Yesterday afternoon, a colleague called me and told me to get over to Connaught Road right away. "Spiderman is on the traffic overpass, unfurling a pro-democracy banner." I arrived on the scene a few minutes later, and sure enough, there was a small commotion by the side of the busy road. A giant inflatable cushion had been deployed under the overpass, traffic was stopped on one side, and a couple of firemen and police officers with a large cherry picker were ready to move into action. Up on the overpass, Spiderman—aka Matt Pearce, an expat from Birmingham, England, who lately has joined the swelling ranks of Hong Kong's notable demonstrators—stood by a large hanging sign that said, in English and Chinese, "The People Want Democracy Now." He waved a red Hong Kong flag and then peeled off his blue workman's overalls to reveal a Santa Claus suit.
Below, TV cameras whirred (Spiderman made the BBC the next day), and some passers-by stopped to gawk, but most people just moved on. In Hong Kong, public protests and demonstrators are a familiar part of the everyday landscape. There's Long Hair, of course; and Lui Yuk Lin, "Lady Long Hair"; "Ah Ngau," the Bull; and recently a fellow who wears a chicken suit to demonstrations (naturally, the press has dubbed him "Chicken Man") made a big splash at last week's WTO protests for waving a sign that said "WTO Is Worse Than Bird Flu."
Hong Kong has a long tradition of public protest, a tradition that's only gotten stronger since the handover in 1997. (In 2000, the government estimated there had been 6,900 demonstrations since the handover, but most people I talked to think that the figure should be doubled.) In a place where you can't vote, either for your leaders or in a referendum, street protest is almost a reflex for people who want to make their views known. Pretty much any time you walk around downtown—especially at lunch hour and on Wednesdays, when Legco is in session—you could bump into, say, a determined group of pensioners waving placards and complaining about rent hikes, or a bunch of political party minions collecting signatures in support of or opposition to something or other.
The city is compact and dense, so even a few dozen protesters can have an impact. And, with so many years of practice (Long Hair and his band of Trotskyite supporters, the April Fifth Action Group, have been together for around 20 years), Hong Kong's protesters can whip up a street action on a moment's notice. Long Hair, in particular, is a master of rapid-response protest. If, one morning, the chief executive makes a controversial statement or the mainland police arrest a political dissident, he snaps into gear and makes a couple of calls on his mobile. Meanwhile, his comrades affix appropriate paper Chinese character slogans to red bunting, set up microphones and bullhorns, and bingo—instant demo.
When I first started to get to know Hong Kong's street activists, I felt as if I were traveling back in time to my high-school anti-war days in the 1970s—my déjà vu was helped along by the fact that activists like Long Hair are as passionate about 1960s alternative culture as I was. He and his pals are big fans of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and he actually knows who Mario Savio was. The group's protests borrow the giddy, street-theater style of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. Long Hair does things like don a rubber Pinocchio nose to mock lying officials; the Bull creates elaborate giant puppets, à la Bread and Puppet Theater; and at the World Trade Organization talks last week, marching alongside the ranks of grimly disciplined, militant Korean farmers, there was Lady Long Hair toting a homemade Santa Claus cutout with an anti-WTO slogan scrawled on it.
Maybe if Americans didn't have the vote, the protest movement in the United States would still be as lively and strong as it is in today's Hong Kong, where demonstrators stage all-night sit-ins in front of the Central Government Office and sing "We Shall Overcome" in Cantonese. But there's an important reason for Hong Kongers' dedication to people power: Here, it works. The 500,000-strong march for democracy on July 1, 2003, forced the government to withdraw unpopular anti-sedition and security legislation. And the several hundred thousand people who came out the following year, in July 2004, provided the push that shoved unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa into "retirement" the following March. There's no doubt that yesterday's defeat of the political "reform" legislation was made possible by the 100,000 marchers who came out to support universal suffrage on Dec. 4.
In other places in the world, people power is often met by repression, brute force, or worse (see: Tiananmen Square). But Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, though the right to assemble and demonstrate is being chipped away by the government and the police department.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong people's freedom to wave placards, march in the streets, wear rubber noses or Santa suits, and shout their thoughts through bullhorns seems fairly secure, thanks to Hong Kong's judiciary, which, as in the United States, has become the last redoubt of human and civil rights. This summer, the Court of Final Appeal overturned the conviction of some Falun Gong protesters and gave a favorable decision to a challenge mounted by Long Hair against Hong Kong's Public Order Ordinance. The precedents in international law these days favor the public protesters, says Chong Yiu Kwong, the local human rights activist and lawyer who served as legal adviser on Long Hair's case. "The question is whether the Hong Kong judges are brave enough [to follow the precedents in their judgments]." So far, they seem to be standing firm.
The protesters have the high moral ground in such legal battles because Hong Kong's protests, even the huge July ones, have been astonishingly peaceful and nonviolent. That's why I'm a little worried about last week's WTO demonstrations. Last week, about 1,500 militant, highly disciplined Korean farmers not only chanted and marched against the WTO, they also rushed police barricades, and, on the final night, some of them lashed out at the police lines with sticks and metal poles. The tightly wound Hong Kong police force, which had been training for the WTO all year and had been newly outfitted with millions of dollars' worth of riot gear, hit back with water cannons, pepper spray, and tear gas. In New York City or London this might not be a big deal, but in peaceful Hong Kong, it was shocking. Newspaper headlines screamed about "The Siege of Wanchai."
Then the police surrounded about 900 of the protesters on one of the coldest nights of the year and kept them penned in, without blankets, food, toilet access, or water for 11 hours. (Eventually, hundreds were arrested, and 11 Koreans still remain in custody.) Some of the Hong Kong protesters I know were with the Koreans, and they came away from the experience angered by the police treatment and determined to adopt some of the Koreans' confrontational tactics in the future. I hope they don't. And I also hope, for the sake of Hong Kong people and their unique protest culture, that the police put all that shiny new WTO riot gear into permanent storage.