"Some true information is impossible to censor"

When pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2014, I camped out in volatile Mong Kok, talking to protesters and Chinese mainlanders about triads and Tiananmen, personal freedom vs. genuine democracy, and why the city isn’t just a tax-free shopping paradise. Originally published in Matter in 2014. Photo essay by Aksel Coruh here.

A man and woman and their young daughter, half-asleep in her grandmother’s arms, turn off a small alley onto broad Nathan Road: they’re a typical mainland family, here on what should have been a very typical vacation. The first week of October is a holiday in China, and Nathan Road is to mainland tourists what Times Square is to Midwestern American ones. Lining the street are jewelry stores selling gaudy gold pendants shaped like Chinese Zodiac signs, traditional medicine shops hawking deer’s tail and caterpillar fungus, and pharmacies showcasing skin-whitening products—the perfect place to shop tax-free. Unless, that is, there are pro-democracy demonstrators crowding the street, preparing to erect a barrier fashioned out of wooden pallets, sections of metal gate, and orange garbage cans. “What?!” the woman says, annoyed. “They’re protesting here, too? The farther we walk, the larger the protest gets!”

It is Friday, October 3. Protestors in the movement the world knows as the Umbrella Revolution have occupied a large swath of the street here in Mong Kok— along with key stretches of road outside government buildings in Admiralty and the shopping area Causeway Bay — for most of the past week. The students who started the movement are here, but so too are store clerks, off-duty firemen, retirees, and at least one scuba-diving instructor. They commandeered buses and parked them at odd angles to prevent traffic from getting through. At the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street, they have suspended massive tarpaulins and set up supply stations stocked with water and masks — a precaution adopted after the police used pepper spray and tear gas on demonstrators in Admiralty on September 28.

But just today clusters of angry men, many of them middle-aged, attacked the camp here in Mong Kok and injured several protestors, one bloodily. Female demonstrators complained that the men grabbed their breasts and groins. The police moved in to keep the peace, linking arms in a line that extended down Nathan Road, but there weren’t enough of them, and some of the younger officers looked frightened themselves. By 8:30 p.m., the human chain of police has disappeared altogether, and the officers stand off to the side in small clusters.

On the mainland, the government has carefully suppressed information on the protests, blocking Instagram after users shared photos of protestors wielding umbrellas against pepper spray and tear gas and censoring mentions of the movement on other social networking sites. On October 1, the People’s Daily published an editorial arguing that the protests were perpetrated by “an extremely small number” of people “insistent on resistance and provocation.” Up close, it’s hard to argue that their numbers are small, or that the peaceful protestors are doing much to actively provoke others. The mainlanders turn south onto Nathan Road — away from the protests, but also from the gold shops.

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Over the weekend, I see similar, complex debates play out among vacationing mainlanders across Hong Kong—the family that discovers bus service to the amusement park Ocean Park has been suspended, the gaggle of people in coarse countryside garb who learn that the protestors are occupying their intended metro exit. Meanwhile, the protestors are playfully resolute. They post signs quoting Kurt Cobain and John Lennon and Tupac. They don T-shirts that say “The Same is Lame” and camp out under a giant ad for Piaget watches. They hang a ghoulish sketch of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chunying wearing a wolf hat from an overpass. They hijack municipal road repair signs that read “We apologize for the inconvenience caused.”

In Mong Kok, a working-class stronghold, the mood following the attacks is more subdued. Some of those heckling at the fringes are residents annoyed by the noise, long traffic delays, and other disturbances caused by the demonstrations. Critics point out that the barricades prevent ambulances from reaching the sick. Meanwhile, sales from Golden Week — usually an extended shopping spree for mainlanders — are down, and the Chinese government has canceled group tours to Hong Kong, meaning that sales are not likely to pick up again any time soon. While I meet some shopkeepers who display the yellow ribbons adopted by the Umbrella Revolution, I also meet several who avert their eyes when I bring up the protests.

But protestors are quick to note that among the 19 arrests the police made on Friday are eight men with reported links to Hong Kong’s notorious triads. The syndicates help drive the prostitution, illegal gambling, and drug trades in China, brushing shoulders with the local officials who allow the trades to flourish. Albert Chan Wai-yip, a burly legislative councilor wearing mirrored wraparound glasses, says in Hong Kong the triads are often asked to do Beijing’s dirty work. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of a well-known triad member being carted off by police in Mong Kok. As the triads have expanded their business interests in China, he says, they’ve become more willing to do Beijing’s bidding. Refusing makes them targets during crackdowns on vice.

