Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Line is Drawn

Wednesday night, 6:30pm, the phone rings: it’s Long Hair. “Can you play guitar for me at the rally tonight? I want to sing Bob Dylan’s song, “The Times they are a’Changing”.

My first reaction: Uh oh. Leung Kwok Hung loves music, loves Bob Dylan and loves to sing. But keeping him in rhythm and in tune is like trying to steer a sailboat through a typhoon.

“I have the lyrics already!” he urges. “Come down to Chater Garden, bring your guitar, okay?”

How can you say no to a Bob Dylan fan? I pack up my thrift-shop guitar and head down to Chater Garden, where 4,000 supporters are celebrating the kickoff of the “Five District Referendum” campaign. Earlier that day, Long Hair and the four other legislators from the LSD and Civic Party had handed their “I resign” letters to Legco secretary Pauline Ng. Now, to borrow a line from Dylan, “the line it is drawn…the curse it is cast. The order is rapidly changing.”

Okay, my confession: When I first heard Wong Yuk Man and Long Hair floating the idea of a mass resignation of pan-Democrats from the legislature early last year, I thought it was an absolutely terrible idea. My gut reaction was pragmatic, not political: How would they pay for it? Long Hair lives on a shoestring and funnels the bulk of his Legco salary into the pay packets of his political staff, mostly low-income grassroots supporters from his April 5th Action group. If he cut off his Legco salary, how would he support these people whose livelihoods depend on him? More important: without his experienced political workers in place, how would the LSD ever stand a chance against the DAB, with its bottomless gobs of establishment and Beijing money?

Gradually, though, I got won over to what at first seemed a Quixotic plan. Leung’s logic convinced me the pan-Democrats really had no other choice but to force a referendum by resigning. What other options did they have, in the face of the Hong Kong government’s political “reform” proposal, which simply juggles the status quo while keeping the functional constituenies in place? You can’t fight or amend the proposal in a Legco that’s stacked with establishment flunkies. The best you can do in there is veto the bill, which maintains the unacceptable status quo and opens you to public criticism for being a “Party of No”.

Marches used to be an effective negotiation tactic, but, 7 years later, they don’t pack as much punch in Hong Kong. Since the giant, 500,000-strong march of 2003 that pulled down Tung Chee Hwa, the police have instituted some clever tactics designed to make it impossible to get an accurate head count. First, they use gates and human barricades to block, squeeze and fragment the marchers into tight segments, making it uncomfortable to demonstrate (and also impossible to accurately count the marchers). They’ve also learned to play the numbers game, seriously undercounting demonstrators. For years, Hong Kong people have relied on “vote with your feet” democracy as their last resort. But the government has figured out how to stuff that ballot box.
So why not stage a protest in which an exact headcount is not only guaranteed, but actually certified by the government? 

The real beauty of the plan, though, only became clear in the last couple of weeks. First, there was the media roll-out of the resignations–which was pretty impressive, considering the, diverse cultures and presentation styles of the two groups involved, the lawyerly Civic Party and the banana provacateurs of the LSD. The odd bedfellows–the press, natch, has created a snappy and short Cantonese acronym for the alliance, the “Gung Se Leung Dong”–wisely chose legislator Audrey Eu as their spokeswoman. (I’m impressed that Wong Yuk Man put his ego on ice so that the charming fashionista barrister can take center stage.) Audrey, who always polls at the top in Hong Kong U’s public surveys of politicians, is at the peak of her game, switching effortlessly at press conferences from beautifully modulated Cantonese to pitch perfect–and often dryly witty and cutting– English.

Then there’s been the reaction from the dark side, which has been fun to watch. One by one, Beijing and establishment stalwarts in Hong Kong have been lining up on cue to condemn the pan-Dems, and predict the worst sort of doom and gloom for Hong Kong society if the referendum/election is allowed to go through. (The SCMP’s Lau Nai-Keung practically implied that the PLA might have to roll in the tanks!) Since it is impossible that such hyperbolic comments would be floated without a suggestion from someone “above”, you have to conclude that the referendum has made certain people very, very upset.

