A surreal week of demonstration in Hong Kong was threatened but not undone by a group of rumored triad members, said to be dressed up as blue collar types, who harassed and provoked protestors.
Still, despite the dramatic media depictions, the pro-democracy protest by a group known as Occupy Central that has taken place in Hong Kong over the past seven days has been one of the most orderly, civil, and downright clean protests in memory.
But the peace was tested Friday afternoon, after six days of mostly peaceful protests that included sit-ins outside the Hong Kong government buildings and on major roads in the city, violent clashes occurred when a group of middle-aged, blue-collar types surrounded a small group of protesters in two off-center protest areas and verbally harassed protesters. These verbal assaults eventually led to physical and sexual assaults.
Rumors began swirling on Hong Kong social media that they were triads (Chinese mafia) hired by pro-Beijing groups, or possibly Beijing apparatchiks. This screenshot of a Facebook post by a man offering cash for people to disrupt protests spread like wildfire throughout the city.
In full disclosure, I was born in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, a time when the city was a fully westernized colony of Britain. In 1991 I moved to the U.S. where I spent my teens and first half of my twenties like an average Californian. So no, I am not a neutral observer in this ongoing battle between Hong Kong citizens and mainland China, because I really enjoy western culture and the things that come with it, like democracy – and the ability to log into Facebook (you can’t do that in China).
Hong Kong is one of the most fast-paced cities in the world. It’s a densely populated, commerce-driven international financial hub. Land is so scarce here that a month’s rent for a parking spot could pay for a one bedroom apartment in most U.S. cities. We have arguably the most efficient transportation system in the world.
Occupy Central, by staging mass sit-ins (and sleep-ins) in key points, managed to cripple that infrastructure and slow the city to a crawl.
Streets normally packed with traffic, leading to the city’s financial center, were empty. The early morning ambience was that of a zombie movie.
During the day and prime-time in the evening though, tens of thousands of protesters would fill the streets. Despite police firing tear gas at unarmed, passive protesters on the first night, bad weather, and the sheer size of the crowd, the streets remained clean every morning. There have been virtually zero property damage reports, injuries, or crime (aside from the retaliatory variety).
I strolled through the protest every night, and every night I was left in awe and inspired by the orderliness of it all. I covered Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2012; I’m familiar with the non-violent, unaggressive approach some of the OWS members preached, but the so-called "Umbrella Movement" of Hong Kong was on another level.
Crucial supplies, like water and first aid materials, were aplenty. Makeshift phone charging stations could be found every few hundred feet. There was even a macaroni stand.
Elevated parts of the road had ramps built from street materials for easier pedestrian access. Throughout day and night, a pair of protester would alternate shifts manning the ramp, not to regulate entry, but to assist those who needed help getting to elevated spots.
Protesters cleaned up after themselves – with designated protesters on cleanup and recycling duties.
With China’s rapid expansion and growing clout over the past decade, it’s unbelievable, and downright uncanny, that this group of young Hongkongers have posed the biggest challenge to Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
Last night a group of troublemakers, that even neutral foreign journalist believe are China-backed thugs, tried to plunge Hong Kong’s peaceful protest into chaos.
I was on my way back to the city from work on Friday evening when my Twitter feed began filling with images and videos of adult men, verbally and physically provoking student protesters. There were reports that female students were groped and threatened with “rape”. The thugs forcefully ripped apart a tent that had been set up by protesters as a supply station.
I arrived on scene at 6 p.m. and caught the very tail end of a confrontation in Causeway Bay, just after police had stepped in and scurried away the anti-protesting group. In the photo below, you can see a man, in glasses, trying to provoke us while a lady tried to calm us down.
“Don’t argue with them, don’t fight them,” she told us. “That’s exactly what they want from you guys.”
She’s right. Occupy Central had spent the past week showing the world the most polite and tidy protest ever. If we had retaliated, if we had stooped to the level of the thugs, everything Occupy Central stood for would have been for naught.
The world is watching. And tonight, the fight for democracy continues. The pro-Beijing mob will likely come again. But the youth of Hong Kong – the city’s future – shall rise above.
ain't gonna be no rematch