On the ground, feeling the pulse of Protest Hong Kong

by Pepe Escobar – Posted with permission

Fringe practicing wanton destruction for destruction’s sake surely have learned tactics from European black blocs

Protestors run past a fire during clashes with riot police in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 15. Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas and water cannon at hardcore pro-democracy protesters who were hurling rocks and petrol bombs on September 15, tipping the violence-plagued city back into chaos after a brief lull in clashes. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

What’s going on deep down in Hong Kong? For a former resident with deep cultural and emotional ties to the Fragrant Harbor, it’s quite hard to take it all in just within the framework of cold geopolitical logic. Master filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai once said that when he came up with the idea for Happy Together, he decided to shoot the story of his characters in Buenos Aires because that was as far away from Hong Kong as possible.

A few weeks ago I was walking the streets of far away Buenos Aires dreaming of Hong Kong. That Hong Kong that Wong Kar-Wai refers to in his masterpiece no longer exists. Unfortunately deprived of Christopher Doyle’s mesmerizing visuals, I ended up coming back to Hong Kong to find, eventually, that the city I knew also no longer exists.

I started my journey in my former ‘hood, Sai Ying Pun, where I lived in a studio in an average, slim, ultra-crowded Cantonese tower (I was the only foreigner) across the street from the beautiful, art deco St Louis school and not far from Hong Kong University. Although only a 20-minute walk over the hills to Central – the business and political heart of the city – Sai Ying Pun is mostly middle class with a few working-class pockets, only recently marching towards gentrification after a local MTR – subway – station was launched.

The busy streets of Hong Kong’s Sai Ying Pun district. Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Mongkok, across the harbor in Kowloon, with an unfathomably large population density, is the haven of frenetic small business Hong Kong, always crammed with students in search of trendy bargains. In contrast, Sai Ying Pun is a sort of languid glimpse of Hong Kong in the 1950s: it could easily have been the set for a Wong Kar-Wai movie.

From retirees to Mrs Ling, the laundry lady – still there, but without her previous, sprawling cat population (“At home!”) – the refrain is unanimous: protests, yes, but they must be peaceful. In Kowloon the previous night I had heard harrowing stories of teachers brainwashing elementary school pupils into protest marches. Not at St Louis – they told me.

Hong Kong University is another story; a hotbed of protest, some of it enlightened, where the golden hit in humanities is to analyze China as a “perfect dictatorship” where the CCP did nothing but ratchet up crude nationalism, militarism and “aggression,” in propaganda and in dealing with the rest of Asia.

As we reach Central, the Hong Kong matrix of hyper turbo-capitalism, “protests” dissolve as an unwashed-masses, bad-for-business, dirty word, dismissed at the restaurants of the old, staid Mandarin and the glitzier Mandarin Oriental, the Norman Foster/IM Pei headquarters of HSBC and Bank of China, the headquarters of JP Morgan – with a swanky Armani outlet downstairs – or at the ultra-exclusive China Club, a favorite of old Shanghai money.

Prada meets class struggle

It’s on weekends, especially Sunday, that all of Hong Kong’s – and turbo-capitalism’s – internal contradictions explode in Central. Filipina maids for decades have been staging an impromptu sit-in, a sort of benign Occupy Central in Tagalog with English subtitles, every Sunday; after all they have no public park to gather in on their only day off, so they take over the vault of HSBC and merrily picnic on the pavement in front of Prada boutiques.

To talk to them about the protests amounts to a PhD on class struggle: “It’s we who should have the right to protest about our meager wages and the kind of disgusting treatment we get from these Cantonese madames,” says a mother of three from Luzon (70% of her pay goes for remittances home). “These kids, they are so spoiled, they are raised thinking they are little kings.”

Virtually everyone in Hong Kong has reasons to protest. Take the cleaning contingent – who must do the heavy lifting after all the tear gas, burnt-out bins, bricks and broken glass, like on Sunday. Their monthly salary is the equivalent of US$1,200 – compared with the average Hong Kong salary of roughly $2,200. Horrible working conditions are the norm: exploitation, discrimination (many are from ethnic minorities and don’t speak Cantonese or English) and no welfare whatsoever.