The mainstream, middle class press pundits are criticizing the “Gung Se Leung Dong”‘s Five District Resignation/Referendum plan from a different angle. The “conventional wisdom” argument is that the politics of the referendum is bad,  because politicians should never act without being absolutely sure what the outcome and results of their actions will be. Poobahs like the SCMP’s Steven Vines ominously predict that the upcoming by-elections will be a farce. (Vines, last I looked, is a member of the Civic Party. Why are they letting him stray so far from the reservation? Audrey, get out your big stick!)

But conventional wisdom only works in conventional situations. And Hong Kong is a through the-looking-glass kind of place. Here in Hong Kong, where you have an unaccountable government, a cartel of powerful tycoons, plus a Beijing “shadow government” all operating at the same time, how can you play by the political rules of a real democracy? How can you predict the result of any political action in a system that is designed and calibrated to prevent action and spontaneity?

In the last week I’ve watched the pan-Democratic politicians launch their boat into the uncertain harbour, with firmness and faith. I’ve watched the protestors of the post-80’s gen launch their theatrical protests of songs and sit-ins and street fairs. And it’s struck me that both groups are doing the same thing: refusing to honor the old boundaries. (In the case of the “Siege of Legco” protesters, quite literally! And I think it’s telling that the one thing that most upset the government and establishment press is that the protesters dared to push back some of the police barricades.)

Hong Kong isn’t a spontaneous action kind of place. The unpredictablity and creative expression that I take for granted will be part of my daily experience on the streets of my native New York–street fashion, performance, oddball characters, public art and grafitti–is conspicuously absent here. Here, the government “creates” art districts-cum-property developments, and public parks are festooned with billboards that tell you all the things you aren’t allowed to do while you “enjoy” yourself. Public space is scarce, and often hidden deep inside private property to keep people from accessing it.

But the weather’s changing in Hong Kong, and these days people are in the mood for stepping, even dancing on the grass (what little there is of it!) When I arrive at the rally in Chater Garden that night, the rock band on stage is deep into a heavy metal version of Pink Floyd’s “Just Another Brick in the Wall”. Out in the dark, thousands of people are singing along. This is a political rally, but it is also that rare Hong Kong thing: a free, outdoor public concert. An unexpected moment of community.

I jump up on stage, borrow a red electic guitar from the band, and hit the ringing, opening chords of Bob Dylan’s ode to change. “Times They are a’Changing” was written more than 40 years ago, and yet tonight, in Hong Kong, it seems to rise and catch a second wind.

Long Hair sings Bob Dylan’s words loudly, with conviction and passion–and completely out of tune. But that’s okay. Tonight is a night for breaking boundaries in Hong Kong. It’s part of the process,
and maybe, also, part of the point. As for where it leads–well, we’ll see. 

The Siege of Legco

At 6:00pm, a few minutes before the tycoons, establishment cronies and pro-Beijing hacks who stack the decks of Hong Kong’s legislature rubber-stamped the government’s 67 billion dollar super-fast rail link,a mighty shout rose up from the crowd. “Baau wai!” Surround the legislature building!

“This is it. Let’s go,” said Po-ying. We threaded our way to the front of the Legco building, joining the surging river of marchers, percussionists whacking big red Chinese drums, singers and white-and-green draped “fu hang“protesters–the young people who have been marching solemnly all over Hong Kong, taking 26 steps, then prostrating themselves on the ground.

