A Voice Crying in the Desert

A Voice Crying in the Desert

Hong Kong Thanksgiving 2019

Poster on Tai Po Bus Station Wall

“They ought to line up all those demonstrators against the wall and shoot ‘em!”
My step father was an irascible, ill-tempered man particularly if someone pushed one of his sensitive buttons. Communists, democrats, labor union leaders, student demonstrators, civil rights movement — these were among the most prickly topics to avoid when entering into a conversation with him.

At night during the 6 o’clock TV news, I’d sit and listen to him ruminate about communist inspired demonstrations against the Vietnam War. “Pack ‘em up and ship ‘em to Moscow!” As a second-year, and I might add, impressionable university student, I was imbued with high ideals. Buzz words resounded in my mind. Freedom! Democracy! Equality! I attended meetings with the Students for a Democratic Society SDS and joined in demonstrations organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SNCC .

https://study.com/academy/lesson/history-of-students-for-a-democratic-society-the-vietnam-war.html

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/student-nonviolent-coordinating-committee-sncc

Civil disobedience, as espoused by Henry David Thoreau, inspired me along with many others in my cohort who took part, however tangentially, in performing acts of disobedience. (To this day I’ve kept my involvement in throwing a garbage can through the store window of the John Birch Society Bookstore quiet. Mother would have died of mortification; my step-father would have accused me of being duped by Marxist thugs. But as a 19 year old student imbued with ideals, I believed acts of disobedience were justified to protest injustice, inequality and police brutality.)

Sixty years later my idealism has tarnished with age. The buzz words of freedom, democracy, equality no longer stir me to scale the ramparts of tyranny and strike a blow for the dispossessed. Perhaps, I have experienced too many times over the years how idealism had become twisted to justify regime change, interning of people seeking refuge, and disregard of civil rights of people of color. Nevertheless, when my daughter informed me she was taking part in the peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong, nostalgic memories swept over me. Idealism and a sense of justice were alive and well among the younger generations.

“Just be careful,” I cautioned her, knowing how peaceful demonstrations could turn ugly, especially by people bent on throwing garbage cans through bookstore windows.

I followed the news about Hong Kong, really not understanding what they were protesting. I knew the protestors centered their protests around five key demands: to withdraw the extradition bill, to stop labeling protesters as ‘rioters’, to drop charges against protesters, to conduct an independent inquiry into police behavior, and to implement genuine universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.

Other issues much closer to home occupied my mind. The water heater was acting up.. My internet connections suddenly quit on me. A charge on my AMEX card not made by me. These and other daily entangling problems diverted my attention in a thousand ways. But when the demonstrations became violent with police using tear gas to control radicals throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing store windows, I put aside the daily problems during the evening news. The news suddenly had come closer to home.

“Don’t worry, Dad. The times and locations of demonstrations are announced on social media. So we avoid going there.”
“But what about the children?”
“Mainly university students are protesting, Dad, not middle schoolers,” she said, matter-of-factly. “So are you coming to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving?”
The question caught me off-guard. My mind, not as agile as it was at age 19, stumbled from the topic of demonstrations to Thanksgiving. “Um, um. Yes.”

My friends in the neighborhood cleanup group were amazed that I would be traveling to Hong Kong. In their minds, I’d encountered rancorous demonstrators. “Some radical might set you on fire,” an elderly co-worker told me. She was holding a big garbage bag open for me to dump my collection of leaves and cigarette butts into. Actually, I was mildly concerned. The reality was, I was going to Hong Kong and not to Syria. The exaggerated fears expressed in worried voices were unfounded. But I was in for plenty of surprises.

My flight landed ahead of schedule. As I walked toward the Immigration officers, I prepared myself for standing in line for ages waiting for my turn for one to stamp my passport. Lines? There were no lines. I breezed through Immigration and Customs in record time. (Waiting for my bag before going through customs, however . . . .) I walked briskly through the relatively empty airport building to the bus stops and caught the A47X bus to Tai Po Market in record time. When my daughter opened the door to their apartment, she said, “Dad! How did you get here so fast?”


The following morning, I read through the pages of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and learned that the number of tourists had dropped nearly 50% in October 2019 when compared with the numbers recorded in October 2018. Also 40 countries had issued travel warning to passengers heading to Hong Kong. I was unaware of any travel advisory, if any, coming from the Japanese government.

