Back in October of last year, international news agencies descended on Hong Kong to watch what ended up being one of the largest public demonstrations on earth – Occupy Central. Although I was not in Hong Kong at the time, my students and many of my friends in Hong Kong were.
Hearing their terrified voices that first night of demonstrations, 14-and 15-year old kids facing an army of police officers, was gut wrenching. I still remember the 5 a.m. panic I felt while in my New York City hotel room as voice message after voice message cluttered my Summerbridge group messages.
So at the annual July 1 protest (the anniversary of the British handover to China), I was expecting to see a city on metaphorical fire, showing the government just what they meant by universal democracy. I was expecting an ocean of humanity to surge through the streets of Hong Kong calling for the resignation of the chief executive, the reinstallation of the universal suffrage program and a change to the electoral system. I was expecting a bang – I got a whimper.
Before I talk about the protest, let me preface it with this. I didn’t participate in the actual protest, only watching it from a nearby building. You can rest easy, Mom.
Ascending from the basement level of Hysan Place, I was immediately struck by the small crowd of yellow outside the commercial center. In contrast to previous July 1 protests I’ve witnessed, this one was surprisingly tiny, if well coordinated. Last year, the final protesters did not pass by Hysan until 7 p.m., but this year the streets were empty before 5.
At first, I was puzzled by the dearth of protesters. After all, I had been told that the Umbrella Movement of last fall and winter had awakened this city’s long apathetic political spirit. But as my local friend Emily Chao told me, “I’m surprised even this many people still turned out.”
“You have to understand. For two months the movement brought the most important streets in the city to a standstill. If the government didn’t listen to us then, why would they listen to us if we walk for a couple of hours?”
In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find any remnants of the Umbrella Movement at all. For almost two weeks I’ve searched Admiralty and Central districts looking for something, anything, that harkens back to the movement’s heyday in October. But the government has thoroughly swept the movement under the rug.
In fact, only two things have really changed since the movement began. One is the noticeable drop-off in Mainland Chinese tourism. Those squadrons of suitcase-toting, Mandarin-speaking, big-spending tourists are gone. The endless jewelry stores (Chow Tai Fok and Chow Sang Sang) and cosmetics emporiums (SaSa and Bonjour) they used to frequent are now bereft of clientele.
Another perhaps more psychological change is the more pronounced presence of the Hong Kong police department. Before the Umbrella Movement happened, I, and many others, believed that Hong Kong’s relative stability and security were due to its economic prosperity. In a neighborhood of low- and middle-income nations, it was a bastion of First-World wealth on par with any European nation. (Arguably, Hong Kong today is doing a hell of a lot better than Greece for that matter.)
But in reality, it was the near omnipresent, but silent, police force (the second highest police-officer-per-citizen rate in the world) that brought the city calm. That police force is silent no more. I see police officers standing in busy Causeway Bay sidewalks and hectic MTR (subway) stations, doing God knows what.
Perhaps these officers were always there, and I only just realized that the police of Hong Kong had a real presence. But it certainly feels as if the police are more proactive and decisive.
I guess this is how a movement dies, not with a bang but a whimper.
Senior Manson Tung, who’s currently living in Hong Kong, took this video from the first floor of the mall section of Hysan Place, a mixed-use skyscraper. He captured the July 1 protest near the beginning of the March on Causeway Bay. The yellow color scheme derives from the yellow Umbrella Movement of last year. The demonstration drew a smaller crowd of protesters than Tung had expected. (Video by Tung)