Maaan maaan hang!” organizers shouted over the loudspeakers. “Yat bouh, yat bouh, goi bihn Heung Gong“Take it slow! Step by step, we will change Hong Kong! In the background I could hear the electronic chimes which signal that a vote is about to take place inside Legco. This would be the final vote, pushing the money through for the government’s bloated infrastructure project and sealing the fate of Choi Yuen Tseun, Vegetable Garden Village. Twilight was falling, the air turning chilly and damp with a sea fragrance from Victoria Harbour. The government of Hong Kong was about to “win” this protracted battle, yet this moment did not taste like a defeat for this plucky upstart movement of “Post-80s” generation kids and their often amazed 1950s Gen activist elders. Not at all.

It took us about 15 minutes to weave around the side of the building to the south entrance of the Legco member’s parking lot. Inside, chauffeurs were warming up assorted Benzes, Beemers and Toyota vans. The government officials and the 31 un-elected legislative “fat cats” from the financial, construction, banking and property sectors who voted to approve the budget were figuring to make a quick getaway from the scene of their crime. This evening, fat chance.

Policemen in striped, reflective yellow tactical vests stood guard at the parking lot entrance, standing behind a metal fence. “Baau wai!” the chant continued, and one after one the protesters linked arms in front of the police barrier, to close the entrance. A scuffle between one protester and the police erupted at my left side, and the police and the melee pushed me away. Which was a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have spotted my friend Patrick at the edge of the march.

“The police are using pepper spray over on the other side of the building!”he shouted, then grabbed my hand and pulled me in that direction. “Come on, let’s go.”

Amazingly, the Hong Kong police–according to later reports, there were more than 1,000 on the scene already–hadn’t blocked the route around the back of the Legco building. Patrick and I got over to Chater Road in a minute or two. There I could smell the sharp odor of the repellant spray, classified as a dangerous weapon here in Hong Kong. The area was thick with cops, people,rubber-neckers, protesters, but there were no scuffles. Why were the police using pepper spray in an area with so many bystanders? A couple of young protesters in their 20s crouched on the ground over the victims, emptying plastic bottles of water into their eyes and over their faces.

Patrick’s a photographer whose professional instinct is to seek the high ground during such situations He spotted some NOW TV cameramen perched up on a hill overlooking the Legco parking lot, and we scrambled up to join them the scrubby steep wall.

And that’s how I came to have the best seat in the house during the Siege of Legco.

Once I got my footing up on the incline, I looked around and realized that I had a sweeping and unobstructed view, not only of the protesters, but of Legco’s back door member’s entrance, and of the exit entrance of the parking lot. In front of me, a group of about 150 protesters sat and even laid down on the pavement, blocking the path forward. To my right,a group of about 200 protesters was gathering in the middle of Chater Road.

Choh dai! Choh dai!” the chant went up, and the protesters started sitting down. Then something audacious and wonderful happened: a bunch of guys ran over and grabbed handfuls of the police’s own metal crowd control gates from the side of the road. Dragging them over, they tied them together with plastic, arranging them in thickets to barricade themselves in so police couldn’t drag them out of their position.

Suddenly it hit me that I was seeing something very very new in Hong Kong politics–and maybe in global protest politics, too. A lot has been written already about how this Post-80s, baat saap hauh generation is using the tools of social networking–facebook, Twitter, and SMS–to organize the movement. But that’s not such big news in this city. Hong Kong’s probably the tech geekiest city in the world. We have more than11 million mobile phone lines in a city of 7.6 million people. And the general geekiness isn’t confined to the youth.  Long Hair’s April 5th Action Group, for instance, uses SMS mass mail to send alerts about last minute demonstrations (as I was standing on the hill, I felt my phone vibrate–it was an “urgent mass alert” from Long Hair to get over to the Legco building right way).

So sure, this movement–like the Iranian protesters in Tehran–knows their tech and knows how to use it. But what’s even more interesting is how the culture of tech has changed the structure of protest. Social networking and SMS subverts the top-down model in favor of the organic, improvised, spread of information and action. The day when movements were headed by”leaders”, in the old-school sense may be over. This baat sap hauh group has organizers, and it even has one “poster girl” (Christina Chan, the HKU student-cum-fashion model, who got famous for flying a”Free Tibet” banner at the 2008 HK Olympic events). But there aren’t any stars or figureheads in this movement, like there were in the 1960sand 1970s. The impact of these protests doesn’t come from a charismatic leadership. The focus is on the action, not the personalities.