The lull in the demonstrations coincided with my arrival. Three days earlier on Sunday, the election for district council seats had taken place. “Voter turnout was confirmed at 71.2 per cent of 4.1 million registered to vote, compared with 47 per cent in the 2015 polls, and far surpassed the record of 58 per cent set in 2016’s Legislative Council elections, where at least 10 localist candidates were elected.” (SCMP, 25 Nov. 2019). The results gave the Pan Democrats a smashing victory.

The elections had taken place on the Sunday three days before I arrived on Wednesday, November 27th. On Thursday, my daughter took me to an Indian Restaurant nearby Hong Hom Station. She pointed out the shops that had been closed during the demonstrations. And the stores whose windows and entrances had been defaced or destroyed by vandals. The store owners were considered too favorable to Beijing. The Chinese banks and other Hong Kong shops that were judged to have pro-Beijing tendencies received heavy damage from vandals during the demonstrations.


Why damage innocent shop owners whose sympathies may or may not have favored Beijing? Or who might have expressed opposing opinions? How much of the vandalism was inspired by idealism? How much by pent up frustrations? Mob psychology? Youthful exuberance? But these were questions of a 77 year old man, not of a 19 year university student who took mirthful pleasure at seeing the extent of the destruction of a bookstore window. Ha! Ha! Ha!

But one question kept nagging at me. “Do the ends justify the means?” Ironic, I thought, at age 19 I would have answered unequivocally in the affirmative. By answering in the affirmative, I had placed myself on the same level as those who resorted to violence to suppress democracy, freedom, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


The news footage of a man who confronted a group of protestors after they vandalized Ma On Sha station and who was doused with flammable fluid and set on fire made me realize that a number of radical protestors cared little for freedom of expression. They cared more for causing property damage and inflicting bodily harm.

Police Brutality

In the 1960s, demonstrations and riots protesting the Vietnam War, racism and inequality occurred regularly. One demonstration televised live stands out in my mind as one of the most blatant examples of police brutality— the 1968 demonstration outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong appeared milder when compared to the battle outside the convention center in 1968. The police in Chicago were reinforced by National Guard and regular US army troops. In Hong Kong, the police handled crowd control and confrontations with the more violent elements of the movement. No troops entered Hong Kong to restore order. Incidents involving extreme police response were numerous, but, in my opinion, not to the degree of the violence witnessed in Chicago. But, of course, I was not a participant. I had only visuals on TV newscasts as reference.

At age 19, I considered the police as part and parcel of the problem. They supported and protected those in power who promoted racial inequality, injustice and the brutal killing of village people in a country where few Americans could point to on the map. No doubt many in the police force believed they were protecting the society from protestors they viewed as subversives seeking to undermine the government of the United States. Upon reflection, I believe there must have been more than a few who were conflicted.

I would argue that the members of the Hong Kong police also varied in their feelings toward enforcing the law during the violent stages of the protests. Some highly dedicated to ensuring the protection of the Hong Kong government; a few conflicted in their loyalties. However, they all are paid by the Hong Kong government from the taxes paid by the people of Hong Kong. Many have spouses and children to support, mortgage payments to make, bills to pay. You can be sure they would perform their duties, if not for the Hong Kong government but for their families. Their mission, I’m sure, was to ensure the marches remain peaceful. If radicals resort to violence and cause mayhem, then to use force commensurate to the danger.


Inevitably, clashes between police and protestors resulted in injuries to both sides and prompting police to resort to more forceful means of crowd control. In the September 9th edition of the SCMP, it was reported that police “fired more than 2,350 canisters of tear gas, hundreds of beanbag rounds and sponge grenades, [made] the arrest of 1,183 people and [there were] a number of suicides to be related to the unrest.”

Even after Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill, protestors demanded all five their demands be met, one of which was appointing an independent inquiry into police behavior instead of going through the established Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).

“University student Benjamin Tsang, 21, blamed the government for the alleged police brutality and said: “It will be extremely unfair to those arrested or injured if the government only addresses one of our demands.” (SCMP, 9 September 2019)

Allegations accusing police of malfeasance, excessive force and outright disregard of the safety of Hong Kong citizens continue to flow across headlines, plastered on public wall space, and communicated over social media.

