Thursday, July 01, 2004

 
Chimes of Freedom
When your day begins with an early morning phone call from someone telling you that they've had a religious experience but are now considering offing themself, you can only hope it gets a little better- for both of you.
I think my caller could use some serious therapy, but that's another story, and not one for this blog. And I decided my therapy would be a dose Hong Kong's second annual July 1 public demonstration for universal sufferage, democracy and free speech. Not coincidentally, July 1 also marks the anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Five hundred thousand citizens took the the streets last year to remind Beijing that Deng Xiaopeng had promised "one country, two systems" (as in two political systems)for the motherland and child reunion. The 2003 march was sparked by a Beijing-proposed anti-sedition National Security Bill (commonly referred to as Article 23) and the protest became the largest antigovernment demonstration in Hong Kong's history.
It was also the largest pro-democracy protest in China since Tienamen Square in 1989, but unlike Tienamen Square the July 1 protest was peaceful and Beijing blinked. Article 23 was shelved.
But this year Beijing has tried to turn the screws in other ways, including a further delay of instituting direct elections and with crude and tawdry behind-the-scenes tactics that have - among other muzzles - caused the sudden resignations of three popular pro-democracy radio talk show hosts, one of whom also resigned his legislatative position citing anonymous threats to his family.
I had to start work at 4 pm and the march began at 3 pm, so I decided to see what I could of the opening acts. Not really knowing the city yet and only the subway stop where the hub-bub was supposed to be near, I decided to follow a guy with a large pot belly, shaved head, a gold chain, Rolex, goatee, an LA Dodgers T-shirt w/ Taz and Bugs and clutching a bullhorn when he exited at the stop. No one on the crowded train was carrying placards, though some were loaded down with food and beverage containers indicating that they were in for some sort of long haul. But I thought the bullhorn was a better clue.
Turns out I didn't need him. Emerging from the air conditioned subway tunnel into Hong Kong's 90-some degree heat and 87% humidity, I found blocked-off streets and a seemingly endless throng of people all heading in one direction. My last first-hand experience with any kind of public protest involved tear gas and a riot in Boulder, Colorado in 1970 and this was decidedly different and refreshing.
In very Chinese-harmonious fashion it was orderly, dignified, polite and upbeat. Even the cops seemed, if not thrilled, at least pleasant and several light years removed from their edgy, dark-lensed, white-knuckled Western counterparts.
I dodged several interview requests from local journalists looking for "foreign reaction" and forked over a total of HK$100(US$12.82) for two pro-democracy T-shirts, neither of which I can read though Chinese coworkers later reassured me that they don't say "I went to the pro-democracy march but all I got was this lousy T-shirt" or "I'm a stupid foreigner wearing a T-shirt I can't read." But mostly I just watched, sweated and smiled a lot.
T-shirts, banners and stickers adhered to chests and arms seemed to be the main media, along with bullhorns. Two shirts in particular almost made me misty-eyed. One was a Dylan-inspired, home-spun job with "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?" carefully printed in black felt-tip marker and another with a simple US flag proclaimed: "America does it better."
Well, not lately, I thought. But the sentiment was nice.






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