The Long Slow Death of Hong Kong

Photo: Kiwi Chow/Cannes Film Festival

Prior to the madness that gripped the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was a Hong Kong habitué, making four or five visits annually. Not counting the many times I have transited en route to other parts of the Far East, South East Asia and Australia, I have made over 100 entries. Indeed, the frequency of my visits has been such that I am permitted to use the residents’ channel for entry and exit. I held visiting professorships at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), The University of Hong Kong, examined at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and served for six years on the Hong Kong University Grants Committee.

My first visit in 2003 coincided with the first of the pro-democracy protests when over a million people took to the Central area of Hong Kong Island but they were entirely peaceful and even the traffic was not disrupted. In 2014, I visited the umbrella protests which blocked the Admiralty area, but they were still peaceful. On my last visit in June 2019 I emerged from the Mass Transport Rail (MRT) to a smell I had not experienced since my days in the armed forces. It was CS gas, and I knew that things were about to change. There were renewed pro-democracy protests around the Legislative Council (LegCo) and my hotel in Wan Chai was adjacent, so I got a bird’s eye view of what was going on. I was glad to board my flight home as only the next week the airport was occupied. Meantime in downtown Hong Kong, things had erupted on a scale once unimaginable in the former British colony turned Special Administrative Region of China and these events are meticulously documented in this gripping 2021 film Revolution of Our Times.

Revolution of Our Times
Director: Kiwi Chow

The protests, which endured into 2020, were the result of proposed legislation that would allow people committing specific crimes in Hong Kong to be tried in Mainland China. The crimes related to corruption and, of course, to any sedition that included China, the Chinese Communist Party or Chairman Xi (the ‘Chinazis’ of the protesters). To some extent this moment was always going to come as Hong Kong was merely in a transition period following British rule under a ‘one country, two systems’ philosophy of government but heading, ultimately, to full political control by China. The situation in Hong Kong has steadily become a ‘two countries, one system’ form of government. China has always had the final say in the appointment of the Chief Executive of the LegCo and has been increasingly levering legislation and membership towards its own ends and increasing its say in the daily life of the people of Hong Kong.

Viewed from the outside, the situation can simply seem to be one of mounting Chinese surveillance and oppression and, in fact, that is a large part of the story. But the details and the motivation of the protesters—mainly students and schoolchildren with some notable exceptions—and the extent to which they were exquisitely coordinated and organised by people, some of whose identities remain unknown and who are still only referred to by pseudonyms are fascinating. It is a remarkable fact that some of these people, intelligent and at pains to protect each other, do not know each other’s names. This was to avoid identifying each other in the event of arrest and interrogation. The protests were organised using the encrypted social media platform Telegram through which young people could be quickly summoned to particular spots and then dispersed at a moment’s notice.

Initially, at the time I was there, the protests were entirely confrontational standoffs around the LegCo which became increasingly violent as police used ever greater violence up to and including CS gas, baton rounds, and water canon to disperse the demonstrators. Of course, ultimately, they succeeded as they were able, effectively, to block the roads with armoured police vehicles. But the way the demonstrators had staged their own road traffic accidents, initially, to stall the police and the way they were able to withstand severe onslaughts was, frankly, inspiring.

Once this phase of the demonstrations was over a new one began which was extremely clever and very disruptive to the traffic and commerce of Hong Kong. In this phase of the action, the philosophy of the demonstrators changed to the one of ‘be like water’ whereby they would gather at seemingly random areas of the city on the mainland such as commercial area Yau Ma Tei and wait until the police arrived in force before quickly dispersing up the maze of side streets for which Hong Kong is renowned only to gather at another spot a few minutes later. Drone footage of this is particularly impressive and it struck me that the anti-lockdown protesters in the UK could have adopted similar tactics. However, the average age of the demonstrators in Hong Kong was under twenty compared with the sexagenarians of the ‘COVID revolution’ in the UK. 

There was a period in the protests when it was clear that the police were turning a blind eye to the action of gangsters who decided to protect their areas, with considerable brutality, from the protesters. Harrowing footage arose in which the journalist Gwyneth Ho who covered the protests was severely beaten. She is currently in prison having been swept up in the purges that took place once the riots had ceased. Equally harrowing is the battle that took place in Yau Ma Tei MRT station. Protesters on a train—which was stopped—were attacked by the police who sprayed copious amounts of CS infused liquid on to defenceless people on the train reducing them to blinded, slavering, and vomiting creatures. Even worse, the police forbade the entry of paramedics to attend them. CS gas has long term consequences, is not meant to be used so copiously, and many women subsequently experienced menstrual problems. It is hard to pick the most harrowing scene but mine would be the young man being shot dead at point blank range by a policeman with his service revolver in a situation that did not seem especially out of control.