And what action. When I saw these guys rush to grab the equipment of the”enemy” and use it against them, I felt the same rush that I do when watching, say, Ronaldinho play for Brasil. This is team politics, and the cheeky, confident and plugged in demonstrators of the baat sap hau play–with apologies to la liga argentina– a “beautiful game”.

So while the police had more equipment and weapons, they had the wrong equipment, and the wrong organizational model for this battle. Just as the U.S. army in Vietnam couldn’t fight the poorly equipped, but more clever guerillas, so the top-down, order-driven Hong Kong police were at a disadvantage before this highly wired, organic army. They rapidly outmaneuvered their opponents. Within 30 minutes of the final vote, the baat sap hauh groups had strategically divided themselves into smaller mobile groups. Using SMS and twitter to stay in constant communication, they created human roadblocks in front of every exit from the Legco building.

What happened next, at the Siege of Legco, is now showing, over and over, on TV news clips, and I am sure the HK government hopes it fades from public memory fast.

Around 7:30, from my perch on the hill, I noticed amongst the luxury cars in the parking lot a police van full of people who were not police. The van idled impatiently behind the gate,where a phalanx of police stood at the ready to escort it out. Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, as it became clear there was no way the van would be able to exit. The protesters had dug in on both sides, and there was no way to exit except to run over them.

At 8pm, the people inside the police van in the parking lot got out, and scurried inside the Legco building. It was then I spotted the unmistakable stringy comb-over of Timothy Fok, one of the un-elected Legco members.As I’d suspe
cted, the police van was an “escape” vehicle. And the escape plan had just been aborted.

Hours passed, but the baat sap hauh had prepared for a long haul. They sang the Internacionale. They clapped and chanted. People pulled out the essentials of any sit-in–guitars,tambourines, warm coats, even tents. The police, too, relaxed, and started distributing dinner boxes to the squads. Meanwhile, Patrick and I, along with hundreds of other people left the scene and ran up to Queen’s Road to buy bread and water for the demonstrators. This is Hong Kong. Even when we protest, everybody breaks to sihk faan!

As political analysts like to say, the optics of the situation were looking very, very bad. The government had just rammed its budget proposal through a stacked deck legislature in a building surrounded and guarded by police. And even though the demonstrators were peaceful,and demanding only to speak personally with the officials, the officials were too cowed to address them. Too scared, even, to walk out of the building.

How would the legislators and officials get out? Would the police use the pepper spray again to roust the protesters? Patrick chuckled. “I always heard rumours that there’s a secret tunnel under the Legco building. Maybe they’ll use that.”

He was joking, but in the end, that’s exactly what happened. There’s an MTR entrance right outside the Legco building. Early in the evening,the police had blocked it off, and pulled down the entrance gate to prevent more demonstrators from arriving by public transit. Now, as the siege of Legco went into its seventh hour, the police massed at the back door exit of the building, and at the MTR entrance, preparing for…something.

After long hours of waiting, they moved fast,forming a human barricade of more than 100 officers to cut a path through the crowd. Inside the protective circle, the legislators and government officials huddled, looking fearful and haggard. In the evening’s only display of “violence”, somebody managed to bonk legislator Philip Wong in the head with a near-empty soda can,(fulfilling the fantasies of many members of the Hong Kong public, I’m sure!) The protesters, caught off guard, tried to move to the MTR entrance to block, but it was all over in less than a minute. The officers swept the officials swiftly into the MTR, then dropped the gate behind them.