The notion that Beijing might enlist gangsters’ help in quelling protests in Hong Kong is not beyond the realm of imagination. On the mainland, local governments regularly stamp out dissent with hired thugs. Some joke that Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese province.

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During China’s first student occupation, 25 years ago in Tiananmen Square, some protesters had very basic grievances. Higher salaries. Rock and roll. The little freedoms that in other countries came with just being young. In much of the world, the 1980s were a time of heady democratic reforms; but in China they were also a time of bans on blue jeans, Western music, and dancing.

“What do we want?” Wue’er Kaixi, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests, asked in the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace. “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone.”

Hong Kong in many ways represented such freedoms: a city populated by ethnic Chinese, many of them with roots on the mainland, that nevertheless allowed dissent and democracy and dancing. The reality was somewhat cruder than the fiction — Hong Kong did not then enjoy, and still does not yet have, universal suffrage — but as China’s longstanding link to the outside world, it represented a more attainable goal than, say, the United States. For Beijing, that made Hong Kong intensely dangerous.

When demonstrations coalesced in Tiananmen Square following the death of reformer Hu Yaobang in April 1989, support from Hong Kong kept the protests afloat. At one event, 300 Hong Kong entertainers took to the stage to raise 13 million HKD ($1.66 million) for their friends in Beijing. Hong Kong money bought the Chinese protestors food, tents, sleeping bags, walkie-talkies, and the supplies used to create the statue the students dubbed the Goddess of Democracy. As sociologist Dingxin Zhao later wrote, “If there had been no Hong Kong money, the Tiananmen Square occupation could have ended in a financial crisis.”

After the bloody government-sanctioned crackdown on June 4, 1989, Hong Kong continued to play a crucial role in mainland dissent. Dozens of Chinese protest leaders fled with the help of Operation Yellowbird, an underground railroad that ran through Hong Kong. But as time passed, the relationship grew fuzzier. Many Tiananmen protesters who stayed on the mainland saw their fortunes shift. The economy improved at a dizzying rate. Jeans gave way to stiletto boots, punk shows, iPhones, gay bars, and video games. Salaries skyrocketed. In 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing crackdown, Wu’er Kaixi reflected on his earlier comment. “The kids who followed us were able to own pairs of Nike shoes,” he told me. “It’s a deal the Chinese Communist Party made with the people—we’re going to let you get rich, but you have to surrender your political freedom.”

After the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing mostly managed to avoid international opprobrium in its management of the territory, while quietly turning Shanghai into the new Chinese financial capital. “China doesn’t want the economy to largely depend on Hong Kong, so they can gain control of Hong Kong more easily,” says Joe Chan, a logistics clerk I meet in Mong Kok.

Hong Kong’s consolation prize was increased tourism: as visiting restrictions relaxed, the city became, in the eyes of many Chinese, a giant mall that also offered a few notable perks — a place to give birth, launder money, and shelter your business from taxes. Locals begrudgingly mastered Mandarin. The new visitors lacked basic manners, it was said; they let their children urinate on the ground at Hong Kong Disneyland and bought up so much infant formula that there was none left for locals. “The mainland people just come here and buy gold and medicine and stuff like that,” says Steve Kan, a 30-year-old protestor who works for Ralph Lauren (where the mainlanders do shop) and who speaks with the throaty voice of Keanu Reeves. “They don’t support the small shops.”

Hong Kongers periodically took to the streets. In 2003 a crowd of half a million protested a Beijing-backed national security bill that they felt restricted freedom of speech. But because Hong Kong’s powerful tycoons prospered off the mainland’s rise, the territory’s relationship with Beijing grew still closer. Promises made during the handover started to look empty. For many mainlanders, Hong Kong’s openness eventually became a quaint artifact — a note for guidebooks, like the revolutionary history of France. After a few days shopping on Nathan Road it became clear that the territory needed China.

