Today, when I came down from my building, having decided to leave work early, not because it was New Year’s Day, but because of the threat of protest violence and MTR shutdowns, I saw groups of people in black with masks on, including some children, with huge Pepe the Frog plushes hanging from their bags.
While most people spend New Year’s Day lazing about and recovering from the night’s festivities, Hongkongers came out en masse to push their government to do the right thing.
And after six months of an emotional rollercoaster since the protests began, I came full circle, finding myself once again awed by their spirit.
When the protests started out in June, I was inspired by the sheers numbers with which people took the streets, largely peacefully. I was elated when they made what I thought was the impossible happen – the government backing down on a law it insisted it would push through, with the might of China at its back.
But as the protest violence escalated quickly, I grew disillusioned, not because I am against violent protests per se, but in the dishonesty with which violence was wielded. There was violence from day 2 onwards when protesters threw objects, including bricks, at the police but the narrative insisted for quite a while on not acknowledging this violence and then on not condemning the most egregious examples of it while turning Cultural Revolution-style against anyone who voiced criticism of the movement,
While the international media presented a uniformly highminded picture of the protesters, I saw at the ground level a great deal of pettiness and stupidity.
Then the protests in India began. From afar, my sympathies were obviously with the protesters. But then the uniformity of the narrative coming out of India began to make me suspicious. Reading newspaper reports carefully, including the liberal ones, I began to see a similar pattern to the Hong Kong protests. Conversations with friends also highlighted to me how people cleave to the narratives they are drawn to, refusing to admit inconvenient truths.
And yet, I supported the Indian protesters fairly unconditionally. Why? Well, for one, I’m more ready to believe worse of the Indian police than the Hong Kong police. But also, because I supported the cause behind the protests.
Now, in Hong Kong, I also initially supported the cause behind the protests – the withdrawal of a law that would allow the extradition of people accused of criminal activity by China. But when that law was withdrawn, I was not sure that the protests need go on with this level of intensity, including violence.
While the Western media insists on portraying the Hong Kong protests as a pro-democracy movement – and I don’t deny that a demand that Hong Kong’s leader be elected by universal suffrage has long animated Hong Kong, having been the core of the 2014 Umbrella Movement – the current protests are about something more … basic. They are a protest against police misconduct in dealing with protesters and that those who were targeted in the initial crackdown not be charged and jailed.
The logic is: when violence is the only language the government responds to, those using that language in pursuit of a just cause should not be criminally prosecuted. Moreover, that those tasked with upholding the law must be held to the highest standard of the law.
This is a more complicated logic than a simple demand for democracy or the freeing of the innocent. However, I do believe that except in the most extreme cases of violence, those that put their own bodies on the line in defiance of the state should not be allowed to go like lambs to the slaughter through the prison industrial complex.
We are not in Gandhian territory anymore (and may I say how sick I am of hearing the Gandhi-Luther King-Mandela triumvirate cited at every turn). We are in the territory of righteous anger that refuses to accept the unjust power of the state.
Since Hong Kong’s historic district council elections (Western media please note, these are held by universal suffrage so it’s not like Hongkongers never vote. Heck, I have voted more than once in a single year), I was unpleasantly surprised to see the Hong Kong government continue to pander to the pro-Beijing camp which lost heavily in the elections instead of using the opportunity for some kind of reconciliation through concessions to the other side. Again, the government made it clear that peaceful expression of the public voice counts for nothing.
Interestingly, in conversation with a friend in India, she said that people were protesting not so much against the Citizenship Amendment Act but against the police treatment of the initial protesters, particularly university students. So a very similar logic there too.
After the siege of Polytechnic University, when thousands of students were rounded up after being holed up the university for days, many people thought the protest had fizzled out. But on the first day of the new year, Hongkongers showed us that this fight is far from over.
I can only humbly salute them.