As for the ultra-slim fringe practicing wanton destruction for destruction’s sake, they surely have learned tactics from European black blocs. On Sunday they set fire to one of the entrances to ultra-congested Wanchai station and broke glass at Admiralty. The “strategy”: breaking off MTR nodes, because paralyzing Chek Lap Kok airport – one of the busiest on the planet – won’t work anymore after the August 12/13 shutdown that canceled nearly 1,000 flights and led to a quite steep drop in passengers coming from China, Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

Two years ago, in Hamburg, Special Forces were deployed against black bloc looters. In France, the government routinely unleashes the feared CRS even against relatively peaceful Gilets Jaunes/Yellow Vest protesters – complete with tear gas, water cannons and supported by helicopters, and nobody invokes human rights to complain about it. The CRS deploy flash ball strikes even against the media.

Not to mention that any occupation of Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow or JFK is simply unthinkable. Chek Lap Kok, on a weekday, is now eerily quiet. Police patrol all the entrances. Passengers arriving via the Airport Express fast train must now show passport and boarding pass before being allowed inside the terminal.

Western media accounts, predictably, focus on the radical fringe, as well as the substantial fifth-columnist contingent. This weekend a few hundred staged a mini-protest in front of the British consulate asking, essentially, to be given asylum. Some of them are holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports, which are effectively useless, as the provide no working or residency rights in the UK.

Other fifth-columnists spent their weekend waving flags from Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, US, Taiwan, and last but not least, the Hong Kong colonial flag.

Meet homo Hong Kong

Who are these people? Well, that necessarily brings us to a crash course on homo Hong Kong.

Not many people in Hong Kong can point to ancestors in place before the Opium War of 1841 and the subsequent rule of imperial Britain. Most don’t know much about the People’s Republic of China, so essentially there’s no grudge. They own their own homes, which means, crucially, they are insulated from Hong Kong’s number one problem: the demented, speculative property market.

Then there are the old China elites – people who fled Mao’s victory in 1949. At first they were orphans of Chiang Kai-shek. Then they concentrated on hating the Communist Party with a vengeance. The same applies to their offspring. The ultra-wealthy gather at the China Club. The less wealthy at least can afford $5 million apartments at The Peak. Canada is a preferred destination – hence Hong-Couver as a substantial part of Vancouver. For them Hong Kong is essentially a transit stop, like a glitzy business lounge.

It’s this – large – contingent that is behind the protests.

The lower strata of the Escape from China elites are the economic refugees of 1949. Tough luck: still today they don’t own property and have no savings. A great many of the easily manipulated teenagers taking over the streets of Hong Kong dressed in black and singing “Glory to Hong Kong” and dreaming of “independence” are their sons and daughters. It’s certainly a cliché, but it does apply to their case: trapped between East and West, between an Americanized lifestyle on steroids and the pull of Chinese culture and history.

Hong Kong cinema, with all its pulsating dynamism and exhilarating creativity, may offer the perfect metaphor to understand the inner contradictions of the Fragrant Harbor. Take Tsui Hark’s 1992 masterpiece New Dragon Gate Inn, with Donnie Yen and gorgeous Maggie Cheung, based on what happened at a crucial pass in the Ancient Silk Road six centuries ago.

Here we may place Hong Kong as the inn between imperial despotism and the desert. Inside, we find fugitives imprisoned between their dream of escaping to the “West” and the cynically exploitative owners. That connects with the ghostly, Camus-infused existential terror for the modern homo Hong Kong: soon he may be liable to be “extradited” to evil China before he has a chance to be granted asylum by the benevolent West. A fabulous line by Donnie Yen’s character sums it all up: “Rain in the Dragon Gate mountains makes the Xue Yuan tiger come down.”

Good to be a tycoon

The drama played out in Hong Kong is actually a microcosm of the Big Picture: turbo-charged, neoliberal hyper-capitalism confronted to zero political representation. This “arrangement” that only suits the 0.1% simply can’t go on like before.

