Umbrella Revolution, 31 December 2020

In October of 2014, I visited Hong Kong as a tourist. At the time the Umbrella Revolution had just begun, and it was possible for two relatively uninformed Americans to wander about among the protesters, pausing occasionally to chat with students, something that would be unthinkable today. In 2014, the students we encountered seemed starry eyed but thoughtful and serious. The police were dressed in green uniforms without the accoutrements of riot gear and they acted intent on causing minimal harm. But even to an untrained eye like mine, it was clear that Xi Jingping was just mulling things over and waiting, and that whatever happened, once he decided to step up interference in Hong Kong’s day to day life, nothing short of his demise, and perhaps not even that, would alter the determination of the Chinese government to crush the protests and assert full control over Hong Kong. Perhaps Xi held back thinking the protests would die out on their own; the students would tire and go home. If that was case, he miscalculated. The protests only grew with each intervention from the mainland.

The government response escalated over time. It became more aggressive, brutal, violent. The police now appear in full regalia: riot gear, shields, massive guns firing pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas accompanied by trucks armed with water canons which appear to spray water treated with some sort of chemical compound. And the protesters have responded to this well trained, well deployed and well provisioned armed force with bricks, gas masks, goggles, bandannas, umbrellas, home-made shields, and Molotov cocktails—tactics reminiscent of the first Intifada, when unarmed Palestinians confronted an equally sophisticated army with rocks. Protesters build giant barricades in the streets and on stairwells and in schools out of whatever they can find in an effort to defend themselves from the brutal onslaught of a force that vastly outnumbers them. Certainly, the students in Hong Kong have lost their innocence. In 2014, I photographed a sign on the street that read: “They can’t kill us all.” It seemed hyperbolic in 2014, but in 2020 the government seems altogether willing to kill young protesters and that is what they are doing.

Umbrella Revolution, 3 October 2014

I arrived with my husband in Hong Kong at night. We were tourists about to spend a month in China. Somewhere an entire day had vanished. The hotel room was clean and well appointed. An electronic shade revealed a glass wall exposing the bathroom to the sight lines from the king size bed. Oddly, there was a piece of paper in the middle of the perfectly made bed. It was a letter from our hotel. An apology letter. It seems that the protesters in the center of Hong Kong were a phenomenon that the hotel felt obliged to apologize for. They understood that this was inconvenient for us and wished to provide us with information about the areas in the city to avoid. They were nowhere near the hotel. The next morning I went to the front desk and politely asked to have these areas pointed out to me on the map they provided for us. We set out for those locations after breakfast.

The center of the protest was around Admiralty Station. We got off the train a stop too soon and walked along the Gloucester Road, slowly winding our way uphill and into the center of the protest. The street was closed to traffic and there were students sitting in the middle of the street, talking, on laptops, sleeping. The crowd was fairly thin. This was the morning of October 3rd, a Friday. We stopped to talk to several small groups of young women. They spoke English reasonably well. One of them talked about promises and said with dire earnestness: “I will never trust the government again.”

They explained that many students had left for classes during the day; it was a quiet morning, relatively empty. Everyone would return later they assured us. Meanwhile, they were there holding down the fort. There were medical stations, recycling stations, garbage collection areas. There was an abundance of umbrellas. It began to rain. We were graciously invited under a tarp and left with a bright yellow complimentary umbrella. We were situated on what amounted to an overpass and below us in the near distance we watched as more and more men in uniform gathered. It was not clear what they intended to do. The government had tried to disperse the protesters but seemed to become more cautious about its tactics as the protest grew and international attention began to focus more closely on Hong Kong.

That night we turned on CNN and the protest filled the screen. Just as we had been told, the crowd had swollen to thousands of people. They were at Admiralty and near Wan Chai and in Kowloon across the bay. The report showed a second small group of protesters pushing against the students. They were identified as shop keepers angry with the protest; working people whose businesses were negatively impacted and who wanted the protests to come to an end before they suffered financial ruin. The CNN correspondent reported this at face value. But it was clear, even to me, an outsider who had landed at the airport a mere 24 hours before, that these men, and they were all men, were not shopkeepers but hired thugs organized by the government. Less clear was the position of CNN. Did they accept that these people were in fact local shopkeepers? Would they be stopped from reporting if they suggested otherwise? They seemed to be colluding with government propaganda. A friend’s nephew, working for CCTV (China Central Television), the state broadcasting company in Beijing, later confirmed that these kinds of news events are orchestrated by the government often. Rather than shut down all news of the protests in Hong Kong the government chose to shape the reporting and its content and meaning.

