, along with a few others. There were several protests scheduled per day, some with “Letters of no objection (LONO)” from the police, others without. I went to one where a large group of protesters marched to the offices of several consulate generals, including the Canadian one, delivering letters in appeal to assist their movement. One of the protestors was near the front and was wrapped in a Canadian flag.

Protesters were marching to various Consulate Generals on Dec. 21, among them was Jesse Tsang, from Action Free Hong Kong Montreal. Police presence was high, but no clashes broke out. (Tristan Johnston)

“I came from Canada. I came back to support the movement and many people in Hong Kong,” says Jesse Tsang, a Hong Kong-Canadian from Montreal, who works with Action Free Hong Kong Montreal. “I would hope that our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, would do more than just saying words, hoping they de-escalate, because words will not solve the problem.”

He thinks that something like a Magnitsky Act from Canada — which was created as a means of retaliation against Russian officials responsible for the death of a Russian tax accountant in a Moscow prison in 2009 — applied to Communist Party of China officials would be effective in protecting the human rights of Hong Kongers. The United States has since passed something similar.

While the police presence at this particular march wasn’t as extensive as I had seen on television, it was still the first time I had ever heard the distinct percussion of a tear gas cartridge being loaded. It was also when I first realized I had been stupid enough to neglect bringing a gas mask with me from Vancouver. Thankfully, nothing happened, and much of the route was unpoliced.

The next day, I went looking for another protest to cover, a “Name and Shame” rally organized by the “Silver-haired marchers.” Compared to the first I had attended, it was a far more quiet protest and many of the attendees were indeed “silver-haired,” or senior citizens. After taking a few photos, I began to leave, and stunningly, I ran into Tsang again by happenstance. We both decided to go back across the harbour to Kowloon, and I ended up hanging out with him for several hours. One of the things we discussed during that time was how the 2019 protests are different from the 2014 Umbrella movement, in which swaths of students occupied Central for 79 days protesting Beijing’s announcement that universal suffrage was off the table.

“I think in the general population, we accept that the Umbrella Movement failed because we didn’t get what we wanted. The ultimate goal has always been universal suffrage, and we didn’t get that,” he says.

Tsang is referring to the fact that while Hong Kongers have had many political freedoms which citizens don’t get in the People’s Republic, such as freedom of expression and a fair legal system, regular citizens aren’t capable of electing their own Chief Executive or more than half of the Legislative Council. The Chief Executive is mostly chosen by Beijing, while half of the Legislative Council seats are selected by “functional constituencies” which tend to vote pro-Beijing.

“The reason we failed is because there’s two groups of protesters. One is more front-line, who are willing to confront the police, while the other is more peaceful, like the seniors we saw today. We realized that unless we unite together, there’s no way to get success in demanding what we want,” he says.

He also believes that this unification is why the police are responding more forcefully. Tsang says that during 2014, only 89 rounds of tear gas were deployed, whereas by November, over 10,000 rounds had been fired.

Despite this, Tsang returned to Hong Kong, just as he has every year since he first immigrated to Canada 17 years ago, and participated in the protests.

“I grew up in Hong Kong, so despite moving to Canada, I still feel like I have a huge connection to Hong Kong. I still consider Hong Kong as my home. Canada is my home also, but Hong Kong is a part I cannot erase. I don’t want to see the Hong Kong I know gone, and I want to do my part,” he says.

We kept chatting while walking around the commercial area of Tsim Sha Tsui, where we found an increased police presence. Most of them were dressed in riot gear, and some of them were searching young people and teenagers. This was in anticipation of a “Shop with You” event, where protesters were going to march through Harbour City Mall.

Police officers in riot gear search teenagers just outside of Harbour City mall in Kowloon, in anticipation of a large protest on Dec. 21. (Tristan Johnston)

There’s a segment of the protest movement which identifies “blue businesses,” which are perceived as being supportive of the government and police. Sometimes, these businesses find themselves becoming victims of vandalism.

As we were walking around, a Hong Kong famous YouTuber, Dragonheart, otherwise known as Lam Hak-lam, walked into Harbour City mall carrying a People’s Republic of China flag and a loudspeaker playing the PRC national anthem. The political stunt was attracting a lot of attention, with many people hanging over the bannisters to get a better look, and some people were shouting at him. While we were there, Tsang and I ran into Kitty, an older woman who was supportive of the protests.

“We know that it’s never ending. This, ‘Five demands, not one less,’ is only for fighting something,” she says. “We need to take care of the family. We have the jobs. We have all this, you know. That’s why in Hong Kong it’s hard to give the youngest the strength. It’s really hard.”

“If we don’t have our five demands, this will repeat itself even after a few years,” adds Tsang.

“We must have support from all over the world,” says Kitty.

Tsang and I spent some more time walking around Tsim Sha Tsui, where riot police were searching young people at random. By the time we found ourselves back in Harbour City, a full blown protest was underway. A mass of people was moving through the mall, chanting slogans and waving flags, and Tsang broke off to participate. Police would later move into the mall.

