Hong Kong surprises
Hong Kong -- It’s been a whirlwind week of surprises in Hong Kong, as the polite, dependable, staid city stunned the world by flashing a rebellious and steely streak on a scale not seen in five years.
Surrounded by hills that hem in its skyscrapers, the city of my birth is always crowded, but people seem to keep to themselves. I’ve lived in my flat for almost three years, but I don’t even know the person who lives down the hall.
So when an estimated one million Hong Kongers came out into the streets on Sunday June 9 to protest a proposed bill that would allow extradition to China, the scale came as a surprise.
Hong Kong has had large protests before -- five years ago, huge pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” demonstrations brought parts of the city to a standstill for several months.
Back then, the protests were like the city itself. Peaceful, civilized, polite. There were hundreds of volunteers who set up stalls for medical aid, for people to charge their cell phones, to give out water and snacks. There were teams of volunteers going around, picking up litter. At one point, desks were set up on the road, so that the kids could study while protesting. It was amazing.
There was a definite vibe going on, of peace and hope for change. But eventually the protests fizzled out and the police cleared them up. I remember the first time after those demonstrations that I took a taxi from the office to my ferry terminal. The road had been occupied by the protesters and you could still see the chalk drawings and graffiti that they had drawn. As I commuted in the following weeks, I would think back to how I had stood on that road with my colleagues. I would look out for the physical signs of what had taken place. But slowly the signs faded away. The city went back to normal.
When people came out on Sunday June 9th, it took everyone by surprise, but there was no immediate indication that it would turn into anything like the 2014 demonstrations. The government said that the bill would go through as planned. I came back from holiday the day after the demonstration and when I asked colleagues if they thought something similar would happen in the following days, they said probably not. Although protests continued to flare here and there, there wasn’t really any indication that they would turn into something huge.
And then came Wednesday.
I was coming into the center with a colleague. We were coming back into town after a few hours of sleep and as we walked out of the Admiralty train station our jaws dropped.
A sea of people filled the road, clambering over the concrete barriers that protect pedestrians from traffic. For a few moments, we just stared at the scene, amazed.
An ocean of humanity poured out into the streets, jumping over barricades, everyone giving each other a hand.
“Guess I’ll see you later mate!” I shouted to my photographer friend. He chuckled and we both immediately sprang into work mode. Someone helped me climb onto the concrete barrier from where I took my first photos.
Thoughts rushed through my mind. Don’t be distracted by the sheer scale of what is taking place, I thought to myself. Concentrate on the details and the story. Get some first photos to the editors on the desk and fast!
After snapping some shots, I used my camera wifi to send three of the best ones to my phone, which I then held high in the air to catch some reception and send to the desk. It’s always a struggle to send in a breaking news situation because so many people are using their phones at the same time.
After what seemed like an agonizing eternity, I finally saw a little icon appear on my phone indicating that the photos went through. Thankfully we have such a tight photo team on the ground and editors on the desk, I thought. I can just send them the shots and trust them to handle them properly, so I can just concentrate on taking photos on the scene. One of those first shots I sent ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal the next day.
But there was no time to relax. I had to keep snapping and sending. This story was going to be huge.
Having covered the 2014 Umbrella protests made working easier this time around. I remembered some of the vantage points to get the good shots. I knew how to photograph the story. And then things started getting a bit wild.
Both the protesters and the police seemed much more prepared this time around. As if each side had learned the lessons from five years ago. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing . For example, apparently a lot of the protesters came to the center using single-use metro tickets. If you use your monthly pass, your movements can be traced. But single-use tickets can’t be traced to anyone in particular. Messages to use them went out on social media networks.
By the time I got to the center, the medical teams were already on the scene. And the barricades were set up with what seemed like lightning speed. I watched a group put together a barricade from 5-6 metal barriers tied together with plastic ties. The barriers are really heavy, but it took them mere moments to set them up and drag them into place to fortify their position.
