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….

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