The next day, there was yet another protest in the same location, and this one was partially bilingual. Entitled “Sparking the free world afire,” the main topic of the event was the controversial arrest of four members of the Spark Alliance, a fund which supported the legal fees of arrested protestors. The event featured many politicians, one of which was Ventus Lau, a localist political candidate and current spokesperson of the Civil Assembly team of Hong Kong.

“I think after the DC elections, the police have been trying to act as if things are more calm, trying to give permits to most of our assemblies and marches, but it’s clear that the front-line police are still out of control, just like yesterday when other organizations are holding police rallies, just right here,” he said.

“Every country in the free world, including Canada, they should immediately impose sanctions to those people who are threatening human rights and freedom in other parts of the world.”

Lau also thinks that countries like Canada should prevent rights violators and their families from entering their countries or gaining citizenship.

“I know that many [in the Hong Kong diaspora] are very concerned about the Hong Kong situation, and I know that many of them are donating money, so I would like to express my gratitude for them. Just keep on telling your friends what’s happening in Hong Kong, why we’re fighting so hard against China. Explain to them the differences between China and Hong Kong.”

Ventus Lau speaks to media after the conclusion of the ‘Sparking the world Afire’ rally on Dec. 23. (Tristan Johnston)

About a month later, Lau would be arrested for allegedly violating the terms of an event permit at an anti-communist rally he organized.

Later that day, I was getting ready for a Christmas Eve party when my plans changed.

Along Nathan Road, traffic was beginning to slow down as protesters flooded the streets. Riot police were lining up along crossroads. In some areas, tear gas was being fired, and many people were yelling in the general direction of constables.

Police cordon off roads in an attempt to control civil unrest in Tsim Sha Tsui, Dec. 24. One of the five demands of the protests is for greater police accountability. (Tristan Johnston)

For the first time in my life, I got a sense of what riot police gear really does. Tear gas does indeed make you tear up and cough, which makes the idea of moving towards it extremely unappealing. Suddenly, I understood in a very real way why most journalists covering these events carried gas masks.

It was beginning to look like I was in one of the situations my mother was so worried about. Along Nathan Road, someone had pried bricks out of a sidewalk and lined them up along the street to act as barricades, and packing pallets had materialized along with them. At Mira Place, police had sent in the “raptors,” better known as the Special Tactical Squad, by way of a police van barrelling down Kimberley Road. Protesters shouted for people to get out of the way. Several black-clothed police officers jumped out of the van, yelling at people while pointing paintball guns at them. Tear gas was fired. I didn’t stick around.

Back in Richmond, B.C., I managed to speak to Kenny Chiu, the Conservative MP for Steveston-Richmond East. He was in Hong Kong as an election observer for the District Councils in December.

“[It was] a political opportunity. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, establishment or democracy,” says Chiu. “People have a chance to use a political venue to voice their opinion.”

In the end, the Nov. 24 DC elections represented a milestone in the long series of protests. Pro-establishment parties, who used to control 331 of the 452 contested seats, were decimated to a mere 89. It also resulted in a massive increase in voter turnout of 71.2 per cent, compared to 47 per cent in 2015. Given what the Election Observation Mission was able to gather from information collected outside the polling stations, “the delegation believes that the Election was smooth-running, peaceful and orderly, notwithstanding the current socio-political climate.”

However, it also raises several concerns, among them the presence of riot police with an unclear role at many polling stations.

Chiu says that people in Hong Kong share values with Canadians such as democracy, freedom of speech, and rule of law.

“As an MP, when I see that the DC elections are coming … it would be a great opportunity to add credibility to this election, to make sure it’s actually conducted according to the past track record of openness, fairness, and all that,” he says. “So when I received the invitation, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”

Chiu, who immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1989, says that the two places have a shared history.

“Many Winnipeggers, where I started my Canadian journey, they were sent to defend Hong Kong [in WWII] and died there,” he says. “I make it a habit to visit the Sai Wan military cemetery every time I visit the territory, including last time.”

“Currently, there are over 300,000 Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong right now. If those people came back and formed a city, it would be the 15th largest city in Canada.”

Chiu notes that, when Stephen Harper was the Prime Minister in 2006, Canada made efforts to assist 50,000 Canadians who were too close to the Israel-Lebanon War. He believes that the situation in Hong Kong could require similar action from the government.

However, when it comes to actions that the Canadian government can take, he notes that his role as a politician comes with limitations. While Hong Kong is important, Chiu also needs to put attention towards Iran, the U.S. trade relationship, and many other domestic issues.

When it comes to a Canadian style Magnitsky Act, Chiu says things aren’t so simple. He explains that one cannot simply copy and paste legislation.

The Magnistky Act was enacted during the Obama administration to address concerns with Russia, and all the variables are different from the situation with Hong Kong.

“Does it fit our situation? We are not the U.S.,” he says. “Whatever happens in Hong Kong today will impact Canadians tomorrow.”

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