The police seemed more prepared as well. In 2014, they fired tear gas, but they didn’t manage to disperse the crowds. It stirred up a lot of ill feeling towards the police from the generally peaceful protesters and the police seemed to hold back from further action until they were given the go ahead to clear the roads.
This time they fired over 150 rounds of tear gas and the road was cleared relatively quickly as a result.
Luckily for me, AFP management always gets onto its staff to take gas masks and goggles to demonstrations. Normally I feel a bit silly lugging them around. Nothing is going to happen, you think to yourself. I've also done a hostile environment training course. Another thing I thought I'd never need to fall back on. But I was really glad I had my equipment and safety knowledge on Wednesday when the tear gas was fired.
I had never experienced it and people streamed all around me coughing their lungs out and pouring water into their eyes. But thanks to my mask and goggles, I could breathe normally and remained really calm and was just able to work. It felt strange to be able to breathe when everyone around me was struggling, but I was able to shoot and I was even able to help out a few people who were in pain.
When the smoke cleared, the government stood firm that it would not abandon its bill and the protesters didn’t give an inch either, calling for another protest the following Sunday. My colleagues and I really didn’t know what to expect.
You had a feeling that people here were really dissatisfied with their lack of control over their future following Britain’s handing back the city to China in 1997. There was a well known protest slogan here -- “Hong Kong is not China.” But China’s grip had been tightening in recent years and you felt it. And I think people were really frustrated about it. They felt they were not part of China, but China had been imposing these decisions and laws. Would the violence of Wednesday deter people to come out again or would it fire them up, we wondered, bleary-eyed from all the work as the weekend started.
And then, in a shock announcement, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said that she would suspend the legislation, though she stopped short of saying that it would be permanently scrapped. The move seemed aimed at pacifying public opinion and now we really didn’t know what would happen the following day -- would people still come out or would they stay home? Would there be even worse violence than on Wednesday?
Being in the middle of a top world news story at home was a very unfamiliar feeling to me. During the protests five years ago, I was working as an editor on the photo desk and only took photos when backup was needed in the field. Now I’m the bureau photographer and this has been a whole new experience for me.
Normally when you live and work in Hong Kong, you go away on assignment to cover something of this magnitude. You don’t expect it to happen on your doorstep.
When Sunday June 16th came, Hong Kong pulled out another surprise.
Even more people poured out to march in the tropical heat -- an estimated two million that, if confirmed, would make it the largest demonstration the city has ever seen. The police were out in force as well, but seemed to stay away for the most part of the day, as if not to stir up tension with the swelling crowd.
There was no violence this time around. The police seemed to allow the protesters to spill into the roads. The demonstrators were much more peaceful, like the “Umbrella” protests from five years back.
At one point, an ambulance was trying to make it through a road choked with people. And the crowd just parted to let it pass. It was such a touching moment. Everyone was applauding. It just seemed to define the day -- that Hong Kongers could protest and remain peaceful.
The police didn’t move in until the morning after, coming out to ask the protesters if they could leave. It wasn’t an order. After a small standoff, the demonstrators eventually dispersed and the roads reopened to traffic.
Everyone was just blown away by the sheer size of the march.
To me, a real turning point in this city’s history is unfolding before us. Frustrated with the gradual chipping away of control by China, the residents came out to protest yet another encroachment on the rights they have grown up with. When the peaceful protest on June 9 didn’t work, they came out again in an outpouring of sheer frustration toward the government, but were pushed back by police. When they refused to back down despite the tear gas and rubber bullets, city authorities announced a small concession. But that failed to quell the outpouring of “no’s.” They came out in even larger numbers. “You will not silence us,” as a banner that I saw said.
Where it goes from here I still don’t know. One of the main leaders of the 2014 protests was released a day after the mammoth march, calling for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign.
It seems like anything could happen right now and I’m not at all certain of how this week will end.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.