Until the Umbrella Revolution. Today’s demonstrations look in many ways like the Tiananmen protests — there are blaring pop songs, supportive speeches from liberal intellectuals, and frantic attempts by the Chinese government at concealing the number of people involved. In 1989, students staged a wedding in the square, toasting with salt water from their hunger strike. Over the weekend in Hong Kong, an idealistic couple got engaged. The Hong Kong protestors have even built a large statue, Umbrella Man, that references the Tiananmen demonstrators’ Goddess of Democracy.

And yet, while many in Hong Kong today are unhappy about rising rents and other costs, the demonstrators have everything that their predecessors lacked. The material world is basically theirs. History is replaying itself, except that this time the masses can’t be placated with money. It’s a message that deeply moves Chen Ankun, who travels from rural Guangdong province to join the Mong Kok protests. A thin, amiable man with a thick country accent and an overgrown crew cut, he works as a traditional doctor in a village outside the city of Shantou. “I support the masses!” he announces to a group assembled around him shortly after arriving. “Hong Kong wants to pick its government. I understand!” He heard about the scale of the Hong Kong protests on an online democracy forum, he says. “Some true information is impossible to censor,” he tells me.

On Saturday night, Leung’s office releases a video statement saying that his government will use “all necessary means” to clear the streets if government workers aren’t allowed to enter work on Monday. In 1989, the government issued several similar threats before finally opening fire on protestors. Veterans of that first movement begin urging the demonstrators to leave. They do not.

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By Sunday, the barricades on Nathan Road have multiplied. One now includes an entire recycling unit: plastic, metals, trash. Parts of a third barricade are wrapped in cellophane, which the protestors see as a sort of all-purpose protective substance: good for keeping the notes of encouragement posted on the walls around protest sites dry in the rain, good for shielding their skin from the burns caused by pepper spray. Restaurants stop delivering to the area. The ATMs in the Mong Kok metro run out of cash. The McDonald’s adjacent to the Admiralty protest site runs out of soft drinks. I watch a woman walk into a crowded 7-Eleven and attempt to lift over a dozen containers of lip balm.

The opposition gets stranger. Pro-Beijing supporters show up at one site wrapped in Chinese flags. A man ascends the arch of a pedestrian bridge at Admiralty and threatens to jump. Members of a budding opposition movement hang about the Mong Kok demonstrations, wearing blue ribbons to contrast with the demonstrators’ yellow ones. David Tse, a trader, says that the protestors’ complaints are misguided. “I grew up in Australia,” he says. “We had democracy, but we didn’t have freedom.” In Hong Kong, he says, “we don’t have democracy, but we have freedom.” I ask what he means, and he outlines personal freedoms, like finding a job and earning a good living — neatly articulating China’s post-Tiananmen deal.

Eighty-nine-year-old Wong Ka-pang sits on a small stepstool near the Mong Kok supply tent, musing about the past to a group of younger men. He fled mainland China in 1951, before border controls were instituted, he tells me. He missed out on the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and the Tiananmen crackdown. Now, he says, there is practically no distinction between his adopted city and his birthplace. “Step by step, China is absorbing Hong Kong.” He has been in the streets for six days.

By nightfall, the crowd in Mong Kok has swollen to hundreds of people. They have brought with them every possible tool to defend themselves against the police, from the professional to the utterly futile: motorcycle helmets, bicycle helmets, hard hats, elbow pads, ski masks, gas masks, air pollution masks, scraps of cloth. But the dawn deadline comes and goes without incident. Residents walk their dogs, and mainlander shoppers facing the end of their holiday go in search of one last deal. Elsewhere student leaders have begun holding preliminary talks with the government. City officials reportedly promise to improve their handling of violence at Mong Kok, and the students agree to open limited stretches of road to government employees. The protesters’ struggle is far from over, but they have achieved one important thing: proving, to the world, to visiting mainlanders, to themselves, that Hong Kong is more than a consumerist paradise.

Still, Aaron Lau, a thirty-something man in bright orange sneakers who runs an English tutoring studio for kids, tells me he doesn’t have a lot of hope for the future: “We all know the Hong Kong government can’t do anything. It’s all bullshitting. It’s all postponing. One day we will completely go back to China.”

I ask why even bother. He smiles. “There is a Chinese saying,” he says. “If you are getting raped, at least cry out.”