16 years on, pro-democracy protest in HK continues

Moments before midnight on July 1, 1997, the Union flag and the British colonial flag that had fluttered over Hong Kong for 156 years were slowly lowered to the strains of the British anthem “God Save the Queen”.

Up went the Chinese flag and the new Hong Kong flag adorned with the native Bauhinia flower, this time to the rousing thud of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers”.

The handover ceremony, at the just-erected Wan Chai convention centre, was solemnly presided over by luminaries including the Prince of Wales and then Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other Chinese officials (apparently described by Prince Charles in his diary post-event as “appalling old waxworks”).

“Hong Kong’s return to the motherland is a shining page in the annals of the Chinese nation,” declared Mr Jiang.

Some distance away, in Central, another ceremony was underway, another speech was made.

Undeterred by the stormy weather, about 6,000 gathered at the adjacent Chater Gardens to listen to Democratic Party leader Martin Lee deliver his “July 1 Declaration” from the balcony at the Legislative Council building.

“We are proud to be Chinese, but we also want to ask why China cannot give us more freedom,” he said to the eager upturned faces below. “If there is no democracy, there will be no rule of law; if there is no freedom, human rights will not be respected.”

Roused, the crowd went on to sing patriotic songs and shout slogans such as “long live democracy”. Another group paraded around the building, holding lit candles.

Sixteen years on, the numbers in that original protest has not only not abated, but swelled by 70 times.

On Monday, some 430,000 people, according to protest organisers Civil Human Rights Front, took to the streets. While shy of the record 500,000 in 2003, the turnout was higher than last year’s 400,000. The police said that just 35,500 left Victoria Park and 66,000 participated at its peak. Pollsters from the University of Hong Kong estimated 93,000 took part.

This was despite the erratic weather. Typhoon signal 3, which signifies strong winds at speeds up to 62 kmh, was hoisted, and maintained throughout the afternoon.

As the sky intermittently dumped rain onto the city, the protesters nonchalantly whipped out their umbrellas or plastic ponchos - available for HK$19 at convenience stores. In between the squalls, the ground steamed in the humid air.

There was no dampening the spirits though. Those entering Victoria Park were greeted by a marching Falungong band playing rousing pieces such as When the Band Goes Marching In.

The “protest economy” boomed: some snapped up the T-shirts emblazoned with various causes on sale; others plonked money into donation boxes. The total collection added up to at least HK$3 million (S$490,000), a third more than last year, according to a preliminary tally by the South China Morning Post.

And in what has become an annual showcase of Hong Kongers’ creativity, a plethora of banners were constructed, including one showcasing embattled chief executive Leung Chun Ying and his Cabinet as cartoon super-villains such as the Joker.

But designed to aggravate Beijing most, certainly, will be the sight of flags of Britain, the United States, Taiwan and even the “Free Tibet” - a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement banned on the mainland. Also making a prominent appearance is the British colonial flag used in Hong Kong before 1997 - an item that China probably never expected to see on the city’s streets again.

Not everyone present agreed with the provocation, staged ironically by Hong Kongers born after the 1980s who remember little of the colonial era but felt that it represented more freedom and openness.

For some, bread-and-butter issues rule. Mr Lee Man Hing, 60, who was retired but now working as a security guard, for instance, was more concerned about calling on the government to help the elderly like himself.

“I need a government that can promise that I have nothing to worry about when I am old,” he says. “I would not have to work so hard now if we have a better retirement scheme.”

For many however, the call for democracy that rang out 16 years ago is at the forefront of their minds. Dating couple Kargo Ng, 30, and Rainbow Li, 24, both working at an investment firm, said they were marching for “electoral reform”.

But beyond the sound and fury, there was little violence.

Hong Kong has a well-deserved reputation for being a city of protests but less has been said about how given the frequency - 145 on average a week last year - they are mostly conducted peacefully.

Like a well-oiled machinery, the city coped well on Monday. A scuffle broke out when a few protesters tried to remove a police barricade at a congested point outside the Sogo store at Causeway Bay and one fell. But it was smoothened over quickly.

The Mass Transit Railway organised its logistics, with several exits at Causeway Bay designated for exits and others for entry to prevent choke-points.

Meanwhile, organisers urged protesters to pick up their litter behind them - and many did.

It is also telling that unlike in other societies where shops pull down their shutters during protests for fear of being smashed or looted, here, they remained open - and even offered “protest discounts” this year to lure in stray protesters instead.

The planned civil disobedience movement Occupy Central next year has made headlines for its potential for violence. This is possible. But there is also the other view, expressed by Trade Development Council chairman Jack So that it would be just “another form of expression of views” if it proceeds peacefully.

What is certain is that on July 1 next year, like the past 16 years, Hong Kongers will be back on the streets.

xueying@sph.com.sg