With the perpetrators of the protests mainly being students, it was inevitable that the action would move to university campuses and there was one short siege at CUHK in the New Territories where the copious use of Molotov cocktails and flares aimed directly at the police became a feature of the protests. Molotovs had been in evidence before but not to this extent. It is hard to know, other than widespread damage to the lower reaches of the campus, the destruction of the MRT station and blocking the coast road, what was really achieved at CUHK. The students claimed to be protecting the campus but if they had not gathered there and used it as a hub for organising protests then there would have been no siege. Despite the violence the siege ended relatively peacefully and both police and students dispersed.

Then the protest entered its final brutal and destructive stage in what has become known as the siege of PolyU. This university is in the heart of the city of Hong Kong. Blocking the roads around it, putting the MRT station out of order, and closing the Cross-Harbour tunnel had a devastating effect on the local economy. Clearly, the protesters had no care about this and reckoned that this was what was necessary to draw the attention of the world to their cause. It certainly worked as even the international mainstream media reported it. The students occupied the campus and set up the situation where, inevitably, they were besieged by the police. It cannot but be said that they vandalised PolyU and it is very hard to be sympathetic with their motives in so doing. The possibility of Chinese planted agents provocateurs is eminently possible, but I know from communicating with former colleagues at PolyU and elsewhere in Hong Kong that they completely lost the sympathy of the staff and even many of their fellow students. Studies were disrupted for months only to resume and then face the disruption of COVID-19. It is estimated, a senior colleague at PolyU told me, that $HK100,000,000 (approximately £10,000,000) of damage was inflicted. The library, for example, was completely destroyed.

Nevertheless, the organisation of the protesters had to be admired. PolyU is built from red brick and that includes the concourses. The students dug these up easily and used them effectively to block roads. There were impressive moments when they approached police lines in their own lines, crouching and sliding bricks forwards from the back of the crowd to the front to be laid and impede police progress as they retreated slowly. The benefits of a collective society were apparent.

The siege was brought to its inevitable end. High school teachers were permitted entry to persuade school aged children to leave, and parents turned up to try to retrieve their offspring. However, personal details of those leaving had to be collected which persuaded only a handful to leave. The majority decided to try to escape—from their self-imposed siege—into the hands of violent police probably expressing the anger felt by many Hong Kong residents and businessmen. Punishment was meted out with baton beatings and many people were pinned down with a knee on the head, blood flowing from their faces with batons, boots, and fists raining down. To their credit, some police officers did try to pull their colleagues off the protesters. Some protest leaders attempted to escape through the sewers. The siege, almost as suddenly as it had started, then, was over.

I always considered that the return of Hong Kong to its Chinese owners was a bad thing and one of Margaret Thatcher’s few errors. However, the handover (described at the time as the Great Chinese Takeaway) was probably unavoidable. But we either missed the opportunity or wilfully refused to give the Hong Kong people full democracy before we left, something the Chinese government would have found hard to dismantle. Essentially, one relatively benign overlord left them to a potentially worse one, but Hong Kong immediately entered a twilight zone where it hoped that things might work out well for them. The Chinese think in decades, and they have systematically and slowly, for their own purposes, undermined and adapted the very flawed system in Hong Kong that we left behind. Admittedly, the mass executions at Happy Valley racecourse predicted by Paul Theroux in Kowloon Tong and the impending doom foreseen by John Burdett in The Last Six Million Seconds did not happen; at least not immediately.

It must be faced that Hong Kong will never become a democracy. Ultimately, without a volte face by the Chinese Communist Party, it will suffer like the rest of Greater China under the Chinese jackboot. It also must be faced that the fate of Taiwan, covered in Revolution of Our Times, is in the balance. It is just possible that the show of overt brutality mounted by the Hong Kong police at the behest of the LegCo was done to avoid an even greater brutality. Many of us predicted that the PLA would be released from their headquarters at Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Building in Central and that they may even cross the border from China into The New Territories. But it never happened. When it came to suppression, the Hong Kong police proved more than able and remarkably well stocked with offensive capabilities. While I agree with the aims and even admire the methods of the protesters of 2019 to 2020, it is likely that when China does assume full control of the Hong Kong territory, they will have made things worse.

Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.