Podcast: The Detail

Tanks at the border, umbrellas at the ready

The Detail today looks at why Hong Kong residents continue to stage mass protests, in spite of winning a major battle over an unpopular extradition law. What else are they angry about? 

They’re educated and focused on business – and would prefer to keep their heads down and working while political developments swirl around them.

But not any more. Hong Kong residents know they’re losing their freedoms to the Chinese government – which is no longer as remote as they’d like it. But they’re not asking for independence. The massed protests we’ve seen, against incremental losses in democracy, are essentially fighting to retain the one-country, two-systems dogma, which was promised in 1997 when the British colonial government packed up and left.

New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady, whose outspokenness about China has made her a political target, says Hong Kong people feel China hasn’t done what it agreed to do, and they’re really angry about it.

“There’s been a culture in Hong Kong of a focus on business, and don’t get too involved in politics. So that’s what’s so remarkable about these protests, is that finally people have had enough, they recognise that it’s a fight to the death – the death of their society.”

Brady says Hong Kong residents know that things are getting really desperate now and they really have to stand up and be counted – and she says it’s amazing to see the broad range of people speaking up.

It’s not just angry youth – we’ve seen the mums, lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers, and government officials protest. “This movement has broad support,” says Brady.

In some quarters it’s being painted as students versus the police, but there have also been rallies in support of Hong Kong police.

Brady says there are very credible reports that there are Chinese police working inside the Hong Kong police force, Chinese plain clothes officers have infiltrated, and are behind the violence.

“So there’s deep Chinese infiltration in the security forces in Hong Kong. But officially it’s the Hong Kong police who are responding.”

Police stand off with protesters in the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Freelance Hong Kong journalist Vaudine England says there’s a strong awareness the police are piggy in the middle here.

“They’ve been left holding the can so to speak and the can is tear gas. There’s been an absence of leadership from the government – they’re kicked it to police to uphold law and order - dropped them in it.”

England says nobody is coming out and saying they think their chief executive – Carrie Lam - is marvellous.

Pro-China political groups in Hong Kong are also really annoyed with Carrie Lam because the protests make them all look bad, and will cut into their vote.

England says these huge peaceful rallies – the last one this past weekend attracted a crowd estimated by organisers to be 1.7 million strong - seem to make no difference to the government.

“Where is the government?” she asks. “They keep parroting these lines they get presumably from their bosses in Beijing … there is genuine deep seated anger.”

England says there are obvious changes like outside government interference over who gets what job. “Very senior university positions have been withheld from those known to have pro-democracy sentiments,” she says. One civil servant she spoke to at the Victoria Park protest told her that in the past there were rules, and they followed the rules. Now there’s a feeling you do what the boss wants. “And the boss is probably there because they’ve shown some loyalty to the Chinese- backed government.”

In terms of being a journalist, she says, there’s a lot of looking over your shoulder, a lot of self-censorship – and there have been physical attacks on reporters.

“It sounds odd saying British colonial rule was better.”

Trucks and armoured personnel carriers parked at the Shenzhen Bay stadium on the Hong Kong border. Photo: Getty Images

Meanwhile there’s a massive show of force just across the border in China of tanks, armed police and personnel – carrying out anti-riot exercises. “These activities are meant to intimidate and to warn the people of Hong Kong what could happen,” Brady says.

“Protests in Hong Kong have had massive international interest and support, and China understands the danger and consequences of using violence to crush the protests,” she says.

“They’re trying every other possible means to try and bring the movement under control. But I don’t think it’s going to succeed, because the Hong Kong people have really had enough. We have seen protest after protest every few years when Beijing has tried to implement yet another law that will drastically change the level of freedom. Hong Kong is very much an outpost on the edge of what is now an extremely autocratic society under (leader) Xi Jinping.

“Xi Jinping has taken off the smiling mask and we’re seeing that in their domestic politics and their international politics.”

Meanwhile the date to watch is October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It’s assumed Beijing will want the streets cleared for that.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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