Ex-resident of Hong Kong Dale Anne McAulay talks to migrants from Hong Kong, living in Manchester, about the current political struggles in the region.
As the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong continues its struggle for a more inclusive politics, a divide has formed in the region. Yellow is the colour adopted by the pro-democracy protestors and their supporters, who support the introduction of universal suffrage. They wear yellow ribbons, which are also tied around railings and trees while singing an appropriate protest song.
Wearing blue ribbons are those that show their support for the police and the authorities. They wish for order to return to the city and for roads and buildings shut by protests to be re-opened, and have also held counter protests in Hong Kong.
Manchester has the second largest Chinatown in the UK and the third largest in Europe. One in eight students at the University of Manchester is Chinese. As a previous resident and worker in Hong Kong, I wished to find out what other Hong Kong migrants felt about the current troubles. Speaking to the Chinese community in Manchester, with links to Hong Kong, reveals that this Yellow and Blue divide has also been established here.
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Recent unrest in Hong Kong (HK) began with protestors trying to stop a controversial bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. The first relatively small demonstration against the bill by pro-democracy protestors was on 15 March 2019 at the Central Government Complex. On New Year’s Day protest tens of thousands of people attended a pro-Yellow ribbon demonstration in the centre of Hong Kong, with Police detaining around 400 people. Critics believe that China would use the bill to extradite political opponents to China, where their legal protections cannot be guaranteed, but this bill appears to only be the catalyst to start a much more serious protest.
The Hong Kong demonstrators are seeking five demands:
- Withdrawal of the extradition bill
- Independent probe into the use of force by police
- Amnesty for arrested protestors
- A halt to categorising the protests as riots
- Implementation of universal suffrage
The extradition bill was introduced in April 2019 and was eventually withdrawn on October 23, but the other four demands still remain. The use of yellow and blue ribbons stretches back to previous pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014, known as the Umbrella Revolution.
Violent confrontations in Hong Kong
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997 when it was handed over to China under the principle of “one country, two systems”, which guaranteed rights in the ex-colony such as free speech and freedom of assembly until 2047. The protests have continued as many protestors believe that Beijing is slowly eroding the city’s autonomy.
Anger against the police and the government grew when pepper spray, tear gas, and batons were used against the protestors on June 12. This led to some protestors countering with violent acts such as the throwing of bricks and petrol bombs and eventually barricading themselves in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The protestors say they are defending themselves against excessive violent police action such as misuse of teargas by international standards, use of live rounds, which included a student being shot in the stomach at close range, and cannon sprays of corrosive blue dye. The police say that their actions are necessary to combat the violent actions of the protestors, which they claim include stabbing a police officer, setting a man on fire and the making of bombs.
Manchester Blue ribbons
Dave, Lee, Sue, and Atom are part of the same Chinese community group in the Greater Manchester Area. They are all over 50 years old and have asked for their names to be changed to protect their identities as they fear repercussions.
They have all lived in Hong Kong, are middle aged, have experienced Hong Kong under British rule, and consider themselves economic refugees to the UK. They came to the UK, in most cases, with their parents. They consider themselves part of the Blue ribbon group. Their experience of colonial rule has influenced their colour choice.
Lee, who was born in 1957, recalls the discrimination towards locals and the poverty that meant that her family could not afford to send her to school.
Dave believes that there was corruption during British rule, and there was agreement from the group. He says:
“The British commander was the biggest corruptor of them all… we do not support the Chinese government, the way they have done some things…..but in the last 40 years Hong Kong has become so advanced and we must admire it.
“We are not 100% comfortable with what they [Chinese government] have done…..we have been living in the two systems and we have to do whatever we can to keep that but if this [violence] carries on then this gives China every reason to cancel it and go back to one system.”
Blue ribbons on violence and the police
A recent resident of Hong Kong, Sue moved to the UK not long ago. When discussing the widely viewed video about the police ignoring thugs beating protestors on the underground Mass Transit Railway, she says there was “not enough police to deal with the situation… there were only a few police and too many people. I do not believe that the police would turn their back. They were waiting for more support.”
Sue still has sympathy for the pro-democracy protestors, saying “not all are violent….some police cannot control their temper……hard to say who is right or wrong!”
Dave calls himself a Blue supporter now, “especially after the violence”. He believes there is an intellectual snobbishness characterising the divide, saying:
“Protesters say that Blue people are not as educated…they want the people in the Yellow corner to feel good about themselves.” He defends the police, saying that “they were undertrained…only 3000 police have had riot training…they must use gas…they have nothing else”. He believes that, “nothing can be achieved by [the protestors] carrying on this kind of violence.”
The Blue supporters and the Hong Kong, now regularly call the protestors “rioters”. Atom believes that the “rioters change into civilian clothes” so that it will look like the police are beating up civilians and many “medics and press” are not really what they claim.
Manchester’s Yellow ribbons
Manchester supporters of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors marched through the city on 23 November 2019, many carrying the old British colonial flag. On the march were Miranda and Andrew (names changed) from Hong Kong who are both in their twenties and have never experienced British colonial rule. Both are currently studying/working in Manchester. They consider themselves part of the Yellow ribbon group.
When asked why they were carrying the colonial flag and not the current Hong Kong flag, Miranda replied “Hong Kong misses the time under British rule: times back then were good.”
Many of the students carrying the flags were born after British rule in Hong Kong ended in 1997. Miranda feels that “the truth is that Hong Kong is becoming Chinese and we want Hong Kong to honour the Sino-British agreement…..China is suppressing our way of life.”
