HONG KONG – Just before midnight in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, a slight man in his 70s peels away from a crowd of protesters jeering at police. Behind him, a young woman calls out, “Be safe!”
They make an improbable pair: she a smartly dressed 24-year-old; he an elderly activist who has for decades been sleeping on the streets of one of the wealthiest — and most unequal — cities on Earth.
Bringing the two together is a movement that began in June with protests against a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The proposed legislation has since been withdrawn.
The demonstrations have since spiraled into a struggle over the future of the Chinese-ruled city that has drawn people from a broad cross-section of society. Some live on the breadline, but they have set aside their grievances to support a movement they hope will secure a better future for all.
“Even though we are poor, we still support the five demands,” said the 73-year-old, Lou Tit-Man, referring to a five-point agenda that includes calls for universal suffrage and for hundreds of arrested protesters to be pardoned.
While others organize on encrypted apps like Telegram, Lou Tit-Man follows news of the demonstrations on his shortwave radio, one of the few possessions he has managed to keep from thieves, along with a mask picked up after one scuffle.
Known locally as “Iron Man,” a play on his Chinese name and reputation for resilience, he spent four months in jail during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” that paralyzed the city but failed to win major concessions from Beijing.
In his shirt pocket he carries a crumpled copy of an article about him in a local newspaper, relating how he spent his government subsidies to buy food and water for the mostly young protesters.
“I want the next generation to have a better life,” he said, “I put all my heart and soul into the social movement.”
This year’s rallies have brought thousands of people onto the streets weekend after weekend, shouting slogans like “stand with Hong Kong” and “revolution of our time” that express a growing discontent with what is seen as creeping Chinese interference in the city.
The government has called for dialogue and said it is willing to “take forward constitutional development” in accordance with the law.
Recent demonstrations have often erupted into violence, with black-clad protesters setting fires and vandalizing metro stations as police fired tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons.
Authorities describe the participants as “rioters” controlled by external instigators. A recent police tally of the hundreds arrested showed the youngest was 13, the eldest in their eighties.
Many taking to the streets are students, but others are teachers, pilots, nurses, chefs and cleaners and workers from the poorest districts of the city. They include rough sleepers and residents of the crowded subdivided flats that stand in the shadows of skyscrapers.
While much of the anger driving the protests stems from political grievances — especially over the implementation of the “one country, two systems” agreement under which Hong Kong was handed back to China, promising a high degree of autonomy — analysts say it also has roots in economic woes.
A survey by a local university found 84 percent of protesters said they were angry about class inequality and 92 percent thought the wealth gap was unreasonable.
Graffiti laments the prohibitive cost of housing — the most expensive in the world — and the issue was raised in a community dialogue with Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Thursday night.
The city of 7.4 million, built up from a fishing village by British colonizers in the pursuit of wealth, is now home to more billionaires than any other in the world barring New York, but one in five of its people live in poverty.
Income inequality recently reached its highest level in more than four decades, according to government data.
In Sham Shui Po, the poorest of Hong Kong’s districts, parks are crowded with men sleeping on mattresses or benches. Many are elderly and in poor health, with rashes and bone-thin limbs. Nearby, women push fluffy dogs in prams.
“The affluent people just take everything from poor people,” said Lou Tit-Man, who sleeps in a rough neighborhood where he said he has been beaten up by members of Chinese triads, or gangs.
“In the long-term, I want Hong Kong to become an equal society,” he said.
Ng Wai Tung, a social worker, said the city’s “sky-rocketing rent” was fueling homelessness and a housing crisis the government was failing to tackle.
An acute housing shortage means people wait, on average, at least five years for public housing. Most young people live with their parents and more than 200,000 are packed into subdivided units, known as “coffin cubicles” and “cage homes,” for which they pay the equivalent of more than $500 per month.
Authorities vowed to build 280,000 public flats by 2027 but have said they will fall short of that goal.
Lam said on Friday she would focus on solutions to the crisis in her upcoming policy address, which normally takes place in October.
Pillar of our society
“If the government really wanted to help me, I wouldn’t have to work two jobs and live in a subdivided area,” said 60-year-old Ip, a cleaner at a university, who moved to Hong Kong from mainland China in her thirties.
She pays 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($637) a month for a dark room in Sham Shui Po that barely fits the bed she shares with her husband, who is ill and cannot work. The roof leaks.
She formed tight bonds with students after taking part in the 2014 demonstrations, to the chagrin of her husband and family.
“There were some protesters that I didn’t know who treated me so well. They chatted with me and were very peaceful,” she said.
“These young people were beaten by the police. … They were willing to sacrifice themselves to safeguard a better future for Hong Kong.”
Her parents in the mainland tell her she has been brainwashed by foreign forces. But when she visits them in Guangdong province, and sees them glued to state TV coverage of the protests, she thinks it is they who are misinformed.
“I keep arguing with people who don’t support the students,” she said. “They are the most important pillar of our society. I must help them.”
Outside the police station in Mong Kok, the crowd watches as Lou Tit-Man scrawls slogans like, “Stop police brutality” and “Step down, Carrie Lam.” He writes the messages on scraps of paper he finds on the street and puts them up near the station.
Every night, the police clear the area. “Afterwards I will make new ones,” he said with a grin.
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