In fact what I reported about Hong Kong seven years ago for Asia Times could have been written this morning. And it got worse. Over 15% of Hong Kong’s population now lives in actual poverty. According to figures from last year, the total net worth of the wealthiest 21 Hong Kong tycoons, at $234 billion, was the equivalent of Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves. Most of these tycoons are property market speculators. Compare it to real wages for low-income workers increasing a meager 12.3% over the past decade.

Beijing, later rather than sooner, may have awakened to the number one issue in Hong Kong – the property market dementia, as reported by Asia Times. Yet even if the tycoons get the message, the underlying framework of life in Hong Kong is not bound to be altered: maximum profit crushing wages and any type of unionization.

So economic inequality will continue to boom – as an unrepresentative Hong Kong government “led” by a clueless civil servant keeps treating citizens as non-citizens. At Hong Kong University I heard some serious proposals: “We need a more realistic minimum wage. “We need real taxes on capital gains and on property.” “We need a decent property market.”

Will that be addressed before a crucial deadline – October 1st – when Beijing will be celebrating, with great fanfare, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China? Of course not. Trouble will continue to brew at the Dragon Inn – as those underpaid, over-exploited cleaners face the bleakest of futures.


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  1. Hong Kong has a government that the Hong Kongers wanted. It serves them as they have shaped it.

    Just because the Chief Executive is appointed for election and not run in a multi-person primary doesn’t mean the local legislature isn’t elected democratically. The Judicial System is local. The Media are local. SCMP, though owned now by Alibaba, is violently anti-Mainland. Jack Ma had promised he wouldn’t change a thing, and nothing has changed.

    Hong Kongers think they once had a better life under colonial rule.
    Quite delusional.

    There was always inequality, massive poverty and much more crime from the Triads under British rule. Kowloon Walled City was emblematic of those “good old days”.

    The educational system, Kinder to College is local. This protest movement was gestated in the educational system for decades.

    It will end when the damage to enough, more businesses impact jobs and profits. Tourism has been halved. Commerce is down 30-40%. Hong Kong has much more pain coming from this huge self-inflicted wound.

    Beijing is letting it play out.

    The Police have been magnificent in dealing with the violence. The Brits would have killed scores by now.
    Americans would have killed hundreds.

    The tragedy is that nothing much will change for a long time. Too much skewing of the society has taken place to put things right in a year or two.

    This isn’t just the Rich versus the Have Nots. Mind Massaging like in Ukraine has gone on for decades. People think that they can get independence from China and the heavens will empty with riches for one and all.

    They have one chance. Join in the development and rise of the Greater Bay Area. Those who do will prosper. Those that don’t should leave, go to Taiwan, go to Canada, go to Virginia (CIA dumping ground).

    Reforms will take years to grab control from the wealthy elite who constructed this mess. And the Central Government will have to do that on the quiet, in the shadows. No one else can get the local reforms done.
    Certainly, Hong Kongers can’t. Or this would have not gotten so far out of whack.

    And that educational system has to purged of the Mainland haters and curriculum.

    It will take a decade to correct Hong Kong.

    Zhongnanhai has patience.

    • Yes, Larchmonter, agree with all that, and well said.

      Have you seen Martin Jacques’s short interview on Hong Kong? It’s nine minutes of great summary of the HK situation. Very much a supporter of China, Jacques actually encourages the people of Hong Kong to press Beijing for greater and faster integration with the mainland, as the only way for HK to move forward:

      Martin Jacques‘ view on the Hong Kong development dilemma

      Hong Kong is living in a cultural bubble, perhaps, and almost has to develop its own democracy from scratch, perhaps – I don’t know how much cultural common sense actually leaks over from the mainland, but one hopes a lot. As with you, I actually don’t see how HK can move forward without more help from the mainland.

      But I applaud One Country Two Systems, and if we have to wait until 2045 then so be it. Arguably, Taiwan is much more important to China than Hong Kong, and the dual system is important to maintain as the repatriation mechanism for that estranged locale.

