Our man in HK gets caught in the protests
The protests in Hong Kong continue to spiral out of control. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets. Residents have got used to the sight of armed response units running past their windows. The airport has ground to a halt. Was it really sensible to plan a business trip in the middle of all this?
It is now more than four months since the protests in Hong Kong began. What started out as rallies against an extradition treaty became, when the treaty was suspended, a wider push for the rights of a crammed city that has an uneasy settlement with its Chinese parent. It has more recently become a series of targeted disruptions, affecting the roads, the railway network and, most recently, the airport.
How should one respond to this chaos? The best options seem to include hiding indoors and binge watching Netflix. But being a stubborn, idiotic and hopelessly optimistic man, I ploughed ahead with a planned business trip this week, praying I might be able to sneak into the airport while the protesters were out to lunch.
Or perhaps I could negotiate with them? I could appeal to a common goal, stressing that I’m one of the good guys. “I’m off to Manila,” I would tell them. “To interview bank CEOs.” That would do the job, surely? There’s nothing millennial protesters like more than banks.
When I arrived at Hong Kong airport on Tuesday afternoon, the protesters had blocked the immigration area of terminal one. It was a great carnival of black shirt wearing teenagers, chanting rather haphazardly, holding up endearing signs that often started with the words: “Sorry for any inconvenience…” They were the most polite protesters I’ve ever encountered.
They also appeared to have taken over the jobs of the airline staff, since many check-in desks had been left abandoned. Mask wearing millennials walked around with clipboards, giving people directions and offering advice on the best ways to check-in. It was a surreal experience and, I felt, quintessentially Hong Kong.
One friendly protester approached and pointed out that terminal two was still open and, although it would require a quick trip on the airport shuttle, I’d be there in no time. “This is not so bad,” I thought. “And I didn’t even have to mention the bank CEOs.”
I’m going to give my clipboard wielding adviser the benefit of the doubt and assume that he thought it was all fine and dandy in terminal two. Instead, it was absolute chaos. Gone were the friendly teenagers apologising for disruption. In their place was a seemingly older crowd: louder, rowdier, and about to blow.
There were two bustling lines: on the left the passengers schlepping their luggage; on the right the black bloc with their signs and face masks. Evidently, no-one had been reading Kipling because the twain did indeed meet. Rather dramatically.
At first, the odd protester joined our queue, bellowing loudly about freedom but generally not causing trouble. Then they stormed. We were forced to the wall. But rather than collar us or scream about injustice, they adopted a strategy I’m personally very fond of: prolonged sitting. Around us, between us, in front and behind, protesters squeezed themselves in and then sat down on the floor.
It quickly became apparent that terminal two might soon be closed as well. Order became chaos. No-one seemed to care about the queue. Passengers screamed at passengers. A mad scramble to the front.
I got to the front of one stage of a multi-stage queue only to get pushed back by another wall of protesters who decided to block us off entirely. It was lucky timing. As I was being heaved back and forth in the mass of bodies like an unwilling participant in a mosh pit, a security guard grabbed me and pulled me out. I turned around and saw a man screaming at the protesters. His children were in the middle, but the protesters wouldn’t let him through. (I saw him later, flustered and being ushered through immigration quickly, kids by his side.)
After I found my way through immigration, the situation went from bad to worse. As I sat in the Cathay Pacific lounge, feeling smugly proletarian with my choice of craft beer over champagne, protesters started to use luggage trolleys to block passengers off from the immigration lines. The police arrived en masse. Clashes followed clashes. A man was held captive.
The following day I was included in a mass email from a self-appointed PR person for the protesters, apologising not just for the disruption but also for the fact that some protesters became “easily agitated and over-reacted”.
I made my flight in the end. I landed in the Philippines, a country run by one of the world's most controversial politicians, which is in the middle of a crackdown on drugs that has seen thousands killed. “Where have you come from?” my driver asked. “Hong Kong? That’s a crazy place!”