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Irreconcilable differences?

‘Hong Kong’s people need no bird cage designed by the central authorities. We are masters of our own fate.’
—Letter from the Hong Kong Christian Institute.

Hong Kong’s Victoria Park separates the city’s busiest shopping district from North Point; a suburb of decaying apartment blocks, rapidly constructed to house refugees fleeing the mainland post-war. Here, open-air markets—illuminated by red lanterns—sell shoes alongside racks of seafood and pyramids of vegetables. On Sundays, the birdsong chatter of ‘domestic helpers’ fills the air. Women crouch on the ground, not unlike me, as I wait inside the park for this year’s pro-democracy march to begin.

According to The New York Times, Hong Kong is riding out a ‘politically turbulent summer’. Half a million people took to the streets on 1 July, demanding democracy in Hong Kong and, for the first time, on the mainland. Less than a month earlier, a record number commemorated the 15th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. More than 80,000 people, carrying black banners and a coffin, called on Beijing to ‘vindicate’ the memory of the students who died.

Later that afternoon, I stopped to talk to some teenage marshals, distributing fans to the people slowly making their way towards parliament. One of the marshals said, with unrestrained glee, that the crowd already numbered 250,000. ‘Thanks for being here’, he said. ‘This is part of Hong Kong history today.’

What these protests will mean in terms of Hong Kong’s future is unclear, but there is a definite buzz in the territory that reflects the emergence of a new, more politicised, civic culture. ‘For decades the conventional wisdom was that Hong Kong was almost a commercial city—the politics could be left to Taiwan, thanks’, says Newsweek. In today’s Hong Kong, such stereotypes are under attack as a new breed of activists fight to make their demands heard.

When the last British governor, Chris Patten sailed off into the sunset with Prince Charles after 150 years of colonial rule, it was generally understood that within a decade Hong Kong would have its own democratic government.

But according to writer Kwok Nai-wang, things are now worse than when under the colonial system. ‘Over the past 50 years, but especially after the riots in Hong Kong in 1967, the British style and substance of government was extended to Hong Kong.’ Now, Beijing’s authoritarian style, paired with the untrammelled sway of local tycoons, is putting all that at risk.

Hong Kong’s political system is far from democratic. An 800-member committee of prominent citizens—many with mainland economic ties—chooses the territory’s leader, the Chief Executive. Only half of Hong Kong’s parliamentary representatives are directly elected. Conservative trade groups, pro-Beijing bankers and property barons select the rest. But, as Time reports, even this quasi-democratic system of government has become ‘sidelined by Beijing, on everything from residency rights to political reform’.

Such interference has not escaped international criticism. In June, two US reports slammed Beijing’s ‘intrusive interventions with regard to universal suffrage and direct elections’. And the British Foreign Office recently accused Beijing’s central government of interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic politics, in a way that undermined self-governance guarantees.

Three days before the march, the rally’s organisers—a coalition of more than 50 non-government organisations, called the Civil Human Rights Front—held a press conference. Fronting the media was Rose Wu. Highly articulate, with a greying bob, and a slight American accent gleaned from her time spent
studying theology in Boston, Wu is one of the Front’s best-known faces.

‘As a student I was quite narrow-minded’, Wu says later in her small office at the Hong Kong Christian Institute. Wu’s political education mirrors Hong Kong’s own. It was work in one of Hong Kong’s poorest areas, Shek Kip Mei, she says that triggered her awareness.

‘Through pre-school education, I did a lot of home visits and they’, she pauses, ‘opened up my eyes, to how people lived and I was touched, and moved by my minister, who was dedicated to changing society and thinking about what it meant to serve God. That was my first encounter with what politics means.’

In the 1980s, Wu joined the People’s Patriotic Movement, but found the dissident movement an overwhelmingly male affair. ‘I was actively involved in two things; the women’s movement, especially feminist theology, and the democratic movement in Hong Kong. But I found the two did not reconcile very well. The democratic movement at that time was led by males and their understanding of democracy is very narrow. For them democracy means “one person, one vote”—universal suffrage—they don’t touch on issues relating to poverty, or discrimination.’

It is for this reason, she says that the Civil Human Rights Front includes Hong Kong’s most marginalised residents: sex workers, immigrants, the elderly and disabled. ‘We have to have a social dialogue, a platform, so people can strengthen the civil society, by entering a genuine dialogue and people can become active together’, says Wu.

‘In the past, the democratic movement was like a slogan, but for us it’s a platform. The Civil Human Rights Front is a platform where we invite the people of Hong Kong to come together to talk about the future.

‘It’s not just about the Chinese and this, to me, is deliberate’, Rose Wu says emphatically. ‘We want to create a movement that reflects an idea of inclusiveness.’

In the weeks leading up to the July demonstration, six words were on everybody’s lips. The complex diplomatic ballet over this slogan deemed ‘sensitive’ to Beijing, illustrates Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland. The slogan, ‘Return the power to the people.’

When some of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners supported dropping the slogan, I approached the Shiu Sin-por executive director of the pro-Beijing think tank, the One Country, Two Systems Institute to find out why. ‘The Central Government is sensitive about this because in the cultural revolution the slogan was used by leftists trying to seize control of the government’, Shiu says, before adding as an aside. ‘Ultimately, some marchers will use it, some won’t.’

Prior to the rally, much TV time was devoted to slogan-related debates. In one program, the pro-Beijing politician, Tsang Yok-sing asked: ‘Why not respect their (the mainland authorities’) feelings?’ A few pro-democracy politicians and trade unionists suggested using ‘positive’ slogans like ‘We love Hong Kong’ instead. Even the pre-eminent campaigner, Martin Lee said that despite Hong Kong wanting democracy, it did not mean ‘we and Beijing should be like fire and water’.

Hong Kong’s new reliance on the mainland’s economic largesse also motivated the debate. Between 1991–1997, Hong Kong’s economy grew at an annual rate of 5.1 per cent, but has recently struggled to manage half that. This means Hong Kong’s previously impervious citizens feel jittery, especially when mainland centres across the border are booming.

However, the irony of the purportedly free Hong Kong bending to accommodate Beijing sensitivities was not lost on Amnesty International’s Bella Luk Po-chu. ‘People have the right to express themselves. If that’s what they want to ask for, they can freely do so’, she said. But in a climate of increasing media self-censorship, Luk says human rights, such a freedom of expression, appear to be increasingly under threat.

At the July rally, protesters wore a T-shirt with the faces of two prominent radio shock-jocks, Albert Cheng King-hon and Raymond Wong Yuk-man, with the words: ‘Please come back.’ The men resigned, after what they say was a campaign of intimidation. Their successor, Allen Lee Pang-fei also quit after three weeks. ‘As long as I keep my mouth shut and don’t talk to you, I’m safe’, Cheng told The New York Times.

According to Lee, a former mainland official rang him asking to talk about his show. During the late-night conversation, the caller said that Lee’s wife was very virtuous and his daughter beautiful—comments Lee interpreted as threats.

The leader of pro-democracy group, The Frontier, Emily Lau describes the mood in Hong Kong at present as ‘quite tense’. Over the past year, Lau’s office has been attacked. Days before the rally, seven posters outside her office calling on people to join the rally were burned, while ‘Chinese traitors must die’ was scrawled on the walls.

Amnesty International’s Bella Luk says the departure of the radio talk-back hosts has been a massive blow: ‘We aren’t just talking about the person himself talking freely. These programs also give the opportunity to the public to phone in and use the atmosphere to share opinions. If these hosts are gone, this public opinion also has nowhere to go.’

By day’s end at the rally, more than 600 people will have been treated for heat exhaustion. Sometimes I, too, have to escape into the parallel universe of shoppers’ paradises, filled with luxury brands that line the route.

It is inside the air-conditioned comfort, that you find representatives of another Hong Kong. Couples, families, old people enjoying their holiday—a day that marks the return to China seven years ago, but also the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party decades earlier. Venturing outside again, as the humidity closes in, I recall a conversation I had with some young people a few nights ago.

Sitting in an open-air bar, it is after midnight but still hot and humid and this group of friends in their early 30s describe last year’s July rally as a ‘miracle’. Not only did it force the resignation of inept politicians, but also the shelving of a Beijing-sponsored anti-sedition law that many feared would destroy basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, in the territory.

Soon after the rally, the group set up a street-theatre troupe called A-generation. Pong Yat-ming explains its rationale: ‘We do “play-back” interactive theatre, spontaneous theatre. It’s a people’s theatre. We invite the audience to tell us their personal stories and we enact them.’ The group performs on the street, in offices, in prisons.
During this year’s rally, the group altered Canto-pop love songs and acted out kids’ games, while urging the crowd to join in. Their crazy antics and high-energy performance had a dramatic effect on the passing crowd; people laughed, clapped, or stared in disbelief at something that had rarely been seen on the streets of conformist Hong Kong. According to Pong Yat-ming this is the very point of their performance.

‘In Hong Kong, people are notorious for being passive. We don’t say anything. It’s because of our schools and their enormous class sizes. We just listen and the teachers also do not encourage us to speak, because they cannot control us. We are trained to be passive, so this theatre is a way of encouraging people to speak, so that next time an injustice happens they will say something; they will stand up.’ 

Madeleine Byrne is a former SBS journalist whose work has been published locally and overseas.



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