Having recently spent time in Hong Kong at a conference of leading strategists of the world’s biggest iNGO’s I was able to get a front row seat perspective of the protests that consumed the city.
While the action was largely contained to the area surrounding the Legislature, the whole city was talking about and engaged in the issues behind the protest. The proposed law change was something that almost everyone felt affected them.
So often when I have seen protest action it is a polarising action of one part of the community taking a stance against others, defending the rights or space for a particular group and denouncing those of another. This action was different. This was the people speaking up together, and loudly.
The action involved all sectors of the community, from students to business people, young and old, rich and poor. It was civil society in its fullest form.
I wonder where else in the world we would see society come together like this, in what was largely a peaceful display of concern, even considering the heavy-handed response of police on the Wednesday.
From my hotel and the streets, I was able to see the crowds forming very early on the Wednesday morning. They streamed in to the area surrounding the Legislature in their masses, peacefully and orderly. It was also clear that the police were coming out in very large numbers also, barricading the way to the Legislature where the extradition law was to be debated that day.
What was perhaps as telling as anything is that the police were armed with cameras as much as they had batons, guns and tear gas. In an age of facial recognition, a photo is perhaps more of a weapon as anything. The protesters were prepared wearing masks to hide their identity
Talking to Hong Kong people, they spoke with tears in their eyes about what was happening in their city. This was not the Hong Kong they know and love and their fears for it were palpable. These tears of the locals returned when we heard that the police had opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.
After taking the long way back to the central city, avoiding the Metro stations most affected by the protests (and the tear gas), I arrived at my hotel to find it barricaded and guarded. A first aid post for protesters was set up in the street outside, which had clearly been quite busy providing supplies of food and water. The streets were filled with police vans that spoke to their huge presence. That night I watched as busloads of police were sent in to clear out the last of the protesters. They left calmly, ready to push their message on another day. That push happened on the following Sunday when an estimated 2 million Hong Kong people, a quarter of the population, peacefully but forcefully reiterated their simple and clear message.
We have seen the protests continue, and become increasingly confrontational with the Legislature having being taken over for a day on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Rather than this being an action of the fringe of the movement, it appears to be an extension of the feeling of the Hong Kong people at large. The impact of the very public message sent by the people will continue for some time as while the Bill is now, in the words of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled Leader, the fears of what lay behind the Extradition Bill remain.
Reflecting on the protests and the messages of the people I can’t help but think what an almost unique situation it is, to see so many of the city’s people, from all walks of life, taking to the streets to protect their freedom and independence. While the wider economic, trade and geopolitical implications of the law being pushed by the Government, and the changes in approach it signals, would be significant for all of us in the region, and wider, this is a movement of people concerned about their future. It is a coming together of society in a way that I haven’t seen before around a common cause.
This movement is a lesson to all of us interested in promoting civil society. It showed the power of civil society that comes when that civil society seeks to encompass all of the voices contained, leaving aside other differences to fight for something fundamental to everyone, freedom.