Notes from the Street

Two days ago a group calling itself the Alliance for Peace and Democracy staged a march in Hong Kong against Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which has threatened to occupy the streets of Central as an act of civil disobedience if the Hong Kong government does not propose to Beijing a model of democratic reform that meets “international standards” and is representative of the views of the Hong Kong people as decided by a referendum.

The APD, an alliance between pro-establishment or pro-Beijing associations, was formed in reaction to the unexpectedly high turnout for an Occupy referendum in June and the July 1 pro-democracy rally. The alliance claims that Hong Kong is being “blackmailed” by a minority and has positioned itself as representative of the majority of citizens who did not take part in the pro-democracy movements.

To justify their position the alliance sought to run its own petition, a referendum or vote being politically sensitive, and to stage their own march. They insisted on designing and running the petition themselves. Children were asked to sign; employers pressured their employees into voting; and tourists and foreign nationals were asked to sign up for “peace”. No measures were taken to prevent double voting. Widespread reports of cash being offered for signatures were countered by the APD stating that gifts were “acceptable”. After a month they claimed 1.23 million signatures, significantly more than 800,000 who voted in the Occupy referendum. However the alliance has refused to allow an audit.

The march on Aug. 17 promised to shine a light on exactly who supported the alliance. The march would follow the same route as the July 1 pro-democracy demonstration, beginning in Victoria Park and ending in Central. I joined them.

I first noticed the difference between them and the July1 marchers at Admiralty MTR station. Several large groups of 50 or more people, usually dressed in matching association shirts, were being shepherded by group leaders. Like a tour group the people congregated around a flag or some other marker. Their day as a group had started much earlier.

The people did not seem familiar with the MTR. Many held single-way tickets in their hands, so I can only presume they do not own Octopus cards. A few women really stood out, and had clearly dressed up for the occasion. However no one was wearing branded clothes. This was an older generation of market shoppers.

These were not public housing tenants but rural villagers, a suspicion confirmed by their heavily tanned skin, short stature and accents laced with Hokkien. They had thick fingers that paled towards the fingertips from years of working with their hands in the sun. They didn’t mix among other commuters but stuck very closely together. A clan on the move.

Young people were noticeable by their absence. A few of school age, usually in their early teens, were accompanying family. Like the younger July 1 crowd they spoke Cantonese without an obvious accent, but noticeably changed their tones when speaking with their families.

Compared with the crowds who had gathered for July 1 this crowd was much louder. Yet there was a distinct lack of energy or conviction. Many of the people seemed reluctant to be there, their postures and expressions suggesting resignation at making up a crowd. Not once did I hear anyone mention politics, democracy or why they were there.

Most of the conversation evolved around directions - many seemed to think Victoria Park was in Central. The other popular topic was food and drink. Clearly these people had just come from a meal and had been promised another. They were expecting to be taken care of.

Listening in to the conversation I also received my first shock of the day. A group of elderly men stood watching Caucasians in the station. Assuming I did not understand Cantonese they talked of their “shame” that “Chinese soil” should be polluted by gweilos (Cantonese for “foreign devils”). One said foreigners used to be the enemy while another added that “a patriot would kill them.” This shouted conversation continued for several minutes, and surprisingly attracted no attention from either other members of their group or bystanders.

On Aug. 17 I felt isolated. I was an individual among groups; a foreigner among a crowd that saw me only as one. I was the only gweilo there, and I did not feel welcome. I felt watched.

A journalist from Ming Pao approached me for an interview. When he realized I was there also as an observer and was meaning to write on my experience, his demeanor changed and our exchange become a lot more lighthearted, but also frank.

“There are so many from the PRC”, he said. “This is not a protest but a gathering of associations”. “It’s a joke”, he laughed. He slapped my back and wished me well.

That morning I had received a string of updates from friends around town. Online I received a stream of unverifiable reports of mainlanders being bused in to Hong Kong for the march and of people being offered cash to join. People I know and trust saw buses being loaded in Yuen Long, the driver paying each passenger HK$250 for the day. Another friend saw several busloads of mainlanders with protest banners leave a hotel in Sheung Wan.

Two other friends, including one working at Hong Kong’s leading English language newspaper, told me that members of their families had received messages from their employers threatening them to join a group being formed to take them to Victoria Park, and that transport and meals had already been arranged.

About a quarter of those assembled in Victoria Park spoke Putonghua. They sat in groups. I could tell that almost all were from the mainland. Their look, and the fact that many did not seem able to speak Cantonese and had heavy regional accents, betrayed them. When I attempted to talk to them I was always immediately approached by a younger woman who spoke a little English. Each time they asked “what press do you write for’?” I said I did not write for the press and that I was merely curious. Each time I got the same response: “Why should we speak to you if we do not know who you are?” before being given the cold shoulder. Telling them my name and saying I was a curious Hong Kong resident clearly wasn’t enough.

Thankfully an intern at Asia Sentinel from Yunnan who was with me for the day had more success. While the majority of mainlanders were from across the border, including groups from Yunnan and Yangzhou, there were also those who live or study in Hong Kong. They told her they had chosen to join the demonstration as they wanted there to be more “unity” between China and Hong Kong. Living and studying in Hong Kong they were disappointed, they said, to find Hong Kong people closed and unwelcoming. They were not here to demonstrate against Occupy Central but to advocate for a better relationship between the Chinese.

