New Zealand Herald journalist Keith Ng has been on the ground with the Hong Kong protests. He reports on black ops, violence - and the battle of rival songs.
There's a famous scene in the film Casablanca. A group of German officers are singing a patriotic German anthem while the rest of the club - full of exiles from Occupied France during World War II - stare down at their drinks. When resistance leader Victor Laszlo sees this scene, he starts singing the French national anthem, and soon all the exiles join in, tears streaming down their faces.
This scene played out in Hong Kong last week.
In the IFC Mall, in the heart of the financial district, hundreds of pro-China supporters came for a lunch-time counter-demonstration. They gathered around one of the main atriums, waving Chinese flags and singing the Chinese national anthem, while other Hong Kongers stood by and stared silently. About 15 minutes in, more and more Hong Kongers gathered around an adjacent atrium and sang their own protest anthem, which began a clash of songs as both sides tried to drown out the other.
Some of those in the pro-China group were shoppers and tourists from Mainland China, coming to the high-end shopping mall for its luxury brands. Others were Mainland Chinese office workers from the nearby banks and financial firms who lived in Hong Kong. A few were local Hong Kongers, who felt loyalty towards China first and foremost. For all of them, their prosperity was inextricably linked with the rise of China, and their personal pride and identity linked with China's prestige. They saw Hong Kong's rejection of Chinese rule as a denigration of China and a return to the way Hong Kong and the West use to look down on China.
Counter protest at IFC. Crowds have been singing Chinese national anthem, and chanting "support HK police" pic.twitter.com/UaVEOe9JwY— Keith Ng (@keith_ng) September 12, 2019
For the pro-Hong Kong group, it was a moment that felt like freedom. It felt like having power and control over their own lives, even if it was only fleeting and symbolic.
People in IFC Mall, Central, sing protest song Glory to Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing demonstrators and anti-government protesters tried to drown each other out, singing the Chinese national anthem and the protest song respectively— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) September 12, 2019
Video: SCMP/Sum Lok-kei pic.twitter.com/2H2t5PCZ2C
But even as eyes swelled up, and songs about freedom and liberation filled the air, men got up in each other's faces looking for a fight, and stragglers caught in the wrong group were hounded and chased. As the pro-Chinese group became outnumbered and withdrew, the Hong Kong crowd chanted "go back to the mainland" behind them. The high-minded sentiments went hand-in-hand with petty resentments.
The song which they sang - "Glory to Hong Kong" - is a protest anthem created only a few weeks ago. It has been quickly adopted by the broader movement, with tens of thousands gathering in public spaces across the city to sing it together. During rush hour, entire buses or ferries would break out into song. In a major soccer game last week, fans booed and turned their backs when the Chinese national anthem was played, then sang this new anthem instead.
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Even as the physical dangers escalate - petrol bombs were used again this weekend, and the Junior Police Association publicly suggested using live ammunition in response - the anthem has emerged as the true superweapon of the movement. It has drawn together young professionals and middle-class families and radical protesters and reinvigorated a gruelling campaign that just passed its 100-day mark. The song has sunk its roots deep into the city and will be a symbol of resistance for an entire generation to come. It has also served to confirm Beijing's suspicion that this is not a protest of citizens against its government, but a full-on revolution.
While police continue to clash with protesters, another more sinister front has opened up, with "unofficial" anti-protest activities carried out by people with no obvious government affiliations. One such group targeted a shrine which has been a centre for protest activity. They arrived in the middle of the day as a group, methodically tore down posters and flowers, then simply left. The group looked and dressed as civilians, but operated like professionals doing a job. One of the women involved was also photographed at the IFC pro-China demonstration, where she received cash after the protest.
This girl in Prince Edward station clearing the flower was paid by the pro-China woman in yesterday #IFC Hong Kong mall.— freedomhihi😷 (@freedomhihi) September 13, 2019
This is how the #CCP work with the propaganda in Hong Kong.#HongKongProtests #propaganda https://t.co/n21Fqt8hQU pic.twitter.com/gAuhxjYWXS
A few days later, men armed with homemade weapons attacked protesters, civilians and even reporters in multiple incidents. This was reminiscent of a similar attack in July when armed mobs - with suspected links to organised crime - attacked suspected protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long subway station, and police did not arrive until after the attack was over. In some of the new cases, police could be seen walking behind the vigilantes, ignoring them even as they attacked bystanders and reporters.
Even before this week, conspiracy theories abounded that the government had covered up the death of protesters. But with mounting evidence of "black ops", unjustifiable use of force by riot police and violence against prisoners in custody, it's increasingly harder to tell truth from fiction.
And that's the point. These "black ops" are not intended to be secret. It is a threat that behind every door you can't see, within every person you don't know, there's potentially someone beholden to the Chinese government. The message is that the Chinese government has influence everywhere, and is capable of anything and that the law will not protect you.
That is the real function of Chinese influence, in Hong Kong and around the world. That is what will cause the deepest damage, long after the physical violence is over.