I was delighted when my friend Maggie Wong Shing-wah said she would be on Hong Kong island on Saturday, and we could meet. Our schedules had been clashing for months, so it had been a long time since we’d gotten together.
I’ve known Wong – not her real name – for more than 20 years, and she’s my born and bred in Hong Kong Chinese friend of longest standing still living in the territory. In her 40s (I guess, I’d never ask), she runs her own business, raised two kids who’ve both graduated from local universities, has been divorced for as long as I’ve known her, and lives in deepest, darkest Kowloon.
Wong is the quintessential low key, practical Hong Konger, so when she told me where to meet her, I didn’t expect it would be an anti-government demonstration.
I arrived at Central Station on the MTR subway line and was walking toward the exit for the Court of Final Appeal when an alarm blared, accompanied by a trilingual announcement that the station was about to close. Knowing the history of police and vigilante beatings in MTR stations, I scrambled to the surface, where tear gas still hung in the air. The chemical did its job, making my eyes water.
When I found Wong at a station exit, she looked the part of a protester. She wore a dark, but not black, tee-shirt that made her look more muscular than I recalled. A flesh colored mask covered her mouth and nose, then in violation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s ban on masks that was struck down in court but later reinstated by Lam while appeal of the ruling is pending.
When she removed the mask, though, Wong was just another Hong Konger walking with a friend, looking for a place to eat on a Saturday night. A small fire burned in front of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the grand dame of Hong Kong hospitality. “That’s what you get these days for three thousand [Hong Kong] dollars a night,” I quipped.
“There’s no guests,” Wong replied, more serious than I expected. A fire engine approached the scene, and firefighters doused the flames with extinguishers.
Earlier that day, police reportedly interfered with firefighters trying to put out a blaze. Other emergency services complain about police inference in their work during protests.“Firemen are okay,” Wong said. “They’re on our side.”
“What do you think about protesters using petrol bombs?”
“The police have tear gas and water cannons and guns,” Wong replied, pointing to empty tear gas canisters scattered on the street. “All we have are petrol bombs and bricks. It’s still not a fair fight.”
The demonstration in Central had disbanded but Des Voeux Road had plenty of pedestrians. Walking around town is less cramped lately because protesters have dismantled many pedestrian fences, using the bars for makeshift street barriers.
Shops had closed and lowered their metal gates on this main artery in the heart of Hong Kong, the signature double-deck trams seemed to have stopped running and traffic was light, so it felt more like 3am on a Tuesday than 7pm on a Saturday night.
Walking to Queen’s Road alongside Central Market, there was a shuttered 7-11, a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s become a regular sight around Hong Kong.
After an upscale Chinese restaurant with its gate half-closed shooed us away – employees sent home and a Saturday night’s lost revenue due to what, in this case, was yet another overreaction to protests – we continued west, signs of commercial life reappearing on the streets.
We wound up at the Sheung Wan Market cooked food area, seated between a boozy birthday party and a triple generation family dinner. When I asked her why she joined the marchers, Wong said, “This isn’t China,” a sentiment I don’t believe she would have expressed, or at least not that way, when the handover happened in 1997.
One country-two systems seemed like it could work back then, and there was good will on both sides. But that’s eroded over time as Beijing has tried to meddle more in Hong Kong affairs and Hong Kong’s leadership has allowed it.
The extradition bill, which would have permitted Hong Kongers to be sent to China for trial at Beijing’s request – and there’s no evidence that Hong Kong authorities would reject a request from Beijing – was the last straw for Wong.
The intransigence of Carrie Lam and heavy-handed police response to initial peaceful demonstrations deepened her commitment to the protests. Wong emphasized she “doesn’t trust” Lam, who makes little pretense of representing Hong Kong.
The protesters’ five demands – complete withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the protests, independent investigations into police brutality allegations, removing the “rioter” designation for protesters, amnesty for arrested protesters and “dual universal suffrage” election of the city’s leader and its legislature by all voters – don’t include Lam’s resignation as chief executive.
Hong Kongers realize Lam is a just symptom of Hong Kong’s lack of democracy. In Hong Kongers’ practical DNA, it makes sense that she would represent the people in Beijing that chose her.
That explains but doesn’t excuse Lam’s ham-fisted handling of the extradition bill and all that’s followed, and her lack of imagination and courage to champion a Hong Kong solution to the situation. Lam could agree to the first four protester demands right now, in hope that Hong Kong democrats would accept the offer, breaking their decades-long string of tactical errors.
Case in point: the 2014 proposal for election of the chief executive by universal suffrage among Beijing approved candidates would have been a step forward and made the election winner accountable to and beholden to the voters of Hong Kong as well as the mandarins in Beijing. Instead, democrats rejected the proposal out of hand and the chief executive still answers only to Beijing.
“We’re going to wind up like Xinjiang,” Wong warned, whipping out her phone to show me videos of purported mass detention camps for Uighur Muslims in the northwest Chinese province. China doesn’t dispute the existence of the facilities, where over one million are being held, but characterizes them as anti-terrorism, vocational training facilities, not prison camps.
Beijing’s campaign to control Xinjiang includes electronic and biometric surveillance and dispatching Han Chinese settlers to the province, aiming ultimately to outnumber the ethnic Uighurs.
For Hong Kongers, the installation of so-called smart lamp posts, increased immigration from mainland China and escalating moves to limit Hong Kong’s political freedoms, such as banning pro-independence politicians even if they win election, makes it easy for Wong to see a narrative similar to Xinjiang unfolding.
“Take your money away from here,” Wong urged, though most other people I’ve talked to around town believe the finance and banking system is the last thing the government would alter. She says she’s considering emigration, looking at Canada most closely.
Wong has utter disdain for the police. During street protests, the police seem to act without a coherent plan, playing cat and mouse with protesters, meeting peaceful dissent with violence and seeking easy targets. Hong Kong’s leadership has put police – and citizens – in an impossible position, and no side is behaving well.
After dinner, walking toward Wong’s bus home – “The MTR is our enemy,” she declared, since the train operator routinely adjusts service to hamper protests – we passed a Starbucks that protesters had trashed, its windows shattered.
Hong Kong’s Starbucks licensee is Maxim’s Group, and its founder’s daughter Annie Wu denounced protesters at the United Nations Human Rights Council in September, a mission she undertook along with casino magnate Pansy Ho, a major shareholder in MGM China and SJM Holdings.
(Macau casinos now search bags carried into gaming areas, something that didn’t happen six months ago.)
“Nobody steals anything” from premises protesters attack, Wong noted. She chuckled while pointing out furniture from the Starbucks arrayed along the stairway of an MTR entrance, indicating Wong and the protesters hadn’t completely lost their sense of humor.
As we parted, I realized that Hong Kong’s social contract between its people and its government is shattered as completely as that Starbucks window. No matter where you stand, it’s clear that once Hong Kong authorities lost Maggie Wong Shing-wah, they lost the game.
Muhammad Cohen is the author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during Hong Kong’s 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie. It may be purchased here.