Democracy's frontline

Pro-democracy supporters hold their phone flashlights at a rally to show support for students at...
Pro-democracy supporters hold their phone flashlights at a rally to show support for students at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Photo: Getty Images
Dunedin resident Jacqui Margetts (27) is in Hong Kong among the rubble and tear gas of the increasingly violent struggle between police and protesters. Since they began six months ago, Margetts has watched from afar news of the mass protests which began over a now-abandoned, proposed law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China and grew into demands for full democracy for the 7.5 million people of the special administrative region that was handed back to Chinese Communist Party control in 1997, after 156 years of British rule. Margetts, who has New Zealand citizenship and Hong Kong residency, has decided she can no longer simply watch on. This week she flew to Hong Kong, in large part to "show solidarity with my friends and the people of Hong Kong who are struggling". She is staying in Kowloon, near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where this week protesters were holed-up inside a police cordon. Here, she writes for the Otago Daily Times about what she is witnessing, what locals are telling her and what she believes needs to happen.

Jacqui Margetts, who has New Zealand citizenship and Hong Kong residency, stands at a burnt-out...
Jacqui Margetts, who has New Zealand citizenship and Hong Kong residency, stands at a burnt-out bus top near her hotel in Kowloon early one morning this week. Photos: Supplied
Today I saw the scale of this protest.

I have recently seen articles condemning "a few radicals". But when I walk the streets on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong the sheer volume of bricks pulled from the road - piled high, stretching for kilometres - and the burnt-out stores and debris tell a different story.

The manpower it must take to unbuild a city brick by brick, splitting each one in two, and rearrange them into kilometres of car impeding cairns shows there is a lot of support. There are hundreds of thousands of people here working together for a common goal.

I also saw the scale of police violence, as well as their disregard for the law and for public safety. This morning as I walked down the street looking for breakfast, I along with all the morning commuters experienced the intense residue of tear gas being blown around in the wind. Our eyes stung and we were all coughing uncontrollably. I hope it rains soon.

On this street I saw at least seven ambulances picking people up. You don't have to be dressed in black and hurling Molotovs to be hurt in this city.

Police officers patrol the streets and direct traffic at intersections as most street lights have been smashed out.

A call had gone out on social media for people to disrupt transport.

At lunch time, in the middle of the city, hundreds of office workers in the richest and busiest area in town came out of their glossy glass buildings to block intersections, bringing traffic to a standstill for two hours. They were chanting "Five demands, not one less".

The demands are not radical. They are asking for fair treatment.

The five demands are:

•withdrawal of the extradition bill (which has been done);

•an independent inquiry into police brutality;

•universal suffrage;

•amnesty for the 4000+ people arrested; and

•not all protesters to be classified as rioters.

They are not demanding independence.

Police arrived en masse and threatened to tear gas the crowd. People dispersed.

The videos above of protesters and police in Hong Kong were recorded on Tuesday night and in to the early hours of Wednesday morning and posted on Instagram account hongkongiloveyou852. Jacqui Margetts, who had just arrived in Hong Kong, saw ambulances picking up people injured in these confrontations. 

This action is planned every day this week. Most days it results in office workers being tear gassed.

People managed to swamp the metro stations today, bringing a few to a standstill. The undergrounds were packed with people squashed together. Despite the inconvenience, I didn't witness tempers flaring as you might at rush hour on the one way in Dunedin. People seem to understand it is strategic and for them.

After my tear gas encounter and the news the gas mask ban is no longer in effect, I went to purchase a mask from a chain cosmetic shop.

A social media post calling Hong Kongers to disrupt transport this week.
A social media post calling Hong Kongers to disrupt transport this week.
The shop assistant, in her 50s, asked me if it was for my allergies but I said it was for street dust. Nervously looking around, she asked me if I was a student, if I knew what was going on. She talked, constantly looking around. She told me it is shop policy that she is not allowed to talk to anyone about what is going on or what she believes or she will lose her job.

She confided in me that she is yellow ribbon (democracy supporter), opposed to blue (the State), that she has a son and is very scared for him. She wants to send him to Australia to study at university. She doesn't trust the future here or the Government. She is scared for herself, unable to sleep at night with the sound of bricks, police wagons and hundreds of rounds of tear gas in her district.

