All images by Tommy Walker.
Before June 2019, the scenes on the streets of Hong Kong couldn’t have been more different. An international hub for visitors all over the world and a local population of over 7 million, Hong Kong was its typical self, a high-energy city packed with people. From the worn streets and creaking buildings of Kowloon to the impressive skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, the super-city showed a story of two worlds.
That world, day after day, included millions of Mainland Chinese visitors filling up the sidewalks. The influx of tourists from Mainland China has been a regular occurrence since the handover in ’97, but before June, things were easier. In 2018, the new bullet train opened from Beijing to Austin Station, Kowloon, that takes only 7 hours to arrive. This was coupled with the unveiling of the controversial Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge—55km long and $18 billion in costs—providing visitors with easier access than ever to the western-influenced bright lights of Hong Kong.
Today, six months after the well-publicised unrest in Hong Kong, visitors from the mainland have dropped dramatically. In October 2019 alone, there was a 45.9% decrease from the year prior. The streets of Hong Kong have been replaced with public outcries, graffiti freedom slogans, and damage to roads and buildings. Mainlanders are turning away from Hong Kong not only for fear for their safety, but because it’s no longer an attractive destination for business and leisure. Mainland Chinese stores have been purposely attacked whilst some quarters of the city show stark remnants from intense demonstrations.
Yet, one man from the mainland decided to visit Hong Kong despite the current social climate. Christopher from Beijing was a curious tourist on a long weekend trip. Finding a Mainland Chinese citizen at the frontline of a protest was a rarity.
At the tail end of the seemingly never-ending story of the besieged Poly University, twelve days after it all began, it was rumoured there were twenty remaining protesters inside. A chilly-windy night in the district of Hung Hom, Kowloon, crowds gathered at one of the guarded entrances on Science Museum Path, showing their support for those remaining.
At the frontline—whether it be manned with protesters, police, or press—it’s unusual to see someone without anything to keep them busy. As I stood behind the barricade tape and the stationed riot police, to my left was a man with his face half-covered, silently observing. The man was taller than me and stared intriguingly towards the police. There was a sense he was a little out of place. He wasn’t dressed in the typical protester black-clad attire, nor did he have any equipment that showed he was a reporter. He wasn’t heckling nor chanting with the crowd.
I questioned whether he was a protester, but he shook his head. A scarf covered his nose and mouth whilst he donned a baseball cap.
“I’m a tourist from Beijing,” he answered quietly as his eyes scoured for onlookers.
It was apparent he was keen to stay anonymous. I turned off my live-stream which was focused on the police, and we began to chat.
“I came here for four days and I’m leaving tomorrow. I didn’t know what was happening here (outside PolyU) as I walked past.”
Christopher was ambiguous about why he had visited Hong Kong at this time, but with his English being at a good level (English isn’t widely spoken in Mainland China), it was apparent he’d had his share of travelling.
“I love my country but I love the west too. I studied English Literature at University and I live in Beijing working in business.”
Taking his word for it, I pushed to learn more about the Chinese perceptions of Hong Kong and relations with the U.S.A.
“Most people in China think protesters in Hong Kong are dangerous rioters.”
We were on the back of the District Elections, where pro-democracy seats had been overwhelmingly victorious over pro-establishment seats. Internally, it was a big victory for protesters in Hong Kong, showing the people are still with pro-democracy groups. A record amount of people voted—nearly 3 million people.
“In China, they still haven’t reported the results. All the reports are that the elections had finished. There is no information on what seats were won. If it was the other way around and more pro-Beijing seats had been secured, it would have been reported in the news.”
Censorship in Mainland China has been widely publicised. Access to the Internet outside is prohibited, famously controlled by ‘The Great Firewall of China’.
“Inside China, it’s not completely a communist society; people can grow their businesses and make money. But we know, it’s controlled and monitored by the government—security, property, politics, and the Internet.”
“If there were one thing you could change in China, things available outside of your country, what would it be?”
“For me, the censorship of the Internet is the one thing I would change.”
Protests, Police, and Pork
I paused for a second to realise the potential of what that would do. An open Internet for China, over 1 billion people with access to different accounts of history, like Tiananmen Square.
“Would there be a revolt or an uprising if Chinese people learned about alternative accounts to history, like Tiananmen Square?”
“The only situation Chinese people were to revolt was if the economy collapsed. Chinese people are very practical but if basic life was destroyed, the other things would follow.”
The trade war between Washington and Beijing is a rolling international breaking story, with reports that the economy in China is at its slowest growth since 1993.
“What is the feeling like inside China, what is the reaction to this trade war?”
“You know, the price of pork has gone very high and we are worried about that. The trade war is a factor behind that. Most of the Chinese people are very worried; there are fewer people out at restaurants for supper. Menu prices are rising very quickly since the trade war.”
Christopher goes on:
“The price for a house, they were not like this before … you know the prices have always been high. Many people are still being silent about this. There are still many rich people in China but most of us are struggling. Small businesses are feeling the effects, it is a difficult time and everyone knows that. It’s a fact the economy is slowing down. Chinese people don’t know what really is happening here in Hong Kong, but they know ‘something’ is going on.”
The numbers had increased around us. More protesters were turning up to voice their support. The crowds start chanting louder, which naturally broke the momentum of our conversation. Christopher was keen to talk by then. He felt comfortable speaking to me, and it was clear he wanted to talk about the issues despite concern in his voice.
“You know, Chinese people are renowned for ‘secret talk’ like whispering. We have a way to find out what is going on. It is not the majority but in the big cities, people think that something is wrong here (in Hong Kong). If you’re living in a rural area you only have one source of news, the CCTV (China Central Television) that has over one billion viewers. Most people (in China) think the U.S.A is the ‘big boss’ behind the protests in Hong Kong.”
On the Ground, Going Home
As we walked around to get some space from the growing crowd, we discussed in general life in Hong Kong and life reporting on the frontline.
“I didn’t know what this was (protest outside PolyU) until I walked past. I’ve never seen this before.”
“Are you worried about going home after seeing this?”
“Yes, because I will get questioned why I visited Hong Kong during this time. They may check my phone records and I could be arrested if they find things they don’t like.”
Things in Mainland China are known to be different. Reporting on sensitive issues can lead to arrest or worse.
“Have you been arrested before?”
“No, I haven’t. But I know someone who was arrested before for bringing alternative historical material from Taiwan. He was jailed for several years.”
We’d already been talking for well over thirty minutes, amid the increasing crowds, vocal chanting, and the anticipating of movement from within PolyU. At that point, protesters holding signs and heckling directly at the police had escalated a little, changing the mood. As this all materialised, I lost Christopher to the crowd.
Yet the discussion was clear. There’s a growing concern inside the mainland on the slowing economy whilst the tunnel-vision view of Hong Kong has already been established with the majority. Christopher’s bravery to speak about this in the middle of demonstrations made it evident: his thoughts have to be concealed back home, but it makes you wonder how many more whispers in Mainland China are desperate to be heard.
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