I was told many times that the Chinese in Hong Kong don’t think of themselves as Chinese. Later that was clarified; it meant that they didn’t identify with the Chinese of the mainland, that they looked down upon the mainland. This was not something I could intuit or feel or confirm in any way, especially without access to the language. And it may be that this belief sustains Hong Kong in some way. For the moment, all of these young people were holding the government in Beijing at bay. But it was also clear that the government in Beijing, while biding its time, could not afford to lose this battle and that it had no intention of losing.

I wondered if Beijing would have been wiser to have left Hong Kong entirely alone after the handover. Once a power struggle began, Beijing would have to prevail. Clearly Beijing was chastened by the world’s reaction to Tienanmen and didn’t wish to repeat it, especially not just before the world’s economic leaders were scheduled to arrive in Beijing for the APEC CEO Summit, the gathering of world leaders to discuss Asia-Pacific economic issues. The mantra before the Olympics had been, “No bad news before the Olympics.” Perhaps the same held for APEC. Watching the police in Hong Kong holding hands en masse to form a cordon around the protesting students in an attempt at non-violent crowd control was a curious spectacle.

We moved on to the mainland two days later, arriving in Yángshuò, in Southern China. Even in the countryside there was a building boom. Bicycling around Jiuxián Village we encountered an American, who happened to live on Riverside Drive. He was working in Beijing in a capacity he never quite explained. He talked about the way neighborhoods were being uprooted and moved to large apartment blocks in smaller cities. I had the sense that one advantage of this policy was to break down organic ties developed over time in the hope that the displaced persons would look to the state rather than each other for community. It was National Day in China; a week long holiday and hoards of Chinese tourists flocked to the countryside to take small paddle boats down the Li River. Men played cards and couples drifted on the water, as workers loaded arriving boats onto trucks and hauled them back up river.

In Shanghai, I thought to look up the city’s population. A little over 23 million or nearly four times the population of New York City. But more astounding is the population of China at 1.357 billion. With the U.S. at 318.9 million, China has over one billion more people than the United States.

We visited the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an. The army of soldiers was buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. What explains the conceit of wanting to be buried with over 8,000 terracotta warriors and their horses and chariots? When you see all of these soldiers lined up in a building larger than a typical Armory and think that someone living in 210 BCE had all of these sculptures produced before his death so that he could be buried with them, it’s hard to imagine how it all gone done in a life time. Perhaps some were already existing? We are told that not one soldier’s face matches another’s; each is unique. One is held a bit too far back to discern whether or not that is true. The day after we visited, a hotel guest told us that she met the farmer who discovered the army in 1974. He was signing books for visitors. We were also told that it was a great fortune that the discovery of the terracotta army came so late, just two years before Mao’s death, because he surely would have destroyed the whole lot. It took a while for the government to understand what they had on their hands or how many tourists it would draw, but they know now.

We arrived in Beijing, the final leg of our journey, on the fast train from Tàiyuán. In Tàiyuán, we had a bit of a mishap. We had the manager at the hotel we departed from in Pingyáo that morning write out in Chinese, “Please take me to the train station.” Cab drivers do not speak English, nor can they read pidgin Chinese. The cab driver dutifully drove us to the train station. It looked pretty down. There were crowds of shabbily dressed people sitting outside the station on the ground and it was unclear if they lived there or were waiting for a train. But what seemed unimaginable was that the “fast” train would arrive at this station. As it turned out, Tàiyuán has two train stations; the driver simply took us to the one more familiar to him. With help from a very kind station employee, we found our way to the fast train station. The contrast was startling. The station was a tall glass structure with a grand approach and an immaculate interior. There were two levels and station employees in blue uniforms with their hair pulled tightly into chignons, would glide by, perfectly still, on Segway PTs like life-size electric dolls. I often had the sensation in China that the future had arrived long ago and that the United States had been left behind in the present. Even something as simple as shopping made me feel that way.

One could liken the Apple Store in Hong Kong to a modern day palace and much the same can be said of the grandeur of all of the other brand name shops Westerners would recognize. And in keeping with China’s disdain for intellectual property rights, sellers of pirated or knock off IPhones sit on the sidewalk directly in front of the Apple Store doing a brisk business completely unmolested. And there is no shortage in this “communist” country of people exiting stores with enormous shopping bags. The stores on the mainland, in Shanghai and Beijing were just as grand. They made Madison Avenue look downright quaint.

That China has accomplished so much in the past few decades is indisputable. I could see the advantages of autocracy. Long range planning is possible. A hundred year horizon is thinkable because the government will not be up for election every four years. There is no anxiety about plans being upended or overturned. If China decides to build a fast train, then it gets done. They do not suffer the inconvenience of individual property rights or expectations of fair treatment. They simply decree what will happen and then move forward. It’s grim on the one hand and on the other, they accomplish astounding things that will never be possible in the United States.

