29 September 2014

Six Hours in Admiralty 金鐘六小時

I gathered a few essentials – cell phone, notebook, pen, face towel and swimming goggles – and left my apartment. I Whatsapp'ed my brother Kelvin and asked him to meet me at Lippo Centre in Admiralty. From there, the two of us walked to the section of Connaught Road that had been just taken over by protesters and regular citizens who had come to support them. We were about 50 yards from the Tamar Government Headquarters, the epicenter of a massive student protest.

It was 3:45pm. Outside the Government Headquarters, there were throngs of people all around us, the average age somewhere between 20 and 25. Their growing euphoria was suffused with tension and trepidation. Many among the crowds were wearing lab goggles and raincoats to guard against pepper spray. Some put cling wrap over their eye gear for extra protection. Tanya Chan (陳淑莊), vice chairlady of the Civic Party, was speaking into a bullhorn. She had shaved her head as part of the pan-democrats' pledge to defeat a Beijing-backed electoral reform bill in the legislation. A student wove through the crowd with a loudspeaker broadcasting her words. Chan urged citizens to hold the line outside the Bank of China Tower to stop police from advancing. She also warned them about undercover officers infiltrating the crowds to collect intelligence. “Strike up a conversation with anyone who looks like a cop and ask him why he is here,” she said, "Look for men who are beefier than the average scrawny student!" Her remark drew a few nervous laughs.

The tank-man of Hong Kong

From afar, someone yelled “Saline water! We need saline water NOW!” Other supplies were also needed: face masks, umbrellas and drinking water. Kelvin and I went to see what we could do to help. We joined the human chain passing sundry items from one side of the eight-lane Connaught Road to the other. They were for student protesters who had been pepper-sprayed by police on Tim Mei Avenue, one of the several frontlines. The girl next to me, who might have been 15, shoved a carton of fresh milk into my hand. “Pass it on,” the teenager yelled. Milk was supposed to sooth the eyes by neutralizing the irritants in the pepper spray. There was order in this chaos: everyone was a commander and everyone was a foot soldier.

We hit a lull in the calls for supplies. I told Kelvin I needed to use the bathroom and we walked to the nearby Queensway Plaza shopping mall. On our way back, I suggested we grab a few things for the frontlines. My brother had overheard that saline water was in short supply, and so we spent the next 45 minutes scouring Wanchai for pharmacies, because other volunteers had already emptied the shelves within the 300-yard radius of Admiralty.

It started so peacefully

As Kelvin and I were paying for saline water at a neighborhood drugstore, we saw a text message on our phones. “Police have just fired tear gas into the crowds!” The text was from my sister-in-law who had been monitoring the latest developments on her television at home. We sensed the gravity of the situation and began running with our purchases back to Admiralty. 

As we approached Connaught Road, we began to hear harrowing accounts from students who had retreated from Tim Mei Avenue. A young man, catching his breath and pointing at the government building behind him, said, “The police hoisted a black banner; we had never seen a black banner before. Now we know: black means tear gas.” The girl next to him chimed in, “It stung like hell.” 

Many started cursing at the police officers standing guard in the area. “Have you all gone mad?” shut one woman. “How could you do this to unarmed students? Don’t you have children of your own?” asked another.

Over the next hour, we kept hearing shots being fired. Boom boom boom, like fireworks on Chinese New Year's Day. The use of tear gas had caught the city by surprise. It recalled an episode in the 2012 chief executive election, when the then-candidate C.Y. Leung was accused by his opponent Henry Tang of proposing at cabinet meeting that riot police and tear gas be unleashed on protesters. Leung vehemently denied it at the time and ended up winning the race anyway. It looked like the man who now held the highest office in the city had just fulfilled his opponent's words.

"You lie! You said it!"

Tear gas might have been commonplace elsewhere in the world, but it wasn’t in Hong Kong. The last time it was used was during the 2005 World Trade Organization Conference to disperse angry South Korean farmers protesting outside the convention center in Wanchai with placards and Molotov cocktails. Leung’s decision to deploy lachrymators against unarmed students this time, despite the political price he would inevitably pay, suggested that he had been given direct orders from Beijing to do whatever it took to clear the streets before citizens returned to work Monday morning. In so doing, Leung had irreversibly redrawn the relationship between people and their government. 

As night fell, the tension rose. Harcourt Road -- an eight-land thoroughfare that connects to Connaught Road -- was strewn with broken umbrellas, water bottles and lone shoes, left behind by fleeing protesters. Mobile phones were rendered useless. Someone said the government had ordered service providers to switch off all 3G signals in the area. Kelvin asked me if I had downloaded FireChat, an app that allowed short text message exchanges between smart phones without a Wi-Fi or mobile connection. I said I hadn't, but I would as soon as my connection resumed.

