Hong Kong Protests: Last Night at Neverland

This time everything was in order. Procedure had been followed. A court injunction had been posted, informing those who had illegally occupied Admiralty for 75 days that they were in violation of a court order and that they were required to clear the area. A day earlier the police had made it clear that bailiffs would be arriving tomorrow morning, when the injunction would come in to affect. The barricades were coming down and the roads cleared for traffic.

Details of the operation were made public. At 9am bailiffs would issue their warning; at 10am they would begin to clear the roads; at 10.30am the police would take over the operation; from 11am the area would be on lock down, and no one would be allowed either in or out.

Alongside police vehicles, lorries had been ordered and were ready to move in to remove what would be cleared. Notice was given to the public that certain MTR station exits would be closed along with certain other public or pedestrian points; protestors told that once the operation began they would not be given time to pick up their things and leave, and that they risked arrest should they stay. And journalists, a professional body of people who the police should have more reason to relate to than feel antagonism towards, were warned not to take up positions between protestors and police lines, and informed within what parameters they could expect to move.

As I walked through the occupied areas of Admiralty for the last time I note a pronounced change from other days I had visited. How do I know this will be the last time I walk among these scenes? I know it because I sense it in everyone around me. We are all here, for the last time, not only in solidarity but to savour a unique and, dare I admit, beautiful experience.

To betray the movement for a moment and forget the underpinning politics, the occupy site represents all that we are told Hong Kong is not. As I walk among people I do not know I do not feel alone. People around me seem open, each open to each other’s gaze. Every conversation starts not with guarded etiquette but sincerity of those who feel they have nothing left to fear. In a society where friendships are promoted online, and fees are paid to those who can match our backgrounds and expectations correctly, I discover a community that wants to reach out to our person.

There are stalls erected on no investment but for someone’s time and a few pieces of wood recycled from crates and other litter that this city blindly throws out every day. People apply their skills in printing slogans and making bracelets with a sense of pride, and these are accepted by those who queue eagerly for the privilege with respect. Without money changing hands neither party seems to find reason to feel cheated. As I waited for nearly an hour in line not only did I not hear a groan, but people seemed genuinely happy.

Even when the friend I was with at the time began to question in thickly accented Putonghua those who were working at one of these stalls about what they were doing and why were they giving away their creations when they surely people would be willing to pay for them, I noted he was treated not with suspicion but warmth and generosity. Everyone was a “comrade”.

It reminded me of an earlier encounter I had witnessed a few days previous when I saw a young woman in her early twenties wearing a yellow ribbon rushing from Pacific Place towards United Centre. I was sure she was heading towards the protest zone, probably to listen to a speech. I saw her stopped, quite abruptly and in a rather rude manner, by a well-dressed middle aged man. A few paces behind the man was a woman, elegantly dressed in designer clothes. They were obviously a couple and very well heeled. In Putonghua the man did not so much ask as demand to know how to get to Central. The young woman replied with the utmost courtesy and grace, and even walked him over towards the raised walkway to point out directions. All this time the older woman refused to even look in the direction of the conversation.

As I watched the scene I remembered too the time I saw such a riotous scene of occupation on the roads below where not one glass panel along a street side facade was so much as scratched. Lying beyond this glass wall, and well within the view of anyone looking in from the street, are the signs of among others Burberry, Cartier and Harvey Nicols.

Whilst similar scenes play out other cities around the world, only in the Hong Kong of today could the younger woman be accused of being part of a separatist and anti-Chinese movement fuelled by national and economic envy. This is, after all, the current line: that the occupy protestors are a result not of denied political aspirations, but by the envy of those who have not been able to compete. They are the losers of society who having not been able to realise the China dream are now intent on destroying it. As long as the rising political aspirations of HK’s youth has nothing to do with Beijing insisting not only on a quasi-colonial relationship with the territory, but also that this city, it’s people and it’s history be assimilated in to the approved CCP narrative. This territory, these people and its history happen to be the only home that they have known.

The Admiralty occupation evolved to represent in any ways all that we are told Hong Kong is not meant to be. Students who grow up in competition with their peers created a place where they could work together. In a society that prizes material values, they created a community around those value that are immaterial. In an urban jungle plants were tendered. In a city that takes itself far too seriously people found a place to relive their childhood dreams. If there was disorder it was only in so far as it represented a rejection of the dictated order in which we have become accustomed; if there was threat it was only in that which we do not know. We did not see rioting, but play acting; we did not see riot thugs but rather the Lost Boys. Occupy was, in a strange way, our own Neverland.

Now, as I wandered the streets one final time, I found myself, like so many others I venture that evening, emotionally confused. I was glad that the occupation would end. It had gone on far too long and now served little more than in providing both the opportunity and the excuse for the most simple of arguments against the movement.

I was glad too that the movement felt different from 10 days ago, when people had gathered to defend not only a site but also friends from a police force that, whilst on the whole has acted with restraint, have undeniably also at times badly lost control. I had read that a group of academics would don their university gowns and be present at tomorrow’s clearance. Now I saw observers from NGOs discussing the best vantage points. I too would be back. But I knew it would all be very different. This evening I was enjoying the company of a friend for the very last time. We may have had our fair share of differences, but tonight I would remember the good times and celebrate one last time the shared values that first drew us together. For when I return tomorrow I already knew nothing would greet me but the inanimate sounds of machines.

For in my sadness was also a deep sense of resolution. A page would turn, and a new chapter begin. The messages were all around me. “We will be back” was written everywhere. I noted that lack of an exclamation mark. The movement would continue. With time and space, for sore limbs to rest and cluttered minds to clear, the movement should re-emerge stronger and with a more clear-cut message. I do not believe there has ever been a poll that has privately asked people whether they think that the core values of HK have deteriorated since 1997, and whether the solution is more or less interference from Beijing. The movement should take heart knowing, as I do, what such a poll would show. An occupation may end, but the spirit of the protest will continue.

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