Hong Kong Between Calm and Chaos

Pro-democracy protesters continue their battle, but Beijing is counting on fears of disorder—and the demands of commerce—to turn the public against them.

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty

HONG KONG — With Hong Kong’s demonstration now in their seventh day, a number of disgruntled individuals—old and young—took it upon themselves this morning to dismantle tents and blockades had set up by pro-democracy activists. The city has to get moving again, they said. Some semblance of order must be restored, they said. Otherwise Hong Kong would be on the road to chaos.

But the protesters aren’t inclined to leave. The scene at the crucial Nathan-Argyle Road junction in Kowloon has gotten got pretty ugly at times as tempers frayed, and scuffles continue. The junction is still blocked, and many parts of the city center’s transport system are suspended, making it impossible for many people to get to work. Businesses are suffering more each day in an area where the rents are extortionate, and the situation could boil over soon.

The local government, despite all the invective directed at its leadership, seems to be functioning normally for the moment. This southern Chinese city’s embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying—who refused to quit on Thursday night in spite of a deadline set by the pro-democracy protesters—said on Friday that contingency plans are already in place to keep the government running by relocating key offices to other buildings in the city.

CY Leung also recounted stories about civil servants returning to work this morning after a midweek break who had been subjected to “vile abuse” by protesters.

Earlier in the day, Leung visited the MTR—the city’s metro system—and paid tribute to its staff for keeping the way open for riders (many of whom, ironically, were demonstrators moving among the key protest sites) when buses and trams were unable to function above ground.

Not surprisingly, many Hongkongers have been taking taxis, which may also have colored some opinions. Chatty, engaging and knowledgeable, cabbies in Hong Kong are also avid listeners of discussion programs on local radio. Plus, driving a cab here is akin to investing in a property, so if something affects the local economy, the cabbie will almost certainly have a view.

In the short term, despite numerous road closures and convoluted detours, Hong Kong’s cabbies have been big winners since protestors began blockading motorways and a number of districts in both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, after Chief Executive Leung reneged on a promise to allow universal suffrage for the 2017 elections in the territory.

However, even they are now beginning to worry about the long-term effects if these open-ended protests continue. More road closures mean more detours and traffic jams, and more money on gasoline. In Hong Kong, time is money, time in running out, and few have any idea when it will all end.

The cabbies in their wisdom believed, as did most in the pro-democracy camp, that Leung would not resign by the stroke of midnight on Thursday as had been demanded by many protesters. That proved to be the case. And on Friday morning, Leung warned in a press conference of “very serious consequences” for any protester who breaches any police cordon even as he opened up the possibility of dialogue with the demonstrators.

The word we keep hearing repeated by cab drivers, and indeed from almost everyone, is “chaos,” a notion that has almost as many interpretations as there are people talking about it.

One cabbie born in the 1950s still remembers vividly the deadly Hong Kong of 1967 and says should the impasse continue indefinitely, social chaos inevitably will follow—a scenario which he dreads.

Unsurprisingly, that’s also how the Communist Party of China’s official mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, imagined chaos in an editorial on Thursday. In addition to offering strong backing for Leung—who’s also known to indulge in frequent “chaos” references—the paper warned that “should a minority decide to act against the rule of law, Hong Kong will be in chaos and they will pay a heavy price for it.”

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It’s ironic for such a newspaper to cite Hong Kong’s legal framework when none exists on the mainland. And whenever The People’s Daily says “chaos,” it’s always the worst-case scenario as experienced by “old China” before 1911: warlordism; social unrests; rebellions; territorial concessions; foreign interference; separatism.

In fact, the tone of this People’s Daily editorial is very similar to the one back in 1989 that ran six weeks before the Tiananmen Square massacre. That described the student protest at the time as one meant to “sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity.”

A crackdown on a Tiananmen scale is on many minds, even if no one has the foggiest idea what Beijing is planning. It came up, for instance, on Thursday afternoon when The Daily Beast spoke to a group of pro-government, anti-protest activists in the working-class district of Shum Shui Po in northwest Kowloon.

Wearing blue ribbons, as opposed to the more familiar yellow version used by the pro-democracy protesters, roughly a dozen of these pro-China, middle-aged and older nationalists had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers during rush hour right in the middle of one of the busiest markets in town.

What they lacked in numbers, they certainly made up in volume and passion and at times, it reached the boiling point as they were regularly heckled by passers-by.

As we discussed the local media coverage of the demonstrations with one woman, an old man in a gray shirt who had been hovering in the background suddenly lunged forward, shouting “the Tiananmen Square massacre was the best way to deal with the protesters then—that was chaos. But after the massacre, our country had economic prosperity!”

He was promptly pushed away by 58-year-old Mr. Lee, who realised the gravity of such incendiary statements by adding, “China is not stupid enough to shoot its own people—unlike America.” (Perhaps he was thinking of Ferguson, Missouri?)

Mr. Lee, sporting a green basketball jersey, went on to say ”this century, China will surpass America and America doesn’t like that. So, they’re using Hong Kong to attack China.” He laid the blame firmly on meddling by foreign powers sowing civil disobedience. He went on to predict that Hong Kong will see “economic chaos” should the protests persist.

Another activist standing nearby agreed. A long-haired 60-year-old designer, Mr. Lai, initially said that social chaos cannot occur because “Hong Kongers are well-educated, civilized, top-quality people—even the working class are good people.”

But he later conceded that should the economy suffer in the long run, social chaos could be a “possibility.”

By that point, more people had gathered to listen. A stubbly old man took exception to some of the questioning, then accused this correspondent of being “yellow skin on the outside but a Western traitor inside.” He also began to raise his fist. Upon the advice of others, the interview was cut short.

There are, of course, inevitable doubts about where some of the anti-protest protesters come from. Some are genuinely aggrieved by the disruption caused to the transport system. “Wanting democracy is fine—just don’t affect the rest of us!” said one of them. Others point to the “silent” majority who had never taken part in the protest to demonstrate that the little anti-protest movement is “not alone.” Others seemed to be performing bombastic recitals of their grievances as if they were ill-trained actors or undercover agents.

And these kinds of people—thugs, mercenaries, undercover agents, and paid informants—are exactly the kind of provocateurs that pro-democracy activists say they fear will bring on real chaos.

Hong Kong has not been this polarized for decades. With the pro-democracy protesters digging in and threatening to occupy various government ministries, a rapprochement doesn’t look imminent. The deputy offered by Leung to mediate, Carrie Lam, is also hated by many. Next Monday sees the resumption of a full, proper working week after the National Day holiday. Sunday night has already been talked up as a potential flashpoint between the government and the protesters.

Chaos could be just around the corner.