She kept repeating that there is no hope. That they are all called cockroaches, something you squash. She said no-one is coming to save them; Western countries don't care. That already it is one country, one system. It is not the country she once knew.

Apartments are stuffy as people try to limit the airflow to keep tear gas out. Even the hospital has taped over many of its vents.

The above video is of office and retail workers who gave up their lunch time on Thursday to gather in the upmarket IFC Mall, in the Central finance district of Hong Kong Island, where they called for democratic reform.

Tomorrow there is a silent protest at a mall to mark four months since the terror attacks at Yuen Long station where civilians (including children and elderly) on a train were beaten by more than 100 men with metal poles. Despite thousands of reports made to the police emergency hotline, the police did not arrive for 30 minutes - one minute after the mob had left the station. Nearby police stations had locked their doors and on CCTV there is footage of police arriving and turning back. No arrests were made that night. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was seen shaking hands with the mob, praising them as his heroes, thanking them for their "hard work". A fortnight ago, Ho was stabbed by someone pretending to be one of his supporters, and was hospitalised.

Compared to earlier in the week things seem calm. The people have been told that if there is more unrest the Government will postpone the local elections due this Sunday. If they are denied this, I am sure protests will only escalate. This seems likely as the Government doesn't seem interested in reduction but, rather, total control. Given this, the only option for those who support democracy is to disrupt the only thing the state cares about: business as usual.

The protest movement is extremely well organised and demonstrates the very best of human cooperation, resourcefulness and resilience.

Shopkeepers don't smile and there is anxiety in the air. People seem depressed and afraid of what is to come.

A new Chief of Police in Hong Kong and a new motto for the police, who have been involved in...
A new Chief of Police in Hong Kong and a new motto for the police, who have been involved in increasingly violent clashes with protesters.
The term rioter is constantly used against the protesters, peaceful or violent, but I am yet to see anything that resembles a riot. There isn't any stealing, it is not rich-vs-poor, jewellery shops are intact. It is the idea of human rights they are taking hold of, not anything else.

Being labelled a rioter carries a 10-year maximum sentence. Every arrested protester should not be charged with rioting. Currently, no matter what their role has been in the protests, they are charged with rioting.

About 1100 people were arrested on Tuesday. Many were minors from the polytechnic university campus who were trapped inside, surrounded by police. The police offered safe passage, only to shoot beanbag rounds and tear gas and arrest any students who attempted to leave.

Everyone back in New Zealand says to me "stay safe", but the only fear I sense is fear of the police beatings, disappearing and "suicide".

Since June there have been 256 suicides and 2537 corpses discovered. Alex Chow (22) who died a few weeks ago by falling from a height did not show any injuries consistent with a conscious person falling. Because of cases like this, people want an independent inquiry.

I believe the Government here establishing an independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police would be an act of good faith that would go a long way to soothe the emotions of the people. It has been done before, to fight corruption in 1977. Acknowledging any wrong doings, just as the protesters have done in the past when members have gone too far, would demonstrate an ability to be critical, to show remorse and humanity, not wilful denial and ignorance.

A new chief of police was appointed this week. At the same time the motto of the Hong Kong police was changed. It went from "We serve with pride and care" to "Serving Hong Kong with honour, duty and loyalty". Loyalty and duty to whom, one has to ask. Is it no longer for the people?

Today, I have felt a mixture of heartbreak and terror but mostly an overwhelming love for the people who make Hong Kong what it is. I know them to be a generally risk-averse people. So, it is amazing to see them risking it all to fight for their freedom and for justice for themselves and their children. They cannot be controlled so easily. They want to decide their own future. It is inspiring.

As Dunediners and New Zealanders, I think it's easy to think we can't do anything because we are small and far away. But we have a voice and it is strong. As the leader of a democracy Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should condemn the actions of the Hong Kong police and publicly support the protesters' demands. I think if the rights of the Hong Kong people are suppressed, then we should implement economic sanctions against China. If you see a bully in the playground, call them out, you don't sell them your carton of milk. The world notices what we do, and sometimes they follow us. We need to take a stand.


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