    • The Hong Kong compradores are serving their Western Masters, but they will NEVER be allowed into the Western paradises. The West needs them as shock troops to undermine China, nothing else. Imagine if the rioters in Ferguson had been on a Chinese payroll, with full Chinese propaganda support. The bloodshed would have been epic.

    • Is Hong Kong a kind of Asian/Chinese Ukraine ?

      – A part of their society not wanting to be part of China, or anything to do with China ?
      – Western influenced, a group that wants to be part of the West ?
      – Confusion, corruption, inequality and civil unrest ?

      Why do Hong Kong and Ukraine remind me of children who need to grow up and learn how to play with children in the neighborhood ? Can we conclude that the West are child abusers :-) ?

    • @Larchmonter445

      Well said – especially true your observation that protests in UK or USA or just about any other Country would have had the Army out & no holds barred punishment. China has been very restrained indeed. However the Western MSM are as usual sucking up to the PTB & demonising HK Govt. A heavy hand is now needed.

  2. Pepe—why is China being so calm? Should the protestors win their battle, then won’t that open the door to other rebellions, like in Taiwan? That China seems determined to take over?

    • I have mainland Chinese uni students staying at my house. China is an interest of mine. We have decided that Hong Kong is no longer important to China. It has been replaced financially by Shanghai, tech, Shenzhen etc. Hong Kong is acting like a spoilt child throwing a temper tantrum. The best way to deal with it is to lock it in its room until it calms down. The police in HK are dealing with it OK. Troops on the mainland will ensure it will not spread to the mainland. Also, most mainlanders either do not care or think the protesters in HK are wankers. So, why do anything? Let the child calm down. Ignore the western press. Good strategy in my opinion.

    • I think China is doing the right thing,let those clowns burn Hong Kong down,they are the ones who will have to live in the ashes,or get the Hell out,if Britain their former Colonial master will have them,which i doubt.

  3. The anti-China Hong Kong elite and their children who are driving these protests are certainly not opposed to Neoliberalism and certainly not to capitalism, as they have made their wealth from capitalism.

    They simply want to return to the “good old days” when Hong Kong was a favored entrepot outpost of the Anglo-Americans and, just as importantly, they were (economically and culturally) superior to those uncouth “coolie” Mainlanders.

    This article by Israel Shamir, though Politically Incorrect, lays bare the true political dynamics of this latest Colored Revolution/destabilization campaign that the West fawns over and the copious “pro-democracy” propaganda that has accompanied it.

    House Niggers Mutiny

    • Malcolm X actually called this sort of Quisling compradore, Uncle Toms in the US context, ‘House Negros’. Nigger was a word that he would have avoided, I’m sure. Obama is the epitome of the type.

    • I’ve heard that, but with a search I cannot find anything from around that time that shows he supported this regime change war. If you have something vot tak, it will be appreciated. I see condensed analysis and good descriptions of what is going on, but I do not see support.

      • amaryth

        I found a couple articles after a short search.

        ‘Brother’ Gaddafi, you’re going down By Pepe Escobar


        Gaddafi goes Tiananmen By Pepe Escobar


        Look for articles by him in the first half of 2011. His initial reporting supported the regime change, repeating much of the zionazi-gay demonization of gaddafi and the Libyan government.

        • Thanks, vot, for something I did not pick up at the time. The very first sentence of your first Link shows that re Libya Pepe had drunk the MSM drug: “when a dictator unleashes hell from above over his own unarmed, civilian compatriots, and bombs parts of his capital city….”. Shades of “Assad the bloodstained dictator barrel-bombing his own people”!

          Fortunately one can learn from experience. Pepe did not swallow the anti-Assad propaganda which soon followed the anti-Gaddhaffi propaganda, as NATZO moved its terrorists-for-hire army from Libya to Syria.

      • vot tak

        Thank you for reminding us of this – although it is possible that Pepe was just lied to by his informant at the time… I remember it very well, as I followed Pepe for some time in Asia Times Online until his support for toppling Gadaffi… I was very critical of his position. Sometimes I wonder if we can trust somebody (Pepe) – who changes his mind so fast – with skills to write and access to information… This can be dangerous in dangerous times…

        • Likewise, I also used to be a fan of Pepe at the Real News Network in the mid noughties until the regime change disturbances in Iran happened at that time. He made a similarly bad choice by supporting the unrest against the regime. He failed to see the hand of the West in these disturbances. I have been wary ever since.

