Hong Kong’s rapid descent into chaos leaves city shell-shocked

Protesters distibute leaflets to passengers at Hong Kong International Airport.

Protesters distibute leaflets to passengers at Hong Kong International Airport.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Hong Kong images of protesters throwing projectiles at the police force, shocking as they are, are tame compared to the open resort to — and justification of — jihadist terror in Kashmir

To travel to Hong Kong — the scene of protests for two months now — at a time when countries around the world are putting out travel advisories cautioning against proceeding thither is, of course, an enterprise fraught with perils. But the ‘fear factor’ has been dulled in me by two considerations. The first is a journalistic instinct to rush headlong into scenes of trouble when others are rushing out. The second is a blind faith — born of my experience of having lived in that global city for eight years — that clinically efficient Hong Kong never ever breaks down. Not even when a Force 10 typhoon blows into town.

Soon after the 2008 global financial crisis, when risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb breezed into Hong Kong for an investor conference, some of us accosted him for media interviews. However, the author of The Black Swan, who had warned of societies’ vulnerability to ‘black swan’ events (unexpected, unpredictable contingencies), was anxious to head back to the airport in good time for his flight. His natural and well-advertised disdain for the intellectual calibre of journalists was only heightened by our efforts to persuade him that no ‘black swan’ event would interfere with his travel plans; and that his time was better spent fraternising with us.

Sadly, one such ‘black swan’ flew over Hong Kong’s picturesque Victoria Harbour this week. The efficiency of operations for which the city is justifiably famed faltered momentarily, as violence erupted at the international airport — a hub that handles some 80 million passengers a year — and forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights for three days. Coming after weeks of police tear-gassing of protesters and a creeping disrespect for the rule of law — from both sides — the shocking images, including one of a cornered policeman brandishing a gun at protesters at the airport, have wracked Hong Kong’s soul, leaving many of its 7.3 million residents with a haunted look — much like the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ that, in the Taoist belief, surfaced this week from their hell world.

Disquieting images

Catching up with old friends, I was struck by the wholesale deflation of their otherwise sprightly spirits. Fiona, with whom I have in times past had feisty discussions on the supremacy of democratic societies, said she’s been so disturbed by Hong Kong’s rapid descent into chaos in recent weeks, and the constant fear of a 1989 Tiananmen Square-type crackdown by Beijing authorities, that she is actively considering emigrating elsewhere. The bearer of three passports, she has that option. But others, like Emily, whose neighbourhood witnessed an assault by underworld ‘triad’ gangs on anyone who wore black (which is the chromatic sartorial preference of protesters), finds herself trapped and conflicted. Her young son has been traumatised by the disquieting images that have been imprinted on his consciousness; her brother, who teaches politics at a university, is wholly on the side of the protesters.

The striking thing about the protesters is that a vast majority of them are university-educated; almost half of them are in their 20s. When the protests began eight weeks ago, they were specifically targeted at a planned criminal extradition law that, to many, signalled a whittling away of Hong Kong’s autonomy promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ model of governance. The police responded brutally to the protests, which have since acquired a broader, more generic, ‘pro-democracy’ character.

Parallels with the situation in Kashmir, which too has had its autonomy plucked away by the recent whittling down of Article 370 of the Constitution, keeps cropping up in discussions, but to my mind, there are critical differences. Hong Kong is arguably China’s wealthiest city, and its people enjoy far greater freedoms than in any other Chinese city: it is the one place in China where an independent judiciary and the rule of law prevail. In Kashmir, on the other hand, the autonomy provisions (coupled with opportunistic Delhi politics) have over the decades provided the cover for a creeping militancy and a regressive religious fundamentalism that has even resulted in ethnic cleansing.

The Hong Kong images of protesters throwing projectiles at the police force, shocking as they are, are tame compared to the open resort to — and justification of — jihadist terror in Kashmir, which targets not just the armed forces but civilians too. The one thing that both the geographies have in common, though, is that in both cases, an overbearing and paranoid Centre, inconsiderate to the merits of autonomy, is wielding a hatchet when a scalpel might have sufficed.

Stay in touch!

For the three days that chaos prevailed at the Hong Kong airport, leaving people of many nationalities stranded, diplomats of various countries turned up to coordinate efforts to render their compatriots safe. The Thai government even made preparations to fly in an air force plane to evacuate stranded Thai nationals. Sadly (but predictably), Indian consular officials in Hong Kong remained unmoved by appeals from stranded Indians — other than putting out a proforma advisory for passengers to be in touch with their airlines!

“When other efforts failed, we put out an appeal on Twitter, and even tagged the External Affairs Minister and other officials in Delhi,” said a stranded Indian passenger. But to no avail. Perhaps he should have tagged Sushma Swaraj, the recently deceased former Minister. She once famously said, only half in jest, that even if an Indian was stranded on Mars, the Indian Embassy would help them out.

Grim as the street images of clashes in Hong Kong are, they are not without moments of civility, and even occasional mirthfulness. The guerilla tactics deployed by the protesters, including spontaneous ‘pop-up’ protests in several places across the city, may occasionally seem to be borderline lawless. But when things got out of hand this week, disrupting the lives of thousands of irate passengers, the protest groups put up banners profusely apologising for having overreached themselves! And on the day of the ‘Hungry Ghost’ festival this week, when ‘hell money’ is burnt publicly to propitiate ancestors, the protesters imprinted Hong Kong officials’ images on to the ‘currency’ notes to symbolise their hellish ways.

And although the police have clearly resorted to use of excessive force, they gamely hold up banners with signs that say ‘Disperse or we fire’, ‘Warning: Tear smoke’, and ‘Stop charging or we use force’. The notion that the police force is abiding by the rules of fair play even in Hong Kong’s bloodiest battlefield in decades is quaintly comical.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 12:49:26 PM |

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