More open to talk were the many South Asians, Indonesians and West Africans who were present. All wore Chinese association shirts, yet formed their own small groups, usually of around 20 people. They did not mix, but always had an association minder.

A group of Sri Lankans told me they had come because their boss had told them they must. When I asked what the protest was about, I was told “China is interfering with Hong Kong” and that “this is an anti-China rally.” When I asked them why there were so many people carried the Chinese flag there was a sudden pause followed by silence. The group members turned to one another, before one man had the courage to say, “I think we’ve been told something different.”

It was a Nepalese man who provided the best anecdote. He and his group were there to support the DAB, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s most pro-Beijing political party. His story was similar, but there was a knowingness to the way he told me his story that I found most revealing. It was all about “friendship.”

“Our friend supports the DAB”, he said. “Our friend and his friends in the DAB help each other. They help us in Hong Kong”. He would not say what he did or describe the help they received, adding only “It’s good for business,” When I asked him why he thought so many people had joined the demonstration this was his reply:

“We don’t really understand politics. We don’t care. We’re all simple people here. All we want is a simple life.”

This really summed up the crowd. Looking around I saw a people bewildered by the experience of being in town, and being part of such a gathering. The groups stopped often to take pictures – always as a group, and always with a prepared banner. Many people seemed to take pride in recognizing other groups as if viewing a parade.

Before I arrived I had expected there to be more conservative middle class people, more of the people who front the alliance; more pro-China academics and journalists. I had also expected to see the women who play afternoon tennis at private clubs with their sunscreen and brand-name, dry-fit clothing, many of whom had in the days leading up to the demonstration attempted to rally support from my own family. It was not just that I did not see them on Sunday, but that I did not see how they would have fit in to the crowd. Perhaps they all got cold feet? Some, I was told, decided to play tennis.

On July 1 the majority of the crowd wore their own shirts and waved their own home-made banners. Slogans called for democracy, justice and social justice. The groups present represented issues as well as communities. LGBT groups stood side by side with Catholic associations. The Hong Kong SAR flag waved along with the Colonial, Nationalist and Communist flags. Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were quoted, and it was in their spirit that the crowd had gathered.

On Aug.17 everyone I spoke to said they were doing someone else a favor. Conversation revolved around food, drink and, a question I heard repeatedly put to organizers, how long would they “need” to be here. Patriotism echoed in the marching bands, and the Communist flag flew beside SAR flags. When a nationalist flag was raised in provocation along the route a minor scuffle broke out. But why, if this was a Hong Kong demonstration on a Hong Kong issue, would this flag, representative of the historic allegiance of so many in our community, be a provocation?

On July 1 teams had been arranged to collecting rubbish for recycling. The alliance, having erected support stations along the route distributing free bottles of water, made no such arrangements and the streets were littered with empty water bottles, broken banners and gifts handed out by the associations taking part.

Then there were the police, who as always acted with personal decorum for which this city should be proud. The decision to deploy a minimal police presence was welcome. There were no solid barriers erected, and the route was marked as necessary by police tape. Individual policemen walked among the marches, and small teams were present to provide assistance to both marchers and the general public at important junctions only. A security analyst I know described it as a “low security posture.”

There were no major movements of resources around the demonstration, as if anticipating trouble, and the officers themselves, far more relaxed and standing noticeably less upright than they were on July 1, were deployed in a manner to assist rather than confront. I very much hope the response is representative of a new approach the police will be adopting to all public demonstrations.

I also noted that the police seemed to be working alongside another policing force. These men wore yellow visibility vests similar to those worn by the police, but were in fact CCP volunteers. I noted on several occasions these volunteer teams seemed to operate in conjunction with police officers, and yet I also noted that I never once saw an officer give them a command. These volunteers, who greeted demonstrators with encouragement yet would not offer me assistance when I asked for directions, were clearly working for the event organizers. I again wonder if we will be seeing such self-policing arrangements in future?

Walking along the route there was no evidence of popular support. Unlike in July when streams of people both joined and would leave the rally along adjoining streets, those streets were now empty. The marchers all started from Victoria Park and marched to the official end point in Central, greeted with much fanfare by pseudo-models and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” playing on loudspeakers, and celebratory group photographs were taken.

July 1 felt like a popular protest, called by the organizers but made by the people. Aug. 17 felt disingenuous and staged. The alliance may claim to represent the silent majority but on evidence this demonstration represented only an alliance of pro-establishment associations who made a concerted effort to mobilize vast resources to gather a crowd. A lot of money went in to staging it. A lot of arrangements were made. Will questions be asked about this? Will our government release figures detailing the number of people brought across the border in the few days leading up to the demonstration? Will the organizers be transparent as to who paid for all the transportation that had been arranged and for all the drinks and other gifts that were distributed?

But like the Ming Pao journalist I find myself laughing in pain. As Hong Kong person it hurts me to see non-resident and foreign recruited not only to influence but to claim to “represent” the “majority” view. It hurts me to see the bigotry, racism and intolerant nationalism of some of our elderly who were defined in a very different time stoked by those who seek to manipulate the political scene. But most hurtful is the shame I feel that there are people within our society, people of influence and respect, who could organize an event like this and be so disingenuous as to suggest it is representative of Hong Kong.

Evan Fowler is a Hong Kong-born essayist.