          A pattern of poor judgement seems to be developing.

          • I remember the same thing happening with the brutal attack on Yugoslavia,so called left wingers in Britain who i had respect for,turned into the most Imperialist War Pigs i had ever seen,supporting the illegal Nato Blitz on Serbia,it was a big wake up call for me,to this day i dont know what motivated those people.

  4. Pepe is missing the most important point – there is complete and total freedom in Hong Kong when it comes to how it is governed. The only restriction is it is a part of China, a Special Administrative Region (SAR). China CCP does not interfere in how HK is run by their Chief Executive. Look, HK has been rated highest in the Economic Freedom Index for 25 year – https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/30/hong-kong-is-the-worlds-least-regulated-economy-despite-political-pressure.html

    It is a paradise for pure capitalism. Unlike most other capitalist countries, it does have Low Corruption, thanks to its Anti corruption Agency. If there is any real life experiment on “ what are the real effects of well run, minimal corruption capitalism ?” Well Hong Kong is the answer. The tycoons get richer snd richer, the poor gets poorer. Hong Kong people elects all of its legislative members directly except for-the Chief Executive. It is a democracy in reality. The Chief executive has no party support, because he or she does not belong to any political party.

    The HK people can be categorized into two groups, home owners ( those who own their home, mostly tiny condo), and renters. 99% of the home owners put all of their savings into buying their current home. The last thing they want is to see it drop in value. But the RE value in HK per sq foot is the highest in the world, making it impossible for the renters to buy. Now the owners are about 49% of the population. Thus every time a Chief Executive tabled plans to increase the housing supply to try to make housing more affordable, the tycoons would immediately use their money influence on the HK free press to scare monger, that RE prices will drop if such plans are executed, which always end in the CE shelving such plans. This was what happened during the time of Tung, Leung, and the current CE. There is no fix to the HK real estate prices problem, until the real estate tycoons are gotten rid of.

    • “The tycoons get richer and richer, the poor gets poorer.”

      “the tycoons would immediately use their money influence on the HK free press to scare monger, that RE prices will drop if such plans are executed, which always end in the CE shelving such plans.”

      How is that not corruption or a corrupt system ?

      So it seem the kids of the land owning elite are rioting and basically disrupting their own economy ?
      So if the West has anything to do with these protests, then the West is basically helping these elite trash their own country ?

    • If the price of your appartment goes down, you can still live in your appartment.
      If you cannot afford an appartment, you are intrinsically dependant.
      Therefore, a major “affordable housing” plan should take place : there is plenty of land in HK.
      Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore showed his true statesmanship in enabling almost everybody to own an HDB appartment (albeit on lease hold)

  5. At play in Hong Kong is ‘cold geopolitical logic’ – I like Pepe Escobar’s phrase – amid the internal contradictions, the impoverished Filipino maid and the billionaire tycoon, all dreaming of something ‘better; all facing something worse, and as always: especially the poor. This is part of a global power struggle that will not end well.

  6. Maybe Beijing is going to step in and help Hong Kong.

    Pepe on his Facebook page has re-posted a commentary from a Facebook public group called 21SilkRd. It seems hopeful, that Beijing has completed its study of the property situation and the protests and is now ready to act against both the protest instigators and the underlying social problems.

    Here is the link to the post. You don’t need to belong to Facebook to view this:

    I hesitate to paste an entire piece but it seems most useful. It’s not that long, and hopefully a mod can delete it if it’s too much. Here it is:

    by Thomas Hon Wing Polin


    It was suggested in this group recently that China’s public shaming of Hong Kong property lord — and longtime shadow ruler — Li Ka-shing was a watershed in the territory’s history.

    This unusual event also implies that Beijing may be nearing the end of its in-depth study of HK’s Cockroach Revolution and other, deep-seated problems.

