Hong Kong: 75 Days That Shook Asia’s World City – Will It Ever Be the Same?

Comment and Analysis

As bailiffs clear out the remaining protest sites in Hong Kong and the police arrest protesters that refuse to move, it’s time to ask, “Have the last 75 days really changed anything?” Here’s our take …

It’s temping to say that the Umbrella Movement, a.k.a. the Umbrella Revolution,  has divided Hong Kong. But that would be a mistake.

Hong Kong has been a house divided as long as I have known it.

When I visited the city for the first time in the early 1970s, it could be divided basically into 2 distinct camps: leftist and rightist.

The leftists were loyal to the Chinese Communist regime based in Beijing, then known in English as Peking. The rightists were loyal to the Nationalist Chinese regime based in Taipei.

The leftists and rightists had their own trade unions, their own schools, and control over different public housing estates.

A war of flags would erupt each October, with the rival camps vying to see who could display the most flags on their respective national days at businesses and public housing estates: 1 October (for the leftists) and 10 October (for the rightists).

If I remember correctly, the rightists usually won. The secondary school that I taught at for a few (stressful but wonderful) months in 1975, proudly flew the Nationalist Chinese flag. But that was then …

Rival Movie Theatres

There were even rival and movie theatres.

The right wing (a.k.a. mainstream) theatres showed Kung Fu movies or romantic flicks filmed in Hong Kong or Taiwan – as well as Hollywood blockbusters.

The left wing theatres showed movies with revolutionary themes – and silent black and white Laurel and Hardey comedies, which sent the working class audiences into gails of unrestrained laughter.

When I returned to Hong Kong a few years later, the divisions had altered slightly. The city was then divided into pro-British and pro-Chinese elements.

The pro-British side wanted the status quo to be continued indefintely. The pro-Chinese crowd wanted China to resume sovereignty over Hong Kong with all deliberate speed.

With passage of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which would return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and the bloody crackdown on student protesters in Beijing on 4 June 1989, legions of Hong Kong’s middle and professional classes sought overseas citizenship.

They referried to their newly acquired foreign passports a bit dismissively as ‘insurance policies’. They could use them to flee Hong Kong – just in case …

1997 Handover

Before the handover, a close friend from New Zealand once made the following observation: “Most places are defined by a date in their past. Hong Kong is defined by a date in its future.”

The date she was referring to, of course, was 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty following 150 years of British colonial rule.

At bars or pubs or cocktails parties, “Are you going to stay?” was a convenient social lubricant. Whenever there was an awkward pause in the conversation, that simple question would keep the conversation going for the rest of the night.

The handover came and went, and Hong Kong’s divided house morphed into pro-government (read: pro-China) and pro-Democracy camps. Suddenly the formerly pro-British camp wanted something that Britain had never offered until the sunset days of Empire: one man, one vote.

The business tycoons, who were unabashedly pro-British before the Handover, became the Chinese government’s biggest boosters.

One Man, One Vote

Many in the pro-British camp – which had always accepted governors being appointed by London – didn’t want their chief executive to be appointed by Beijing.

They wanted to select their government according to internationally accepted standards.

To be fair, that IS what the people of Hong Kong had been promised: after the Handover, Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong.

Even China’s then referred to as ‘Paramount Leader’ Deng Xiaoping said that Hong Kong’s democratic development would be an intermal affair of Hong Kong.

Umbrella Movement

So where do we stand?

The Umbrella Movement has NOT divided Hong Kong – the community had  ALWAYS been divided. But it HAS heightened the divisions that had already existed.

To clarify, these divisions have never been discrete, they have always been fluid, and they are an over-simplification of a very complex set of emotions and issues.

The point I am trying to make in this very circuitous way is that not EVERYONE in Hong Kong is a supporter of the Umbrella Movement.

I know that that might be how it seems if viewed from outside Hong Kong, but those of us that live here know that many people do NOT sympathize with the movement. Many, in fact, have been downright hostile toward it.

Many people support the goals, but they resent the inconvenience that the occupation of key business districts and travel arteries  has caused.

I don’t have any statistics to support this, but my estimate is that the Democrats account for about one-third of Hong Kong society. So even if they achieved their goal of univeral suffrage, their candidate for chief executive would not necessarily win.

The pro-China camp, meanwhile, probably accounts for about 20% of Hong Kong society.

As for the other 50%? I really don’t know …

But I CAN say this. I have spent most of my adult life in Hong Kong, and without doubt, these last several weeks  have been the most fascinating 75 days of my life.

And I am sure that Hong Kong will never be the same.

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Your Response Wanted!

What do you think about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?

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Regardless of whether you thought genuinely that the efforts of the protesters were laudable or an unrealistic waste of time and effort, I have taken pleasure in the fact that the spotlight of international media attention has been focused back on Hong Kong — I had been beginning to think that nobody had remembered us since the handover.

D. F. (Hong Kong, via email)

Your take on 74 days is unlike any other as you have delved into the deep background of the HK/China scene, political and historical and it’s not mere opinion. I like this perspective, this reminder… it is much more enlightening than others I have read on this situation.

R. (Hong Kong, via email)

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