Beijing is grey with pollution most days and I wore a Vog dust mask every time I left the hotel. Our friend’s nephew took us to dinner at a popular Peking Duck restaurant. He acknowledges to his dismay that he has made decisions as a younger person that are not especially wise. He went to China to work as a journalist. He realizes now that he might have liked a job in the Foreign Service but can’t imagine being accepted with a job at CCTV on his resumé. He was hired to help the station with new media and online networking and is amused by the amount of time spent trying to keep him in the dark about what is happening at the station. He imagines that the Chinese want him to go home and report that Chinese television is just like CNN or MSNBC. He tells us that his colleagues are incredibly relaxed. Unlike in American journalism, no one has to hurry to get a scoop or compete to get a story out first. The government decides what the story is, how it will be told and when. He recounts that one of his colleague’s parents actually wanted to join the communist party. Of the population of 1.357 billion in China, only about 90 million people officially belong to the party. Those parents were rejected because “they are too poor.” The party desires the upwardly mobile middle class as members. He tells us that there are a lot of shady ex-pats around. “Anyone with a heartbeat who can speak English can get a job here.” He hopes that doesn’t reflect badly on him. On the anniversary of Tienanmen he is asked to look over all of the international news and give a summary of how the anniversary is reported in newspapers and online blogs around the world. He describes to us the deep dismay at the station when he reports that news of the anniversary is on the front page of many newspapers and that the coverage is not particularly favorable toward the government in Beijing. They then behave as if he had written those reports himself.

Tienanmen Square is enormous. With all of the reporting on the massacre at Tienanmen I never properly understood its scale. We decided to visit Mao Tse Tung. It seemed like something one ought to do if one had gotten all the way to China. I began asking which of the buildings on Tienanmen is Mao’s Mausoleum. No one seemed to understand what I was asking. I don’t speak Chinese but I assume that absolutely everyone in China has heard of Mao, even if most of the visitors to Tienanmen on a given day have no idea what happened there in 1989. I am finally told by someone in the tourist office that no one can understand what I am saying because I am not pronouncing his name properly. She repeats it several times. The difference seems terribly subtle to me, but evidently, not to a Chinese speaker. I have to leave my camera in a building across an eight lane boulevard from the Mausoleum.

We get on line. Visiting hours are from nine to noon. We have already passed through a security gate to get onto the square. It’s much like airport security. The line snakes up to the front of the building, where we diverge into two groups and head into two squat buildings on either side of the main staircase and entry, where we go through yet another security check and where some Chinese are physically frisked. This does not appear to be a treatment meted out to tourists. Upon emerging from the security check there is a stand with bouquets of yellow flowers that can be bought and laid at the feet of a grand statue of Mao in the lobby of the Mausoleum. Our journalist friend tells us these yellow flowers are removed and recycled back to the vending area to be resold. After the laying of flowers a hush falls over the crowd.

On the occasion of our visit, we were the only non-Chinese in sight. We were told that the visitors are primarily from outside Beijing. People from the countryside and smaller cities. One doesn’t often have occasion to visit a corpse outside a funeral parlor. They tend to be a few days gone and then they are buried or cremated or perhaps cast out to sea. This body had been lived in for 83 years and had been vacated for 38 years at the time of our visit. I was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I was on line to visit the corpse of the greatest mass murder of the twentieth century. By some estimates the total number of people whose deaths can be attributed to Mao is 30 million. That makes him hands down the winner of the contest, with Hitler at roughly 12 million, Stalin at around 7 million and Tojo at approximately 5 million. In fact, the three runners up together can’t hold a candle to Mao. Clearly, this was not the reason why all of the people around us were there.

We were diverted to the left and into a room with an enormous glass vitrine. Inside of it, an illuminated and ghoulish face seemed to hover slightly above a reclining body. It was hard to get a good look. He seemed close, yet very far from us. People around us wiped their eyes. I felt an enormous urge to laugh. We were shunted by quickly, and within seconds emerged out in the open air behind the building, trapped between two stalls filled with Mao tchotchkes and many photographs, but none of the reclining Mao we had just seen.

On our last night we returned to Tienanmen to photograph the square at night. It was closed to the public. Cordoned off in anticipation of APEC. A larger than life vase of flowers was well lit, a giant centerpiece on a giant square with no memory of its past to speak of. As the protests continued in Hong Kong, I wondered if it would be possible to erase memory in Hong Kong with the same effectiveness as it had been erased on the mainland.