New book gives eyewitness account of Hong Kong protests

April 29, 2020

City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
By Anthony Daripan 
Scribe Publications, 2020
320pp, $35

“Heung gong jan, gaa jau!” (Hong Kongers, add oil) is a rallying cry that could be translated to mean “Go Hong Kongers!” according to Anthony Daripan as he recounts the experience of Hong Kong protesters last year facing police tear gas.

This became such a common experience in Hong Kong that by the end of the year people would say “You’re not a real Hong Konger if you haven’t tasted tear gas.” 

In City on Fire, Australian author, lawyer and Hong Kong resident Antony Daripan provides a detailed account of the protest movement that erupted in June last year in response to an extradition bill proposed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. This would have allowed extradition of criminals in Hong Kong to countries which they did have an extradition agreement with, including Taiwan and mainland China. 

Fears that this law could be used by the mainland Chinese government in Beijing to undermine judicial independence and dissent in Hong Kong sparked a huge pro-democracy movement. Protesters demanded the withdrawal of the extradition bill by the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo). This protest movement is the latest in the former British colony’s history from the 1920s up to the 2014 Umbrella Movement. 

In response to the defeat of the  Umbrella Movement, which relied on occupying spaces and a centralised leader, protesters in 2019 were inspired by the Hong Kong-born film star and martial artist Bruce Lee, who summed up his philosphy as: “Empty your mind, be formless, shape-less like water. Water can flow or it can crash, be water my friends.” 

Furthermore along with this “Be Water” philosophy, everyone had a part to play in organising what was called a “leaderful” rather than a “leaderless” movement. To cement unity between the two different camps, the peaceful, non-violent protesters  known as Wo Lei Fei, and the "front liners" or Jung Mo, who were willing to engage directly, often violently, with the police; the principle of “No splitting, No Cutting off, No Snitching” was adopted. The decentralised mobile tactics, unity and uniform of black T-shirts, yellow hard hats and pink face masks made it harder for the Hong Kong authorities to crush the movement. 

Using the slogans “Free Hong Kong” and “Revolution of Our times”, protests took off all over Hong Kong. It culminated in the July 1 occupation of the LegCo building to protest the undemocratic nature of Hong Kong’s government in which people were only allowed to elect some of the LegCo representatives. The rest are appointed by Beijing and pro-Beijing corporate interests.  

Even after Lam announced in late July that the extradition bill would be withdrawn, the movement continued to demand its full withdrawal from the legislative process, retracting official characterisations of the June protests as "riots", the release and exoneration of arrested protesters, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour during the protests, and universal suffrage for the LegCo and Chief Executive elections. 

On July 26, protesters occupied Hong Kong International airport arrival hall handing out leaflets explaining their cause to international travellers in an action that was supported by Cathay Pacific flight crew. This was one of the many actions that protesters engaged in throughout Hong Kong’s streets, shopping malls and Metropolitan Transit Railway (MTR) stations. Daripan describes this as the reclaiming “the right to the city”. 

This principle was even more important in Hong Kong where there is no genuine public space with most gathering points sold off to real estate tycoons by the Hong Kong government. Another way of challenging this corporate domination of public space was the emergence of the Lennon Wall, on which people placed post-it notes everywhere in support of the movement. Internationally these tactics have been adopted by Extinction Rebellion protesters. 

However, as protests continued they became increasingly desperate as the government ignored the “five demands” and ratcheted up repression. There were also fears that Beijing would threaten to send People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into Hong Kong in August. The Beijing government and its supporters in Hong Kong claimed the protesters were being used by foreign powers to ”interfere in Chinese affairs” and “cause domestic unrest”. Beijing and the Hong Kong government also claimed the “silent majority” of Hong Kong residents were against the pro-democracy movement. 

Although many clashes between police and protesters caused property damage, acts of physical violence by protesters were rare and these were in response to police brutality and attack by Pro-Beijing supporters, including Triad gangs.  

The movement succeeded in gaining withdrawal of the extradition bill and a partial retraction of the claims those protesters were “rioters”. But by late October, it was unable to win the other three demands. By this time, protesters were occupying the city state’s universities, culminating in the police siege of the Polytechnic (PolyU).  

Meanwhile, in a repudiation of Beijing and the Hong Kong government’s claims that the “silent majority” were opposed to the protesters, Pan-Democrats won 385 of the available seats in the November 24 LegCo elections, with pro-Beijing candidates winning only 59. 

What will happen to Hong Kong in the future remains uncertain, however the pro-democracy protests have continued into 2020 despite the Coronavirus pandemic. Daripan’s City on Fire provides a vital account of key moments and tactics of a protest movement, that despite the odds has managed to win major concessions in the face of serious opposition from Beijing and the Hong Kong government. It gives a vital account of why people everywhere should support the Hong Kong protesters.

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