NOW TV has great shots of the “escape”, and I hope someone posts it on You Tube soon, tagged under:

(I love the incredulous voice of the guy, towards the end, who keeps saying Waaaa….Waaaa….as the police hustle Eva Chang and the legislators out of the train. Then he says something I can’t make out … yiu daap deih tit jauh la“– need to ride the MTR and leave!” –Cantonese speakers, help me out if you can hear what he’s saying!)

Anyway all you have to do is watch these videos to see why the Hong Kong government is the big loser of the Siege of Legco. It’s all about the optics–and the class issues. Thrilled as I am by what I witnessed outside the building, I haven’t written much about the mighty, and very well coordinated efforts inside, where the pan-Democrats worked together to pull off a three session, 25 hour long filibuster. Before they began their “long march” of procedural delay, surveys showed the public was largely supportive, or at least apathetic, about government’s fast rail proposal.

But hour by hour, question after question, public support for the “Go Tid“, has eroded. Everybody in Hong Kong now understands who’s going to make a killing from this deal, and who’s going to get screwed. (By Friday night, even my doorman,Mr. Poon, could recite the fact that the rail link was going to cost every Hong Kong citizen $10,000. He was angry, of course, because that is more money than Mr. Poon, like many Hong Kong people, earns in amonth).

A more PR savvy government might have called a moratorium to reconsider the project cost, or directly spoken to the protesters. But Chief Executive Donald Tsang stayed behind the walls of his mansion, and sent out his government flunky, transport secretary Eva Cheng, to handle the job instead.

Cheng answered some questions, but stonewalled most, and that undoubtedly accounts for some of the slip in public support. But it was her attitude that really sealed it. With her stiff expression, her thin lips curling in irritation, she personified the arrogance of the Hong Kong’s elite civil servant class. Even watching her on TV I could practically hear her sniffing in disdain. “Who do you think you are?! Just give us the money. We aren’t going to let a bunch of riffraff tell us what to do, and who cares if they were democratically elected..WE know what’s best for the people of Hong Kong!

But they don’t. And the Hong Kong people want some accountability. And accountability means only one thing: un-game the stacked political system, and give all Hong Kong people an equal vote.  As the dust settles, it’s looks like the pan-Democrats won’t have to struggle to make the argument for real political reform in Hong Kong when they resign in the five district referendum scheme later this month. The Siege of Legco–and the inspired, tactically savvy troops of the Post-80s baat sap hauh–have done the heavy lifting for them.

The 26 Steps: People Power Rises in Hong Kong

“It’s just like People’s Park, Berkeley, in 1967! I feel old.” My American friend Francis has a grin almost 26 kilometers wide, weaving through the ecstatic throng. Over there are Hong Kong twenty-somethings draped in green banners, drummers pounding away on huge red Chinese opera drums, and here are elderly villagers from Tsoi Yuen, Vegetable Garden Village,  selling homemade rice balls and sesame seed candies, and yu daan.

It’s political protest as Hong Kong culture festival. The Women Worker’s collective of Hong Kong is selling cool tote bags made from old plastic rice sacks, and a group of student artists have subversively slapped their protest posters over the luxury ads on a backlit bus shelter. A farmer’s group is even selling organic Hong Kong choi sam and cauliflower. Meanwhile, my head is playing a loop of the famous 1960’s anthem by Buffalo Springfield:  There’s something happening here…What it is ain’t exactly clear…

But this time the song’s wrong. It is very, very clear what’s going on with this new generation of demonstrations in Hong Kong. We’re witnessing the birth of an engaged Hong Kong civil society. And while this movement is determinedly local (the main group that started it all, years back, with the Star Ferry protests was called Bun Deih Wut Dung, Local Action), it’s also tapped into a the global political consciousness in a creative, and savvy way that suggests new tactics for organizing to fight all the world’s devils, not just the ones that speak in Chinese.

These students marched around and around the Legislative Council building for hours. It was the most moving part of this multi-dimensional demonstration. Slowly and deliberately, like monks in Vipassana meditation, they made their way forward to the beat of a loud drum. Every 26 steps they halted in unison, and fell prostrate to the ground in silence.

