At Jardine House, my family and I walked down the stairs from the elevated walkway and stepped out in to an empty street – Connaught Road. In all his 39 years living in Hong Kong, Hubs said, he had never walked in the middle of this street. Now it was deserted of cars, buses and taxis. About fifty yards ahead, we slipped between metal barriers and joined the crowd. And then we walked, slowly, from Central to Wan Chai, on a road that normally carried thousands of vehicles a day, but was now home to thousands of people united in protest.
What can we say of a situation that’s both hopeless and incredibly hopeful? We can voice our support, admire the students’ courage and step back in wonder at the sheer audacity of their collective action. They’ve closed all the roads! They’re being teargassed! They even recycle! We can ponder how long the protest will last and of course, if it will make a difference. We can talk with our friends about what Beijing might do, but ultimately we are expats, with one foot still in our home countries and passports to safety. We won’t have to experience the full effects of their fight.
One young woman smiled shyly and told me she didn’t think the protest would change anything, but even so, she said, “I don’t want to regret not trying.” Her boyfriend, whose orange-dyed fringe peaked out from his baseball cap, said, “We have to be here. We have to.”
Most of the people I spoke to had been coming to the protest for two, three, even four days. They would find a patch of ground, set up a mat or two and gather in small groups. Some even sat by themselves, alone but part of the whole. The hardy ones camped out overnight but most said they go home at night, shower, eat and sleep and return the next day. All were united in their desire for true democracy for Hong Kong.
What I wanted to know was: what do you hope will happen? And then: what do you think will happen? Answers to the first question were always voiced with conviction. “We want proper elections. We want CY Leung to go.” But the second question usually inspired a half-smile, a shrug of the shoulders or a sideways glance, as if I were asking: how vast is the ocean? Because we all know, even if we don’t want to admit it, that our neighbor to the north is in full control here. For China in the 21st century is not a pariah nation or a failed state, and it’s not about to let seven million former colonial citizens dictate the narrative for the other one billion.
Yes, I am pessimistic. Realistic too. Yet, in my cynicism, I find there is room for surprise, a chance to marvel at what’s unfolding on streets where only a week or two ago I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Because most of these protestors are young, I had to ask: what do your parents think? Only one girl said her parents disapproved. Everyone else said, even though they’d left school and cut classes, that their parents supported them. I even met one young woman who’d brought along her Mom.
The two sat together on the ground with the daughter’s boyfriend and were quite happy to speak to me and let me take their picture. They were so positive – so genuinely positive – about their fight for democracy. For a second I almost believed they might win, and I was proud to tell them I’ve been living here for 17 years, and that my children are born and bred Hong Kongers.
The last group of protestors I spoke to manned a First Aid station two blocks from Government Headquarters and Tim Mei Avenue – ground zero for police retaliation. Before they answered my questions they told me protest organizers had just announced that police were gathering in numbers and we should be prepared for tear gas. They told me to be safe.
They explained that they hadn’t known each other before the protest started but had gravitated to first aid and had organized themselves in to duties and work rosters. The talkative member of this group, a tall young man with a strong British accent and thick hair that needed a comb, said he was on the day shift. He was proud to tell me that his group had worked out ‘rules for retreat’, which were very specific and included conditions such as: 1. If tear gas is filling the inside of their aid tent; and 2. If the police are using rubber bullets and are less than 100 meters away. This young man had already been tear-gassed on Sunday night, and he admitted to being fearful. But when he looked at the people around him – his new friends and fellow soldiers – and said, “Of course I am scared,” his words sounded like a badge of honor, a gauntlet to be thrown down at the feet of Beijing.
I would like to think his words, and his will, can make a difference. I would like to think that.