We moved to a footbridge outside the Police Headquarters on the ominously-named Arsenal Street. There, high above the ground, we saw a formation of riot police wearing army helmets and gas masks advancing steadily from Wanchai toward Admiralty. They were carrying AR-15 rifles and tear gas launchers; some of them had quivers of rolled-up warning flags strapped to their shoulders. Lit only by the streetlights' amber glow, the scene was eerily reminiscent of the streets of Beijing on that fateful June night in 1989

Many on the bridge began screaming at the crowd below: “Run! Riot police are approaching! Run!” That’s when I saw one of the police officers unfold a black banner. Seconds later, shots of tear gas arced through the dark sky, followed by clouds of white smoke billowing from the ground. The advancing fumes smelled like something between burning rubber and a very pungent mustard. Pandemonium ensued. A stranger came up to me and Kelvin and said, “You two need these,” and handed us two face masks. My eyes started to sting and I put on my swimming goggles. We ran with the retreating crowd and took shelter in the nearby Harcourt Garden.

This is not the Hong Kong I knew

It was 9:30pm. There were rumors that riot police would start dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets and even live ammunition. Kelvin and I agreed that we should heed the ushers’ warning and leave Admiralty for our own safety. My brother lived in Wanchai and I in Pokfulam. We said goodbye to each other and parted ways. 

By then almost every road between Wanchai and downtown Central had been blocked, either by police or by makeshift blockades set up by students. I walked two miles to Sai Ying Pun, before finding a taxi to take me home. During my 30-minute trek, I downloaded the FireChat app recommended by Kelvin. I joined a few chat groups and saw users with strange names exchanging intelligence on the frontlines. Some said police had started arresting anyone seen wearing a yellow ribbon, while others claimed they spotted a Chinese armored vehicle crossing the Western Tunnel and heading toward Admiralty. It was hard to tell rumor from truth. I felt like a fugitive in a cold war spy movie. A single thought kept running through my head: what is happening to my city? Perhaps years later, citizens would look back and tell themselves that this was a good night. Like bitter Chinese medicine, what went down today would make us stronger and better. But like that bitter Chinese medicine, it was difficult to swallow.

Home had never felt safer or more needed. I took a shower and sat idly in bed. What had transpired in the last few hours suddenly hit me, as images and sounds finally sank in. I started to sob, and my hands shook despite myself. Tonight in Hong Kong, there were prayers, tears and a lot of unanswered questions. I turned on my computer and started writing. I wanted the world to know.


This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "First night of Occupy Central: my six hours in Admiralty."

As posted on SCMP.com

This article was cited by BBC News.

As cited by BBC News

15 September 2014

Kindness of Strangers 陌生人的仁慈

It was around 9pm Sunday night when I received a frantic text message on my iPhone.
“Jason, I got a problem! I missed my flight and need cash to buy a new ticket. My ATM card doesn’t work in HK. Can you give me your credit card number? I’ll pay you back when I’m back in the Philippines.”
The S.O.S. was from Carlos, a young journalist from Manila visiting Hong Kong for the weekend. We had met the first time at a media event just the day before. My instinct told me it was probably a scam – earlier this year my brother got a phone call from a mysterious man saying that a distant relative of ours had been hit by a motorcycle and needed money for surgery. My brother hung up before the man finished talking.

I was about to delete the text message when another one buzzed in.
“This is for real. I’m stuck at the airport. I’ll pay you back. Promise!”
I decided to put my foot down.
“We just met. I don’t feel comfortable giving out my credit card number over the phone. Sorry and good luck.”
Carlos made it back to Manila that same night. The next morning he sent me an e-mail to explain what had happened at the airport and how he had managed to get home eventually. After contacting four or five people in Hong Kong, only his cousin who works here had believed him and was willing to lend him money. Everybody else had declined to help – I was one of them. “We aren’t a very trusting people,” I apologized to Carlos in my reply. Living in a big city, it seems, has turned us into Bad Samaritans.

*                    *                  *

Bystander apathy in action

When it comes to dispensing kindness to strangers, Hong Kongers can be a bit schizophrenic. We rank 10th out of 135 countries on the World Giving Index, donating generously to anyone in need, from earthquake victims in Sichuan to starving children in far-flung corners of the world. Yet, for simple things like holding the door for a mother with a baby-stroller or pressing the “open door” button in a lift, we can be downright stone-hearted. Every now and then, I hear scathing accounts of urban apathy from friends and co-workers. A lawyer in my department recently complained to me that she had once slipped and fell in a crowded shopping mall but no one had gone to her aid. I have witnessed an elderly deliveryman tripping over an uneven sidewalk in front of a half-dozen men smoking outside an office building, none of whom had chosen to act.

