Skip to main content

The Insomniacs' Club 失眠俱樂部

Glass bottles arced through the smoke-filled sky, followed by sticks, shoes and blocks of pavement torn up from the streets. Riot police pushed back with water canons and rubber bullets, adding to the growing pandemonium. 

A few blocks away, an old woman in a burqa posed for a television camera, holding the national flag in one hand and in the other a cardboard sign written in Arabic and English: “Enough is Enough.” 

These were not religious fundamentalists protesting against America or Israel. These were regular citizens, men and women of all ages, standing up to their own government and all the ills of society it represented: corruption, unemployment, rising food prices and the enormous gaps between rich and poor. Enough was enough.

Tahrir Square resembles a war zone

Hosni Mubarak’s reign over Egypt might have lasted 30 years, but it only took 18 days for the people in Cairo to topple it. What happened on Tahrir Square these past weeks was the stuff we read about in history textbooks, like the Boston Tea Party or the storming of the Bastilles. Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 had the world witnessed a celebration of the people’s power on such a grand scale. 

In his remarks on Mubarak’s resignation, Barack Obama borrowed from his favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote and declared that “the moral force of nonviolence [has] bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” Indeed, with both justice and history on their side, the Egyptian people finally took ownership of their country and put an end to a regime decidedly out of touch with its young, educated population. In the end, slogans and banners, cell phones and laptops prevailed. Bullets and tanks never looked so powerless.

Storming of the Bastilles

The concept of an Internet-organized revolution, so-called Revolution 2.0, can be traced back to Iran’s Presidential Election in 2009, when tens of thousands of Tehranians took to the streets accusing their supreme leader of rigging the election. The subsequent military crackdown sent an age-old television warning to anti-government protestors in the region: do not try this at home. Those who defied the force of nature would end up like 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan who suffered what was dubbed the “most witnessed death in human history.” 

But a year and a half later, things turned out very differently in Tunisia, where angry demonstrators succeeded in forcing President Ben Ali out of power and out of the country. The Tunisian Revolution started a prairie fire that quickly spread to neighboring Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt, the largest Arab nation in the world. Autocrats and dictators who used to hunker down to stay off the international radar screen were suddenly exposed, caught off-guard by an emboldened population that no longer took “no” for an answer. In a matter of weeks, Tahrir Square rewrote the laws of domestic politics in the Middle East.

Here in Hong Kong, we followed the events in faraway Cairo with momentary interest. The usual footage of angry mobs clashing with riot police – tear gas, Molotov cocktails and buildings on fire – flickered on our television screens. But what began as just another episode in the never-ending drama of Middle Eastern instability ended with something deeply emotional for our city. Our hearts sank when we saw those familiar images of crowds surrounding the tanks, cheering with the soldiers and calling on them to join the people’s movement; images that united us in a single thought: this is the Tiananmen Square that never was. 

Back in the summer of 1989, the same kind of optimism and euphoria swept across China and Hong Kong, just as it did in Egypt these past weeks. Student leaders Wang Dan (王丹) and Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希) galvanized the crowds demanding freedom and political reform in much the same way Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive, demanded an end to government abuse and corruption. Like the Cairo demonstrators, citizens of Beijing took a leap of faith with the military, believing that they too wanted a better China and that even the coldest of soldiers wouldn’t open fire on defenseless students. But that’s where the stories of two ancient civilizations diverged. To the thousands who perished on Tiananmen Square that June morning, the arc of history was too long. They never got to see it bend.

Wael Ghonim and Wu’er Kaixi (right)

22 years later, the Chinese government is much more prepared for organized protests. Years of practice from suppressing Tibetan separatists and falun gong have made the Politburo rather good at snuffing out organized protests before they begin. With state-controlled ISPs and the “Great Firewall” erected as part of a broader information censoring system called the Golden Shield Project (金盾工程), the government blocks website content and intercepts search engines on a daily basis. 

Then there is the army of Internet police who work around the clock to monitor chat rooms, blogs and instant messaging sites. Cyber-activists like Michael Anti (趙靜), Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Wang Xiaoning (王小寧) are harassed, jailed and made an example of. In 2008, the government introduced Green Dam (綠壩), a content control software to be pre-installed on every computer sold in the country, presumably to protect children from inappropriate content. International and domestic condemnation of this brazen form of privacy invasion finally forced the government to abort the project.

But censorship is a dangerous game. It is also as futile as wrapping fire with paper – so goes the Chinese saying, for the spread of information will always outpace any government attempt to restrict it. Where China lacks in freedom of expression, however, it makes up for with houses, cars and other middle class must-haves. Replicating Singapore’s model of a freedomless economic city-state, the politburo keeps the economy growing at above 8% year after year, as a psychological morphine drip to numb opposition and silence dissent. 

Surely if Mubarak had bothered to do the same, he might have been able to hang around for another few years before handing the throne to his son. Instead, 40% of the Egyptian population lives on less than US$2 a day and young people between the ages of 15 and 25 account for 80% of the country’s unemployed. When it comes to running a one-party autocracy, Mubarak had much to learn from the Chinese.

Economic growth without political reform

The Revolution in Egypt was a genuine popular uprising. With no leader to be arrested and no organization to be crushed, the movement blindsided Mubarak’s government and sent chills down the spines of every autocrat in the world. 

From the Jordanian king and the Burmese president to Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Lee Hsien Loong and our very own Hu Jintao, leaders of authoritarian regimes are losing sleep, tossing and turning in bed wondering when the next Facebook or Twitter time bomb would go off. They are members of the Insomniacs’ Club that operates a franchise of ageing dystopias around the world. 

Until they unclench their fists and let off some of the steam, we can bet on more Tahrir Squares to come in the months and years ahead. T’is not the season to be a dictator.

Popular Posts

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK)
Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Review…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

2017 and upcoming events and speaking engagements


Talk at Independent Schools Foundation Academy
Topic: No City for Slow Men
Venue: Telegraph Bay, Pokfulam
Date: 30 November
Moderator at Enrich HK panel discussion Topic: Impact of financial literacy education
Venue: BNP Paribas, Two IFC Date: 11 December Time: 12:30pm

Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release date: December

Guest speaker and prize presenter at 2017 Hong Kong's Top Story Awards Venue: TBD Date: 11 December Time: 7:00pm
Speaker for Enrich HK's "Ask the Experts" series Topic: TBD Date: January 2018

Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Venue: TBD Date: February 2018

2017
Interview with NOW TV
Topic: Ho's corruption case and U.S. federal court procedures Interview date: 24 November

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報
Title: "Ho's corruption h…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…

When Free Speech Isn't Free 當言論不再自由

The school year had barely begun when two incidents—both testing the limits of free speech on campus—unfolded at Chinese University and Education University and sent management scrambling for a response.
On Monday, at least three large banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” were spotted in various locations at Chinese University, including one that draped across the famous “Beacon” sculpture outside the school’s main library. Within hours, the banners were removed by the school authorities.
A few days later, a sign “congratulating” Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin (蔡若蓮) on her son’s recent suicide appeared on Education University’s Democracy Wall, a public bulletin board for students to express opinions and exchange views. Likewise, the sign was taken down shortly thereafter.


That could have been the end of the controversies had university management not succumbed to the temptation to say a few choice words of their own. In the end, it was the reaction from the schoo…

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷

Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and p…