Protesters hold placards as they attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China. Photograph by Tyrone Siu, Reuters
Culture Spotlight

The week we walked for Hong Kong’s youth

Having lived in Hong Kong for years, a Filipina has seen countless rallies, megaphones, and placards filling up its winding streets. But what makes this current protest different?
Anna Ria Vallesteros | Jun 22 2019

Living in Hong Kong, one sometimes gets the feeling protest marches are a hobby among its citizens. There is one every month. As an expat who can’t read Traditional Chinese, I am often at a loss on what people are marching about. But no matter the reason, you’ll hear someone complain about the terrible traffic the marches cause throughout central Hong Kongon a Sunday. Sometimes it's just all very inconvenient; one has to reorganize one's weekend plans. 

But this time it was different. 

Some of the signs were verbally graphic, underscoring the anger of the protesters.

 

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The protests on June 16, Sunday, drew some of the largest crowds I've seen here. It was the second consecutive weekend march protesting a controversial extradition bill being rushed through the legislative process by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. This bill would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for the first time—an expectedly sensitive development. 

Most Sunday protests start at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and ends at Tamar Park where the government buildings are located, covering a distance of three kilometers right in the middle of the Financial District. Last Sunday, crowds spilled over three main roads parallel to each other, with the first protestors leaving Victoria Park at 3pm and the last ones departing six hours later at 9pm.

Even with numerous train stations shut for security, this did not deter people from coming out of their buildings and making themselves heard. There were close to two million people, said one estimate, doubling the number of the previous weekend. Hong Kong only has a population of 7.4 million, so that’s almost one in three Hong Kongers out on the streets. 

Demonstrators attend a protest to demand authorities scrap a proposed extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China June 9, 2019. Photograph by Tyrone Siu, Reuters

 

And they were pissed

People across all ages, and all walks of life came out that Sunday. They were all pissed by Lam’s stubborn arrogance in pushing a bill with no public consultation, displeased at her crocodile tears and the claim that she hasn’t sold Hong Kong out. But what really galvanized this mass of two million were the scenes on Wednesday, June 12.

About 10,000 young Hong Kongers gathered in protest at the second reading of the same bill at the Legislative Council. The crowds started to thicken at around 10 AM that day. It was an illegal assembly; no permit was granted. The police did not need any particular reason to declare a riot; the fact that it was an illegal assembly was enough. Tensions escalated, and the government eventually did declare a riot, justifying their use of force. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators—a rare sight hereabouts.

Police officers clash with protesters in a rally against the proposed amendments to the extradition law at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. The extradition law has aroused concerns that it would undermine the city's independent judicial system as it allows Hong Kong to hand over fugitives to the jurisdictions that the city doesn't currently have an extradition agreement with, including mainland China. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

And yet the gathering was largely innocuous that Wednesday. The youth set up supply and first aid stations, arranged barriers from nearby construction sites and prepared for a long sit in. But what the world saw was police violence against the youth when they turned on their TV sets at 4pm. There were scenes that day that triggered memories of the Tiananmen Square slaughters of June 4, 1989. Scenes rather fresh in the minds of Hong Kong’s people as there was a 30th anniversary commemorative march just the week prior. 

You may have seen the video of the mother shouting at police to not hurt the young protesters.You mess with our youth, you mess with all of us. Hong Kong families are very close knit and protective of their own. That Sunday, they showed the world that side of Hong Kong’s character. 

I walked with the crowds that Wednesday and also last Sunday. I had to miss the first Sunday march because of illness. Families, friends, work colleagues, church mates, choir fellows marched not only to oppose the heinous bill, but they marched for the young. They marched to tell Carrie Lam to extradite her head out of her ass (there, in fact, was a protest sign saying exactly that) but they marched too to support the youth of Hong Kong and make them feel they’re not in this alone. 

 

The streets can talk

A lot of people would call this a disruption—which is really any rally’s aim—but I learned so much in both days. I was there for the Yellow Revolution in 2014. And two years before that, I marched against a bill to change the Hong Kong primary school curriculum to be more aligned to China’s National Education system. But like I said it was different this year. 

People attend a rally in support of demonstrators protesting against proposed extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China, June 14, 2019. Jorge Silva, Reuters

There were some beautiful moments of song, laughter and fun. But make no mistake, there was still a simmering undercurrent of distrust directed toward the government. It was surprising to see that even without an obvious leader, the movement was orderly and congenial. There was anger, yes, but also a sense of community. It was especially surprising to see Hong Kong so outraged over how the police treated the young protesters. They were angry at Lam and the bill, with some even resigned it would pass in a Council with a majority of pro-Beijing supporters. But there was one thing for sure they wouldn’t take sitting down, not anymore: police violence against their young. Hence, one in three Hong Kongers came out and marched to say they have had enough. 

It was inspiring to witness. People going to the streets, in the heat of the summer sun, and making themselves heard. I could only wish we can see the same outrage and mass protests in the Philippines today. The Hong Kong marches filled me with hope. In the age of the influencer, the youth of Hong Kong understand the power of their own influence. The public’s anger influenced Lam to suspend the bill prior to the second Sunday—but that the youth was not satisfied by this declaration gave me even more hope. They wanted permanent withdrawal. They still marched en masse. They even cleaned up after themselves. These kids are Hong Kong’s future. And I will proudly walk by their side. 

 

As of this Friday afternoon, the government has not responded to demands from the public. Protestors are gathering at Admiralty station, close to the government headquarters which are within the main financial district. More protests are planned for this Sunday, June 23.