Aside from the occasional government-astroturfed xenophobic anti-Japan protest, there isn’t much opportunity to join a demonstration in Shanghai, especially one that doesn’t pose a real risk of being arrested for any foreigners who happen to catch the eye of the security services. So, finding myself in Hong Kong this July 1st, I decided to follow Jackie Chan’s lead and join in the favourite activity of the “city of protest“.
The march, which drew crowds of over 400,000 according to organisers, was beset both by Tropical Storm Rumbia and a nakedly desperate (and hugely cynical) free concert put on by pro-Beijing groups in an attempt to lure young Hong Kongers away from exercising their right to protest. Nevertheless, from a street level at least, the demonstration was well attended by a diverse selection of Hong Kong society.
Accompanied by fellow reporter (and former Shanghaiist staffer) Hèléne Franchineau I joined the march at Wan Chai metro station, some way ahead of the starting point in Victoria Park. We missed the start of the march due to the torrential rain that started almost on the dot of 2.30pm when the protest was due to begin (anti-Beijing conspiracy theorists take note), hiding from the rain in a coffee shop until it weakened to a point where one wouldn’t be instantly soaked just by stepping outside.
Though the protest was quite heavily policed, neither demonstrators or cops seemed in any mood to fight with each other. Coming from a country where the police kettle and rile up protesters at any opportunity, this civility seemed quite strange. I saw reports later on of some scuffles between protesters and police, but these were apparently due to frustration at the slow movement of the march (only one lane of Hennessy Road, which most of the march took place on, was open to demonstrators, causing considerable delay).
The civility of the whole affair meant that the protest often felt like thousands of people had just randomly decided to take a stroll in the city centre together. Despite the best efforts of various megaphone wielders to get chants of “CY Leung Resign” (梁振英下台) going most of the crowd was content to just walk along chatting and taking photos. At one point people did break into a verse of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?‘ from Les Miserables, which was awesome, but I doubt anyone was worried that protesters would storm the barricades. The lack of an equivalent of Black Bloc was most noticeable when the march reached Admiralty and protesters strolled past Bvlgari and Prada outlets in some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
One of the reasons for the chill nature of the protest was perhaps the diversity of things to protest for. On the anti side: CY Leung, Beijing, shark’s fin soup. On the pro side: Falun Gong, gay marriage, whatever these people with pictures of sea horses were doing.
Even this collection of deliberately provocative flags (apparently chosen on the basis of ‘What will piss mainlanders off the most’) failed to get much of a reaction from the crowd. The old flag of colonial Hong Kong was on display all over, stirring up confusing emotions for me, since, while it’s always nice to see the Union Flag on display, British Hong Kong was even less democratic than the current Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Nine out of every 10 marchers (including myself) were spending more time taking photos and videos than actually paying attention to the protest, because this is 2013 after all.
The Democratic Party’s anti-CY Leung posters and flyers were perhaps the best on display, and it was nice to see some proper Chinese satire, even of such an easily mocked target as Hong Kong’s incompetent chief executive.
This old guy was one of the few people waving the colonial flag to actually remember British Hong Kong. I picked up one of the flags myself but quickly stashed it in my bag to avoid being photographed with it (I didn’t want to be that laowai).
This gay sheep was perhaps the coolest graphic I saw all day.
As we neared the front of the march the crowd began to thin out due to the police’s constraints on how many marchers could pass through at once. My companion, a citizen of a country where rioting is as natural as breathing, was slightly appalled at the apparent lack of zeal displayed by protesters.
This woman was one of the few people who had thought to write on their umbrellas, which was strange considering that umbrellas were the one thing everyone at the protest (apart from us) seemed to have brought.
Returning to my hostel to get ready for dinner (before the demonstration finished, like the petit bourgeois class traitor I am) it was stunning at how quickly one could be forget that hundreds of thousands of people were protesting at all. Lockhart Road, which runs parallel to Hennessy, was completely empty of even anti-CY flyers.
The July 1st demonstration seemed less a protest than a placeholder, a reminder to Beijing and the collaborationist Hong Kong government that citizens of the SAR haven’t forgotten the promise of true universal suffrage. Occupy Central, which is organising a shutdown of Central in July 2014 to demand better representation for Hong Kong citizens in Chief Executive elections, was reportedly the biggest recipient of donations on July 1st. Beijing would be remiss to assume that Hong Kongers will always be satisfied with peaceful protest.