Police Brutality

Accusations, insults, and physical attacks are what members of the police can expect in their day-to-day activities while on duty. But you can hardly blame them for becoming doubtful about the true intentions of certain protesters who, for example, took refuge in Polytechnic University buildings. After they surrendered or escaped, the police undertook a search for protesters who might have still been hiding. They discovered 3800 petrol bombs, 921 gas canisters, 588 containers of chemicals including acid and other corrosive liquids, 12 bows and 200 arrows and one air rifle. (SCMP 29 November 2019) If I were in the police force, I’d become suspicious and watchful during the demonstrations, and I’d be ready to defend myself against attack.

(For insights from students point of view, listen to the podcast on Spotify of WSJ’s John Lyons’ report The Journal November 22. Also refer to this website by a professor at the Chinese University, another university used as a refuge for student protesters.)

https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/12/08/november-12-clashes-chinese-university-hong-kong-eyewitness-view/)

Inequalities

Still, the massive numbers of protesters would hardly think of attacking the police. Many are concerned working people dissatisfied with HK government policies, or lack thereof, that mainly affect their economic well-being. The economic and financial inequalities found in the city are readily apparent.

One in five people in Hong Kong live below the HK poverty line of HK$4000. With the economy shrinking 3.2% in the third quarter, exports falling 9.2% in October, and the dramatic downturn in the number of tourists, residents falling under the poverty line are the hardest hit. For many, commuting to jobs were disrupted by demonstrators blocking traffic and modes of transportation. The workers who needed to work the most were prevented from arriving at their workplace. Moreover, because of the downturn in the economy, many construction projects had been put on hold. Hotels and restaurants had to let many workers go for lack of business. Again, those most in need of income were affected. (based on Crystal Tai’s article, Sunday Young Post supplement SCMP, December 1, 2019).

For those in the middle-class and those starting out in their adult careers, substantial job opportunities and home ownership are beyond their reach. Robert Lee in his opinion piece wrote: “Until Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor recently raised the mortgage ratio to 90 per cent for first-home buyers (who still have to pay a price of slightly more than US$1 million for a flat), it would take eight years of combined unspent household income to save for the deposit of a flat in the private sector. People who wish to move into a public rental flat would still have to wait an average of more than five years. . . . . On the education front, the 22 degree-granting institutions annually produce more graduates than the market can absorb, forcing many to take low-skill jobs. This structural mismatch of skills and opportunity has generated discontent among the younger generation.” (SCMP, December 11, 2019)

(Robert Lee’s opinion is well-worth reading in its entirety. Though written from a definite point of view, it provided me with interesting insights to understand the problems posed by the protests on a global level.)

https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3041405/hong-kong-protests-city-must-realise-its-true-value-china-weather

The problems faced by the young university students of Hong Kong are shared by their university brothers and sisters in other countries. They spend four to six years studying to earn their degrees only to bump into a catch 22 dilemma: they are overly qualified and lacking in experience. Ever likely they take out their frustrations on public and private property. Ever likely they engage in combat with the police to unleash their anger. Ever likely they may feel there is no future for them in Hong Kong.

After Thoughts

I returned from Hong Kong with a little deeper understanding of the issues facing the citizens of the city. But I have many questions to ask and no solutions to offer. Two questions are uppermost in my mind. Will the young men and women elected to the district councils be able to temper their idealism to deal with the problems and concerns of the people in their district? And will the United States ever learn to stay out of the internal affairs of other countries. I have strong feelings against the USA inserting itself into the protest demonstrations. But those feelings must wait for another blog.

Interesting websites

https://multimedia.scmp.com/infographics/news/hong-kong/article/3032146/hong-kong-protests/index.html

N.B. I am not a journalist; otherwise, I would have interviewed protesters and police officers and not have relied on one source the South China Morning Post. I had gone to Hong Kong to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with my daughter and her family and friends. During my free time I walked around the city alone, I allowed my elderly mind to formulate a story line. The statement and opinions are my own and follow the story line I pieced together during my walk along the streets of one of my favorite cities in the world. I am not a political analyst. I am, as a reporter from the Wall Street Journal told me at the Thanksgiving dinner, a lonely pamphleteer.

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