七一傳統 | The 1st July Legacy
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 5:19pm on 25th July 2019
Protesters on Queensway, Admiralty heading to the Legislative Council, 1 July 2019.
(Please scroll down for English version)
The 1st July Legacy
by John Batten
The commentary about Hong Kong’s extradition legislation and rallies in local and overseas news media and online platforms has been extraordinary. Opinion, advice, analysis and commentary has been exhaustive – and, now I add a few more lines.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day on 1st July was for a few years after 1997 just a perfunctory public holiday. But everything changed after the huge 1st July march of 2003, the first public gathering of people after the city’s shared trauma of SARS, Leslie Cheung’s suicide, and amid vigorous debate about and public opposition to the introduction of Article 23 legislation. On that day, over 500,000, but – let’s be honest - closer to a million, people took to the streets to vent their frustration with the government (sounds familiar?). And, amidst government dithering (sounds familiar?), the people turned out again in huge numbers exactly one year later.
The huge number of people taking to the streets in 2003 surprised the government, who were so dumbstruck no public comment was made until many days after the march (sounds familiar?). But it was in Beijing that fundamental attitudes to the administration of Hong Kong shifted. The story goes at the time, that Beijing had been assured by Tung Chee-hwa and his officials that this planned march would be small and inconsequential. On the day, however, this advice was seen to be so drastically wrong, almost deluded, that it patently demonstrated that the Tung administration were completely out of touch with public opinion (sounds familiar?). Within days of this perceived hoodwink, Beijing sent their own people down to Hong Kong to find out, and with good forensic investigative diligence, they talked, not just to the government and its supporters, but met academics, business leaders and key members of the democratic camp. They really wanted to know why people marched in such numbers; they wanted to know about Hong Kong’s grievances.
From that day, the Liaison Office – Beijing’s eyes and ears in Hong Kong – kept closer tabs on the Hong Kong government. However, it seems they haven’t – in the light of the past month’s events - kept a similar vigilance on public opinion. This is where ‘one country, two systems’ is applied – the Liaison Office generally deals with government and politics, and domestic issues and opinions of the public are dealt with Hong Kong government officials and its own bodies.
Carrie Lam has been labelled arrogant for not meeting the public and dealing with the five demands that protesters have given the government to address (e.g. completely withdraw the extradition legislation; set-up an enquiry into police actions in Admiralty on 12 June 2019, etc). However, rather than arrogance (although it may be a factor!), government intransigence to meet protesters is a directive from the Liaison Office. This refusal to meet protesters follows a similar pattern seen during the Umbrella protests and is part of a determined hardline attitude towards the pro-democracy camp that included the disqualification of elected legislators for technically taking incorrect oaths for the current Legislative Council.
Such hardline tactics by pro-government supporters have been quietly noted by the public over the last five years. And, any attack on Hong Kong’s remaining democratic institutions is seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s core values. The public has a long list of grievances with the government, ranging from the smallest (such as persistent double-parking by chauffeur-driven cars in crowded traffic black spots) to fundamental livelihood issues (such as overcrowded public hospital wards and long waiting-lists for public housing). The introduction of the extradition legislation was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ – an unacceptable policy that shocked the public into taking their own action to publicly vent displeasure and opposition. Starting on 9 June, people marched in huge numbers on the streets, and then marched again and again – a smart continuing reinforcement of opposition knowing that government thinks public opinion will wane over time.
Since 2005, the now-annual July 1st march has been recognized by the government as a necessary day of afternoon road closures, but nothing too much to worry about – grievances may be aired but radical policy reversals were never forced by protesters. Everyone went back to work on July 2nd and got on with it. Even the Falun Gong, who usually organize an impressive brass band parade on the morning of July 1st can be ignored.
On 1st July 2019, I marched from Causeway Bay and at Queensway had a choice to continue straight to Chater Garden, the official end of the march, or, turn right towards the Legislative Council and, as one sign said, “support students, this way”. I turned right, and later had an excellent view of police withdrawing from protecting the LegCo entrance and lobby; and then watched as some protesters smashed their way in. I enquired about the reaction of those around me who were also watching. A bank employee said he was “neutral”, a retiree felt “half half” – there was little outright condemnation of the destruction. This reaction was common, according to surveys done a few days later. The public had much stronger, over-riding, immediate reasons to be angry – as again expressed on banners displayed a week later at the 7 July march starting in Tsim Sha Tsui: “No riot, only tyranny”; “Police shot our kids”; “Police shot the journalists”; “Stand up for Hong Kong”; “5 Demands ar”; “Amnesty for July 1st LegCo activists”; “Together we stand”.
After 2019, Hong Kong’s annual 1st July march has a new benchmark – and it is not something we wish repeated.
So, start talking?
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly on 19 July 2019. Translated from the original English by Aulina Chan.