    At the beginning of the turmoil, the CPC sent a high-powered team to Shenzhen to monitor developments in Hong Kong and report its findings to the Party leadership. Beijing openly promised a comprehensive, revised strategy to deal with the SAR’s problems.

    Since then several top-rankers have travelled to Shenzhen, including Vice President Wang Qishen, Xi Jinping’s close comrade and ace troubleshooter. Party chiefs apparently sussed out Hong Kong during their annual August retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, near Beijing.

    According to a mainland insider, the Li Ka-shing fracas hints that a broader plan to deal with Hong Kong is falling into place. Key aspects:

    1. Li, treated with virtual deference from the era of Deng Xiaoping through that of Hu Jintao, has fallen from favor. He has become a symbol of the “ancien régime” to be cleared out in the new era.

    2. Hong Kong’s real estate sector, epitomized by Li Ka-shing, is no longer favored. Beijing has characterized the social problems brought on by high property prices as THE core problem of HK. The issue is also a warning that runaway real-estate costs in the mainland could spark an upheaval there.

    3. Beijing has sorted through the rampaging young blackshirts. It is now tracking down the roots of the violence, notably those who have been inciting, funding and organizing the youngsters from behind the scenes.

    4. The central government will no longer pander to Hong Kong’s wealthy businessfolk. This suggests Beijing’s work in HK will become less passive and more proactive, even aggressive.

    5. The contest among various interests in Hong Kong will heat up. Beijing is preparing for a phase in its HK work that will resemble “intense, hand-to-hand combat.”

    6. Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong is becoming focused, and its targeting of opponents is sharpening. The first card has been played. A list has likely been drawn up of the first batch of forces to be cleaned up.

    7. In future, the various sectors in Hong Kong will have to take sides, as room for fence-sitting will shrink dramatically. Tapping the mainland’s huge markets and powerful patriotic sentiment, Beijing will see to it that enemies pay and friends prosper.

    Hong Kong seems set for a thorough reshuffling of its political and economic landscape.

  7. Hong Kong was stolen from the weak Ching Dynasty in 19th cent. Forced to relinquish it by gunboat diplomacy from the British Empire. It was the center of the opium smuggling.
    1997 (I watched the handover on TV and the look on HRH Prince Charles (Sax Coberg) face said it all.
    Deng Xiaoping made the statement to Margret Thatcher, to the effect “no you cant have a extension of the lease, we (the PLA) cant take it (HK) back this afternoon” Thatcher nearly fell down the steps.
    Maybe that what should happen now, the HKers would be far better of totally managed by China directly with the billions of infrastructure projects would then see the poverty decline as in the mainland.
    HK IS Chinese territory, there is no going back. Deng may have made a mistake over the “2 systems” agreement but at that time China wasnt in a strong a position. They (Beijing) can legally take back the HK govt. The 2 systems is a temporary system.
    Taiwan is the same. The criminal Jiang Kai Ze (Chiang Kai Chek to Westerners) was a traitor to China selling his country to the Imperialist Japanese. FACT: Mao MADE him agree to fight the Japanese! Many of his (Jiang) generals defected to Mao for good reasons as they saw the traitor he was. He fled to Taiwan and took it over, the Taiwanese hated him. Taiwan is part of China historically and has been so for centuries, as Tibet (Tang dynasty).
    Many Westerners are ignorant of Chinese history, which is why it is easy for managed media to push disinformation.

  8. These demonstrations are chiefly based in cultural differences. Hong Kong is a cantonese island but the Cantonese culture is disappearing not because of Mandarin differences-Cantonese cuisine is as different from Mandarin as French cuisine is different from italian. You will not find those fiery hot Mandarin dishes in Hong Kong. The spoken languages-cantonese and mandarin- are not intelligible to one an other and there is fear that the minority cantonese language is dying. It is dying not because of the majority use of mandarin but because of the use of English in Hong Kong. It is the anglo-american influence that is killing the cantonese language and culture. Though it serves the future professional interests of the Hong Kong student to master the most widely spoken in the world-mandarin, they more often prefer to learn English.