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.

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