But each time I am about to give up on humanity, a heart-warming Good Samaritan story will reel me back in. A few weeks ago, my hairdresser Herbert fell down a flight of stairs after a night of drinking at Knutsford Terrace. The fall left him with a blood clot in his brain and put him in the ICU for a week. “If it weren’t for this passer-by who stopped and called an ambulance,” said Herbert, “I wouldn’t be cutting your hair right now.” Anecdotal evidence like that tells me that bystander behavior is more complex than I think, and that there is much more at play than the easy conclusion that we have all become creatures of indifference.

Creatures of indifference?

In a chilly spring morning in 1964, 29-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed in front of her New York City home while 37 neighbors watched but did not intervene. The Genovese murder shocked America and inspired social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin their seminal research on bystander apathy. The team designed a series of experiments to analyze helping behavior and postulated that a bystander goes through a five-step process before intervention: he first notices the event, identifies it as an emergency, takes responsibility for helping, formulates a response and finally takes action.

Darley and Latané found that the presence of other people can disrupt the bystander’s decision process at the third stage (taking responsibility) and turn a Good Samaritan into a passive onlooker. They argued that the psychological cost of doing nothing is significantly reduced by the assumption that somebody else will help and by the sharing of guilt among the group. It is this “diffusion of responsibility” – rather than a lack of compassion – that led to the neighbors’ inaction during Genovese’s attack. Diffusion of responsibility also explained why I declined Carlos’ call for help. I had assumed, consciously or subconsciously, that he must have friends and relatives who are in a better position to bail him out than someone he has just met.

Who really killed Genovese?

Half a century after the Genovese murder, the debate over bystander apathy has reignited once again, this time in the Wild Wild East of Modern China. On 13 October 2011, a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue (小悦悦) was playing on the street when she was run over by two separate delivery trucks. A surveillance camera showed that 18 passersby ignored the victim; some even skirted around the blood. Wang died at the hospital a week later. Within days, the video went viral on social media and sparked a nationwide discussion on the erosion of social conscience. Wang’s tragic death is a wake-up call for China not only because of the shocking callousness of the passers-by (a textbook case of diffusion of responsibility), but also because it reveals a far more troubling factor that affects bystander behavior: fraud.

I’m not talking about phone scams – like the one my brother encountered – or identity thefts – what I feared when I was asked to give out my credit card number. I'm talking about victim’s extortion, a burgeoning social phenomenon in China. It all started in the morning of 20 November 2006, when Peng Yu (彭宇), a college student in Nanjing, aided an elderly woman who had fallen off the bus. Instead of showing gratitude, the woman accused Peng of pushing her and filed a lawsuit demanding RMB45,000 (US$7,000) in medical expenses. Siding with the “victim,” the judge wrote: “According to common sense, the defendant wouldn't have helped the plaintiff if he weren’t in some way responsible.” Since then, several judges in other provinces followed the same line of reasoning in similar rescuer-turned-culprit lawsuits. In one case, a storekeeper accused of knocking down a customer whom he had helped was exonerated by a closed-circuit television. The footage showed that the storekeeper was nowhere near the victim when she fell.

Poor Wang Yue

China is no stranger (pun intended) to the persecution of do-gooders. Social advocates like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Zhao Lianhai (趙連海) are routinely harassed, beaten and jailed for speaking out against injustice and government corruption. That, combined with the presumption of guilt in Peng Yu-type lawsuits, has taught ordinary citizens to mind their own business – as did the 18 bystanders who left Wang Yue for dead on the street. An opinion poll in Beijing found that 87% of respondents said they would not aid old people who have fallen for fear of being sued. These days, bystanders have learned to self-protect by taking pictures on their smart phones before lifting someone up or performing CPR. Likewise, the only way for some senior citizens to get help is to declare aloud “I fell by myself. I won't sue you!” This is a country with some serious soul-searching to do.

Facing a mounting public outcry, Shenzhen passed China’s first Good Samaritan law in August 2013. The new law punishes false accusers and absolves from liability anyone who renders assistance to those in need. In November 2013, the Beijing government launched a pilot accident insurance programme for the city’s three million senior citizens in an attempt to discourage injured elders from turning Good Samaritans into ATM machines. The hope is that the combination of carrots and sticks will go some way to mend a social fabric ripped apart by corruption, income disparity and old age poverty. 

"Will anybody help?"

Despite legal measures in test cities like Shenzhen and Beijing, victim’s extortion has shown no signs of letting up. Just this past January, a garbage collector in Guangdong committed suicide after an elderly man he had rescued blamed him for the injury and demanded hundreds of thousands in compensation. It is a reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a nation of 1.4 billion people. It will be some time before citizens will feel at ease again to be Good Samaritans, like the dozens of commuters in Perth, Australia who performed an urban miracle last week by tilting a subway train to save a man trapped in the platform gap. Until then, people may want to wear a GoPro camera whenever they go out. 

No diffusion of responsibility there


This article previously appeared in the September 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO