Saturday, July 10, 2004

July 12, 2004

The beginning of the first of July was promising enough.

It was close to three in the morning in Hong Kong and everyone inside an enchanting bar in Sai Kung imaginatively called Cheers was waiting for the start of the2004 European Soccer Championship semifinal match between host nation Portugal and The Netherlands.

Portugal had never advanced beyond the semis and the Dutch, who had won the European title in 1988, was the seeded team. But never underestimate the magic that can be summoned by the home team (and likewise never overestimate it). The Czech Republic and Greece (which would eventually win the title) were to meet the day after but greater interest was generated by the match at hand. The Netherlands was the only football superpower left in the celebrated competition and perhaps this was why everyone in Cheers - mostly Asian with a few Europeans - seemed to be rooting for Portugal.

Two hours later, after Cristiano Ronaldo headed home a corner kick and Nuno Maniche drove a spectacular curving 22-meter strike into the Dutch team's goal, and after an unfortunate own-goal by Jorge Alvarade, the final whistle sounded and Lisbon's Jose Alvalade Stadium erupted with jubilation. The score was 2-1. Portugal was in the finals.

By noontime, despite temperatures reaching up to a suffocating 35 degrees Celsius, thousands upon thousands of people dressed in white turn up at the Hong Kong shopping district of Causeway Bay armed with water bottles, hand towels, digital cameras and mobile phones - along with homemade placards demanding the right of Hong Kong citizens to universal suffrage and direct elections.

The mammoth demonstration on July 1 was a show of collective force marking the seventh anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China. Hong Kong police said the rally reached a peak of 300,000; organizers estimated up to 530,000 attended the protest event. Whatever the final tally was, the sum was undoubtedly massive and festive.

Thousands kept spilling out of Wan Chai district and Tin Hau - converging first in Victoria Park to be literally counted before marching on - very well-behaved - to the main government building a few kilometers away. Young people, old couples, market vendors in white shirts, business people in white shirts, mothers and kids in white shirts, toddlers in white shirts in strollers pushed by fathers in white shirts - everyone fanning their faces, talking animatedly and squinting at the brightness of the day.

Around 650 protesters were treated for various heat-related illnesses. Every few meters you would come across medical staff administering first aid on a young or middle-aged or senior Hong Kong person sprawled on the sidewalk, face red and breathing with difficulty. And still they went on.

It was a remarkable parade of discipline, enthusiasm and determination and a very interesting display of Hong Kong-style mass protest. The colossal demonstration passed through make-shift stalls and booths and small platforms on the sidewalks where loudspeakers blared out the speeches and songs being delivered live by politicians and activists belonging to the Democratic party, to trade unions, student groups, Christian groups, religious cults and Trotskyites. It was a marketplace-like atmosphere where people from the sidewalk installations seemed to be selling their political wares with familiar marketplace loudness, doggedness and gaiety. It was very . . . Hong Kong.

"Many of the people who joined today's protest activity were apolitical. They do not normally go to protests. In fact they disdain demonstrations and they dislike activists. But July 1 has become steadily different for them. Or maybe they have become steadily different because of July 1," said Zhang, one of the founders of the Civil Human Rights Front, the group which organized the protest event, and who invited me to walk with the rally. "My mother used to comment negatively whenever I joined political rallies. But look at her now, all dressed in white like everyone else. She arrived on time and she intends to finish the rally," Zhang remarked as we strode past a stall giving away protest leaflets and selling hilarious balloons printed with the caricature of Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing-installed chief executive of Hong Kong.

"When we first demonstrated on the same issues in 1997, colleagues said about 100 had joined us. I think it was actually closer to just 50 people. I am have not been active in the Front for some years now. The recent rallies are impressive," Zhang told me with a thoughtful wrinkle on his brow. "Ironically, while the numbers of July 1 rallies have increased dramatically, the political frame of the event has also become quite exclusionary."

We had gone over the subject previously - over home-cooked hot-pot summits, over Xinjiang-style lamb barbecue, over braised duck's tongue and more recently over Chinese beer sipped from Suzhou chicken bowls. Zhang, an intense young libertarian born and raised in Hong Kong and who now finds himself working more frequently from Beijing, is hyper-passionate and at the same time cold and calculating. His political work has been tempered forcefully by reality, which somehow has expanded his political vision exponentially. A contradiction just like his birthplace.

"The chauvinism of Beijing is obvious, but for the observant, so is the chauvinism of Hong Kong," said Zhang. I nod slowly as we near the rally's final destination and march past the imposing building of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and a curious political vista. Right beneath the Asia-Pacific headquarters of HSBC sat - as if they were the foundation of the gigantic institution of global finance - the new dispossessed of the new global economy: thousands of foreign domestic helpers seated in clusters on the concrete floor, eating from plastic bags and chatting and glancing at the rallyists chanting "Return power to the people!"

I look at the faces surrounding me; I stop walking. I step out of the column of my group and step out of the march and look at the faces of other marchers. I walk a few meters more and look back. It is all the same. It seems as if no one wants to look to their right despite the equally noisy din and the obvious panorama of the migrant workers.

"What is prosperity for if we cannot choose our leaders?" I recalled a speaker on a sidewalk in Wan Chai asking the moving crowd rhetorically. A most fundamental question. And yet I couldn't help ask myself as I walked past the HSBC scene: and what is a vote for if we cannot assure the wellbeing of all our brethren? What is the meaning of political freedom without education for the young, without sufficient food on the table and with only one half of the parents present to tend to their children because the other half is forced by economic deprivation to slave away abroad?

1. "Dutch go down; host Portugal winds 2-1 to make Euro 2004 final," Sports Illustrated, July 1, 2004.
2. "Euro 2004: Portugal vs. Holland semi-final preview, Bill Hutchinson, World Soccer.
3. "Voting with their feet," Chen Wu, Business Week Online, July 7, 2004.
4. "Hong Kong's drive for democracy isn't happening in a bubble," Michael Elliott, Time Magazine, July 5, 2004.

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