A statement released by the pro-Yellow marchers on 23 November made reference to Britain’s role in the conflict:
”As one of the signatories (of the Sino-British joint declaration), the United Kingdom has an indispensable role in the maintenance of the ‘One-Country, Two-Systems’ principle and the promise to an unchanged way of life in Hong Kong for 50 years. With the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) blatant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, we most sincerely hope that the UK government can take a much firmer line against China and condemn the PRC for disrespecting the commitment and promise towards the maintenance of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Yellow ribbons on violence and the police
Andrew believes that “most of the Hong Kong protestors are peaceful and rational compared to the police…. Carrie Lam cannot represent Hong Kong and cannot serve Hong Kongers sincerely and heartfeltly” and “ignore the voice of the people and promote the political violence in her response to people requests.”
Fellow Yellow ribbon marcher Miranda says:
“Violence is unnecessary, but police have provoked….responsibility is from both sides. I do not agree with the throwing of petrol bombs, it is very lethal, but I understand why. I ask ‘would I have the restraint’. I think that there is a lot of irrational behaviour but from both sides…”
Yellow/Blue Divide manifests on the streets of Manchester
On 1 October, the National Day of China, the divide between the Yellows and Blues manifested on the streets of Manchester. Manchester University students protesting in solidarity with Yellow ribbon protestors in Hong Kong were met with a counter-demonstration from Chinese students waving Chinese flags, singing the national anthem and reportedly jostling the pro-Yellow supporters.
One pro-Blue ribbon Chinese student campaigner told the Mancunion the pro-Yellow ribbon Hong Kong students “made a scene” and said:
“The Chinese are very patriotic, we take the national integrity as a priority, it is a difficult situation the tension has been growing for decades…”. A supporter of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors said:
“I don’t think they really know what’s happening, because of the state controlling the media back in China. When they see anything anti-China, anti-Chinese government they protest.”
Another pro-Yellow ribbon campaigner, holding a Tiananmen Square poster to highlight the pro-democracy link to past Chinese struggles for political emancipation, said she wanted the Hong Kong government to. “Treat the protestors as protestors, stop attacking them”.
Yellow/Blue divide narrows
Both Yellow and Blue ribbon supporters in Manchester can find common ground in criticising the Hong Kong government’s handling of the current troubles.
Atom, from the older generation Blue ribbon supporters, feels let down by the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government:
”Carrie Lam should have reacted sooner to the initial [extradition bill] protest and to the escalation of violence…her attitude and wording does not help the situation and when she decided to act on a policy or action or demand of protestors, it was too late and it was half baked… she needs to give the police force more backing or if she feels that she needs to give in to the protestors, then give in…”
The poor handling of the extradition bill by the Hong Kong government is also a key point for Dave, who says. “The way they portrayed the [extradition] bill was wrong…it was an insensitive time to do it…but now that it has been withdrawn the protesting continued…why?”.
Blue-supporting Sue believes that “it is all about politics… the Hong Kong government is at fault and only care about what benefits them. They are using the people.”
Yellow-ribbon Andrew feels that “most of the protestors are targeting the government…not focusing on the police”. Miranda thinks that both sides should work together against the government, saying:
“People are fighting police. Police are fighting people…we should be fighting together….join our forces to turn against the government to force them to give into our demands. It is not okay for the government to just sit back half a year”.
The silent majority vanishes
There had been a widespread belief amongst Blue ribbon supporters that there was a silent majority in Hong Kong who was opposed to the pro-democracy protest groups. Atom was one of those who held this belief, saying (prior to HK local elections) there was a group that, “do not agree with the rioters…they felt that the original intention was good, but it has changed into something unreasonable. I know lots of people afraid to speak up.” Sue agreed with Atom, saying “some family and friends are afraid to say anything.”
The local election results in Hong Kong on November 24 showed that this silent pro-Blue majority belief was wrong. Widely regarded as a referendum on the current struggle between government and pro-democracy protestors, the local elections were a landslide for pro-democracy parties which took 17 of the 18 district councils.
The local district councils only have control over local matters such as garbage collection, and have no direct say over the Chief Executive’s programme. This large victory may lead them to playing a small role in shaping the future government, since district council members are eligible for 6 seats in the Legislative Council and will have 117 of the votes of the 1200 member council that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Atom’s response to the results was. “Is it not ironic that these protestors say HK has no democracy and freedom, yet the election result was achieved through a democratic process…which they won”.
Pro-Blue ribbon Lee commented that. “The Yellow group believed they are the winners of the election. Hopefully, this result will keep them happy and could stop the riots…. this opportunity will allow the Hong Kong government to reorganise its politics and give China a break to re-plan its political position… Who said Hong Kong has no freedom?”
The generational divide
From the small group of people in Manchester who contributed to this article, a generational divide was apparent, with the older generation favouring Blue ribbons and the younger generation favouring Yellow ribbons.
This generational divide is also apparent to Andrew Work, an editor of the Harbour Times in Hong Kong. He said he feels that the older generation desire stability while the younger generation see the situation in terms of the next 50-60 years and believe that they will be ground under by the Communist Party of China if they don’t resist.
Regarding the recent elections, Work said:
”The recent elections stripped away the illusion believed and propagated by pro-establishment factions and Beijing-related media that there was a silent majority that had turned on the protesters on account of violence. Clearly that was not the case. While they may still have mouthed the idea that ‘foreign influence’ was somehow responsible for the outcome, their protestations lack conviction. The government organised the election and saw that it was fair.”
It is difficult to predict what will happen next, but one thing that comes across is that even though outlooks towards the situation differ, Hong Kongers of all colours love their city, have a need to be heard, and want the best for Hong Kong.
Dale Anne McAulay