Three things I learned from Hong Kong protests, by Ramy Inocencio

Kindness, violence, sadness, and the future

Photo Credit: Katherine Cheng

Smoking white tear gas canisters arcing through the air. Molotov cocktails exploding against government buildings. Police accused of brutality – documented by journalists. Protesters accused of riots – also documented by journalists. Millions marching in weekly people-power protests against a Beijing-tilted government; China’s communist party perceived by many as being that government’s puppet master.

This was Hong Kong in 2019 – and in 2020 Its history is unfolding into a more-feared future.

If you’re just joining this story, at its core, the protests have been about fear on two linked levels: one, an ebb of Hong Kong’s current way of life, and two, the flow of power from China. Hong Kong’s protesters — mostly youth but from all walks of life including low-income parents, high-flying bankers, lawyers, the clergy and many politicians – have tried to push back against Beijing, seen as chipping away at the former British colony’s Western-inspired freedoms and governance.

But for all intents and purposes, protesters and their supporters would be hard-pressed to couch this fight as anything other than in failure – and as a win for the establishment and Beijing. Ask anyone in Hong Kong and they will likely tell you the city will never be the same again. Over the course of the past year, I’ve seen kindness. I’ve seen violence. I’ve seen desperation. The city continues to change.

ON KINDNESS, that was captured by my cameraman and broadcast to the world the first day we landed in Hong Kong. It was June 12, 2019 – also the first day police fired tear gas on protesters. Riot police outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council had just shot a round of canisters at the group of protesters we were in. Next to me, one young man had been zinged by a rubber bullet that whizzed past my head, missing by only a few feet. The camera was rolling as I was talking. Another young man quickly hurried up to me – then past me – but had slapped a white helmet onto my head. Just a second later, another person shoved a camouflage-green umbrella into my hand. It was a moment of kindness – unexpected and by people still unknown – and caught for posterity. On Twitter and Instagram, I thanked those masked youths and attached the clip. It went viral. Friends said I was the top trending topic on Reddit.

More than a year later, that seconds-long segment keeps turning up in Hong Kong protest videos produced by people still supporting the cause. When it does – and always spliced together with other videos of banner-waving protesters, people singing the unofficial anthem of the movement, “Glory to Hong Kong,” and bright lights shining on Hong Kong’s Lion Rock with a flag declaring “Revolution of our times” — I see the intent of my little cameo inclusion as a reminder to those who would watch that protesters can be kind while fighting for the city’s greater good in the face of a more oppressive Beijing.

ON VIOLENCE, I’ve lost track of the times tear gas rained down around me and my team, of the times I was hit by pepper spray as I walked and talked with protesters in the streets of the city. Violence, initially, was not the central theme discussed as part Hong Kong’s protests. It evolved from tiny sparks overshadowed by initial, impressive, massive – and peaceful – people-power protests. Early on, people told me they did not support violence. But as the government seemingly turned blind eyes and deaf ears to protester demands, that helped frustrate – then radicalize – the opposition. Peaceful daytime protests morphed into nighttime firebombing and guerrilla-like street fights between police and protesters. Dehumanization became another aspect. Some riot police began calling protesters cockroaches, while others kicked and beat them as cameras rolled and as journalists watched. I was told that dehumanizing others makes it all the easier to oppress them if they are thought of as a lower life. Many police later wore reflective helmets to hide their identities and covered up their officer ID numbers which helped them escape culpability. It was a downward spiral. Hong Kong’s police were once known as the best and kindest in Asia. Most Hong Kongers would laugh in anger – and likely some sadness – if they heard that now.

ON SADNESS, I interviewed people who cried. Not just youthful idealistic high school and college student protesters but grown men and women, elderly business leaders and retired politicians. The ones who cried were those who backed the protesters. The ones who did not were those who backed the establishment and Beijing – police, many business leaders and pro-China politicians. The words stoic, if not steely, come to mind. Pro-democracy politicians Claudia Mo and Tanya Chen and billionaire tycoon Jimmy Lai, teary eyed, told me they feared for future generations – those who were their children’s and grandchildren’s age in the city.

ON THE FUTURE, that hinges on Hong Kong’s newly-enacted “National Security Law.”  

China’s rubber-stamp congress in Beijing forced through the controversial legislation this year that makes attempts at secession, treason and collaboration with foreign powers illegal. On the face of it, such a law makes sense for any country. But on second and deeper look, its vague wording and broad scope allows for wide interpretation – critics would say twisting – of any act as a potential crime.

Since then, two major annual marches have been banned: Hong Kong’s annual June 4th march commemorating the 1989 Tian’anmen Square massacre and the July 1st march marking Hong Kong’s return to Beijing from the United Kingdom. Police cited social distancing regulations and the coronavirus as the reason. 

A controversial national anthem bill was also passed that makes it criminal for anyone to distort the singing or playing of China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” 

Books by pro-democracy leaders have been taken off library shelves. Some pro-democracy candidates are now concerned they will be barred from running for office in important legislative council elections scheduled for this November – chief among them Joshua Wong, a student leader in the failed 2014 Umbrella Revolution and renewed thorn of the protest movement. 

And even as I write this, speculation is rising that those elections will be suspended. By design, pro-democracy lawmakers will never be able to hold a majority in Hong Kong’s legislature, but massive wins in the polls would be a political punch in the face to the establishment and to Beijing.

And this saga is not over. As journalists, we know to every story there are two sides, if not more. As we look ahead to the second half of 2020 and beyond, there are some who are celebrating. There are many more who are not.