Special | By Wong Chun Wai

Searching for a way out

Unfruitful start: The protest leaders and government representatives holding the first round of talks in Hong Kong. - EPA

Unfruitful start: The protest leaders and government representatives holding the first round of talks in Hong Kong. – EPA

The authorities and protesters appear to be in search of a typical Chinese face-saving exit but don’t quite know how.

IT’S not a good time to be a policeman in Hong Kong now. Working a minimum 18-hour shift, they have to be physically and mentally fit to deal with the protesters.

They also have to exercise incredible self-restraint to put up with the kind of indignity they face every day with the abuses hurled against them.

Their Malaysian counterparts would probably shake their heads in disbelief if they could see what the HK cops have had to face over the past three weeks since the protests started.

If we were to believe the news filed by the Western news agencies, we would think that the HK police must be a brutal lot while the students are merely a bunch of idealistic and harmless protesters seeking to make their voices heard.

But it is not as simplistic as that. The students are not simply following a blind cause. They have reasons to believe that unless their points are made known, the results that follow may create more long-term problems for their society as a whole. Their intentions are noble even if the resulting chaos may not be what they anticipate.

As the protests enter the fourth week, the tension has increased many notches. Tempers have become shorter as the stakes of the game have also escalated. The authorities and protesters appear to be in search of a typical Chinese face-saving exit but don’t quite know how.

On Tuesday, the first round of talks between Hong Kong officials and the students was held with no clear outcome.

The students reiterated their demand for an unrestricted choice of candidates in the election for the territory’s chief executive in 2017, something both Hong Kong and Beijing officials deem impossible.

The divide can be clearly seen even in the way the talks were conducted. The protest leaders, one woman and four men, were young and wearing jeans and black T-shirts with the words Freedom Now written in English.

On the other side, the government was also represented by four men and one woman, all dressed in formal business suits.

But now that both sides have finally come to the negotiating table, it is expected that more talks will be carried out to come to a final solution acceptable to all.

But everyone concedes that the protests cannot continue despite the bravado of these students telling CNN or BBC on camera that they will occupy the streets forever.

The students’ biggest challenge is to convince Hong Kongers, especially the businessmen and older people, that their fight will not hurt the economy as millions of dollars have been lost.

Much more than that, Hong Kongers are seeing an unprecedented political culture which they find disturbing.

A video that has gone viral in HK social media shows a cop facing a crowd of protesters shoving their middle fingers on his face. Yet, he walked away nonchalantly even when faced with extreme provocation.

There have also been reports that bags of urine had been hurled at the policemen.

At Sai Yee Street junction in Mongkok, I saw a group of protesters accusing two policemen of police brutality after a woman purportedly fell on the ground.

The two cops were confronted by a rowdy group, and when one of the cops said the woman appeared unhurt, the angry mob retorted that they were just cops and not doctors, and had no right to make that remark.

The crowd soon went into a frenzy, obstructing a bus, and next, put up barricades at the junction. The two constables ended up diverting traffic to another road!

The woman “victim” suddenly disappeared in the crowd and was not a focus anymore as the protesters took control of the street.

At another road in the district, I saw a large crowd of loud demonstrators, who were heckling the police.

A policewoman made a tactical mistake. Using a hailer, she warned one of the leaders, in Cantonese, to shut up. It created a storm, as the protesters charged that the authorities had now even stopped them from speaking up, implying democracy was dying. Shouts of “running dogs” soon grew louder.

Posters that proclaim “Pekingnese not allowed”, in reference to mainlanders, have appeared on the walls of streets in Hong Kong.

Those familiar with the history of China would know of a popular park, Huangpu, that was closed to the Chinese people between 1890 and 1928. That was the time when Western powers controlled China and a sign on the park’s gate read “No dogs or Chinese allowed”.

The new poster may be a clever play of words but it would be painful for those Chinese who still remember what it was like to be humiliated by the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, that they are now being humiliated by their own people.

Some say the sign was a myth but fans of the late kung fu legend Bruce Lee will recall the film Fists of Fury when an angry Bruce took down the sign.

But as I walked down Occupied Mongkok before the barricades were removed on Sunday by the police, it was obvious that the anti-mainland China sentiments on the ground were seething with raw anger.

A woman told listeners that she is a Chinese and not a Chinese national, and that she was proud that she spoke Cantonese and not Mandarin. I also saw exchanges between mainlanders, who were apparently tourists, arguing with the protesters.

But the attention is also on the 28,000 policemen and policewomen. Seven police officers were caught on video beating up a protester, who belonged to the Civics Party, in a dark street corner.

It sparked a public outrage and the seven cops were suspended. The cops appear to have toughened up their crowd control, using their batons more frequently. Dogs were also used after that and the anti-terrorist units also followed.

The force’s four staff associations also sent a message last Friday to its members, which said: “We are in the midst of troubles, unprecedented in our careers. Officers have been and remain subject to extreme antagonism, intimidation, emotional, mental and physical stress, severe fatigue and danger.

“We wish to remind you all that we, the Police Staff Association, stand united as a Federation in offering our collective full and unwavering support to officers who require our assistance.

“We will continue to endeavour to aid officers to the very best of our ability. We are One.”

The cops in Hong Kong, who are regarded as the cleanest and best paid, are not used to being regarded as public enemies. They are supposed to be the good guys but overnight, they have become a subject of scorn.

But at 3am, when I finally managed to flag down a taxi to take me back to the hotel, I saw a few workers from the nearby Yau Ma Tei wholesale fruit market shaking the hands of some policemen, praising them for doing a good job.

One thing is certain – HK will never be the same again. In the aftermath of these protests, it will be a city that will be divided politically.