Why 26 steps? Because the 67 billion dollar railway link to China’s high-speed railway network that the Hong Kong government wants to, um, railroad through the legislature would extend exactly 26 kilometers.  That’s 2.57 billion taxpayer dollars per kilometer. At a time when the wealth gap between rich and poor in Hong Kong is one of the greatest in the world, the government wants to build a project that would cost the equivalent of taking 10,000 from the pockets of each Hong Kong citizen.

The government wants to start construction right away. It will be embarrassing if they don’t–they’re being pressured by Beijing. China’s new world’s-fastest-railway project is a huge vanity priority for the PRC. Even more pressure is coming from the tycoons who control Hong Kong’s construction cartel, who stand to make a mega-bundle from this bloated project.

There are cheaper, more cost-efficient ways to make the rail link to China. The government refuses to consider them. They know they have enough crony votes in Hong Kong’s stacked deck legislature to get approval for their funding request.

But they didn’t count on the persistance of the Vegetable Garden Villagers from Tsoi Yuen, whose home will be bulldozed if the plan goes through. And they didn’t figure that they’d have to push against the combined forces of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic legislators and the creative activist kids who’ve been building up momentum now through four years of collective action to save Hong Kong’s beloved neighborhoods, heritage, and cultural icons.

student protesters channeling Woody Guthrie. They also sang the Internationale in Chinese later than night.

young graphic artists borrow an all-too-familar American design to paint their portrait of the “Devil”–in this case, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Henry Tang. The character on his forehead means “sat”–die!

“Stop, hey what’s that sound?” It’s the roar rising from the voices of 10,000 people camped outside of the graceful, British colonial era Legislative Council building. All the speechifying and maneuvering going on inside the legislature is being broadcast up on giant TV screens outside.  Every time someone from the pro-government faction begins to speak, the crowd jeers. But when a pan-democrat steps up to ask more questions about the project–like, for instance, how they can expect us to vote on it when we just got the traffic impact statement yesterday?–everyone erupts in cheers. It’s a giant, communal, talk-back-to-your TV fest!

Like I mentioned, the government has the votes. But according to parliamentary rules, the legislators can raise questions. As many as they want. So the pan-democrats engage in a kind of Hong Kong filibuster, asking question after question as the night wears on.

Luckily, the chairman of the Finance Committee happens to be Emily Lau, a member of the Democratic party. As chairman, she’s required to conduct the meeting in a non-partisan fashion. But hey, speaking of fashion, get a look at what Emily’s wearing tonight! An electric, all-green ensemble. Green is the color of the HK Democratic party, and also of tonight’s protests.

The pan-dems at the meeting keep peppering the Hong Kong administrators with questions, and keep it up for nearly six hours. The protesters stay camped outside as the LEGCO building lights up like a candle.

Finally, at about 10:45, Emily Lau adjourns the meeting until next week Friday. There’s been no vote. Since the government cannot tap the project money without approval of the legislature, Tsoi Yuen village–and Hong Kong taxpayers–will have a one week reprieve. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess. But what’s certain is that the protesters, students, villagers, marchers, drummers and rice ball sellers in this marvelous new Hong Kong band of merry citizens will be out again next Friday.

Here’s my wish for the New Year, in case you’re wondering. What I want is for these local Hong Kong seeds of activism to spread on the wind.

Something’s happening here. What it is is exactly clear. The protesters of the Vegetable Garden Village understand that this struggle is all struggles. That, in fighting for a village they also attack corporate-government collusion, the rapacious skimming of the people’s wealth, the destruction of the environment, and the worsening quality of public life.

And they know this: when democracy fails (or, in the case of Hong Kong, never gets a chance to root) you have to take matters into your own hands.

after every 26th roll of the drums, the protest marchers fall to their knees, careful not to drop a single grain of the rice they carry in their hands….