Whenever I’m talking to visitors from America or Europe about Hong Kong, I always make a point of mentioning that Hong Kong citizens don’t have universal suffrage. And almost always, people respond with an astonished, Really?! But how can this be? To the outsider, Hong Kong appears to be a metropolis like Tokyo, New York or London–a modern civilized place where trains are clean, buildings tall, and public life has the noisy confidence and bustle of a city where people feel free to express themselves without fear that they will be hauled away by police in the dark of night.
But how can this be?
So I went to the League of Social Democrats protest for universal suffrage last Saturday night. Even before I went I knew it was going to be a discouraging affair. For a week or more, the organizers of the event–a planned march from Victoria Park to Chater Garden–have been jousting with the police over a permit. The police authorities wouldn’t grant it. The official reason they gave was that a march that started at 7pm on a Saturday night would be “too disruptive” to the public. The LSD argued that the police have handed out at least 20 permits in the past for Saturday night marches. They appealed to the review board, but the board turned them down, too.
The League of Social Democrats decided to go ahead anyway with their march for baak piu, the clear, white, unblemished vote.
Right now, Hong Kong’s democrats are split over tactics. One wing of the movement, spearheaded by CE candidate Alan Leong and the Civic Party believes that participating in the current election process (800 mostly hand-picked delegates get to elect the CE) will move the cause forward. The other wing, led by the LSD, thinks that is a mistake, that the democrats should boycott the phony “election” altogether. And that the election committee delegates should protest the system by casting a baak piu on March 25th. Because of the democrats’ split, there was no chance that LSD would get more than around 200 demonstrators to show up on Saturday. The organizers knew this. The police knew this too.
Why would the police turn down a request for a march that, at best, would attract a handful of people? This was what I was wondering as I approached the park.
And then I got out of the taxi, saw the line of 24 big police paddywagons, and hundreds of cops, milling around in their yellow reflective riot gear that’s been in mothballs since the demonstrations at last year’s WTO meetings in Hong Kong.
I crossed the yellow line and the barracades and went into the park. There were about fifty demonstrators, max, and I knew most of them. All the leaders of LSD were there–Wong Yuk Man and Long Hair, Dr. Lo Wing Lok and “The Bull” (Tsang Kin Sheng), Andrew To and Lau San Ching. I also recognized Long Hair’s faithful band of supporters from his April 5th Action group. I wish I knew all their names. The sweet, crippled guy with the red Che Guevara shirt was there, and Lau San Ching’s wife Christine was busily passing out badges and leaflets, as she always does. She gave me a badge and showed me how to make it light up and twinkle–very “Summer of Love”, these LSD folks!
I did some counting and figured the ratio of press to demonstrators was 1.5 to 1, and the ratio of cops to demonstrators was about 4 to 1. (In fact, it was higher–I didn’t know at the time that the police had surrounded and blocked all the exits to Victoria Park. Later I walked around and spotted 20 additional police vehicles parked at the Tin Hau entrance. Tonight would be a good time to start a Triad war in Mongkok).
I wasn’t the only one counting–as the police took positions and lined up along a metal barricade, a woman in a brown jacket passing by began to count them too. Then she shouted out, in Cantonese, “How long are you going to stay here?! How much does this cost!? Leih pook gaai!”
Pook gaai is a Cantonese curse usually translated as “jerk” or “shit”. But its precise meaning is “fall to the street”. How can “fall to the street” be such a nasty epithet? When it is shorthand for:”I hope that you die and fall to the street and you have no family to come and pick up your dead body.”
And your mother wears army boots, too.
Anyway, the lady had a good point. Why put hundreds of riot-equipped police and dozens of vehicles on call to stop a demonstration of so few people? Why block people from strolling in Hong Kong’s biggest park on a Saturday evening? Isn’t that more expensive and disruptive to the general public than arranging for 50 police to guide a little band of peaceful marchers in single file through downtown?
It makes no sense. Unless the point of all those uniformed riot police, the long white Great Wall of paddywagons, is to show power and force. To intimidate people from speaking up for the unblemished vote. On this Saturday night, or any night.
The LSD stalwarts lifted their banners and signs and headed into the long yellow line. From three huge standing loudspeakers, a police message proclaimed “This is an unauthorized demonstration. You will be arrested!” The police halted the marchers’ forward progress. The marchers turned around, then, and headed back into the park, and staged a sit-in at the tennis courts. The police surrounded them. After an hour or so, the LSD organizers decided to give up, and they dispersed quietly and peacefully into the dark.
Like I said, I knew this would be a discouraging night.