While a contentious extradition bill is seeing Hong Kong torn by a deepening rift between the government and its citizens, it has also inadvertently fostered a growing sense of solidarity that transcends generations.
The youth, the middle-aged and retirees in Hong Kong have unusually formed a united front against the government, the architect of the highly criticized extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to China to stand trial in courts controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
In the ongoing anti-government movement unleashed by the now-defunct bill, young people have been on the frontline of mass protests that have often ended in clashes with the police, who in turn have come under criticism for using excessive force against protesters.
Yet many members of the older generation also support the city-wide movement, which is showing no sign of letup since June when millions of people took to the streets against the bill, and even though it was declared “dead” on July 9 by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
With four young people having committed suicide in connection with the legislation and dozens of young activists having been arrested, there is an urge among older citizens to express support for youths.
Over the past weeks, hundreds of mothers rallied twice in a show of solidarity with young protesters, while in a rare march on Wednesday, senior citizens took to the streets.
The rally, billed as a demonstration of the Silver Hair Clan, attracted about 9,000 participants, according to organizers. Black clothes, helmets and masks — the gear of young protesters that characterize the recent wave of protests sweeping Hong Kong — were nowhere to be seen. It was a different kind of anti-government march dominated by middle-aged folks and the elderly, mostly clad in white tops. A small group of elders in wheelchairs also joined.
Braving hot weather on a day when air pollution reached its highest alert level, the demonstrators marched to the chief executive’s office, holding placards with slogans such as “Protect Hong Kong, protect youths” and “Support young people.” Those leading the way carried a 6-meter-long banner reading “Against structural violence, I want universal suffrage.”
“We have to show our support for young people who have been suffering on our behalf these days. Some even risk their lives. We share the same objective,” 77-year-old retiree and marcher Daniel Cheung said.
This unity is in contrast to the divide exposed during the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement in 2014 — also known as the Umbrella Movement — when intergenerational bickering played out in many families during the 79 days of protests that demanded universal suffrage.
“I was totally politically indifferent back in 2014,” said a 47-year-old marcher who identified himself as Mr So. “With a young child and a newborn baby, I never thought I had to care about what was going on in Hong Kong.”
Until June, the last time Mr So took part in a street demonstration was in May 1989, when a million Hongkongers took to the streets in support of the pro-democracy movement in Beijing.
“Now I have woken up. I’m glad my children have also started to become socially aware and learn how to be responsible citizens,” he said.
The generational divide has not disappeared though. A recently widely shared Facebook video, for example, shows a young man in a Hong Kong restaurant berating his family members for calling his pro-democracy friends “radicals.”
Nonetheless, the growing sense of unity is palpable.
“In Hong Kong, a march that attracted thousands of seniors is quite something. As people think the police are getting more brutal, they are more willing to show support for the protesters,” said Dr Leung Kai-chi, a Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism lecturer.
The Wednesday march came three days after a protest in a suburban district that ended in violent clashes between police and young protesters in a shopping mall. Twenty-eight people were hospitalized and 40 arrested. Critics accused the police of trapping demonstrators in the mall by blocking the exits.
Whether the solidarity will continue, according to Leung, depends partly on whether Hong Kong’s pro-democracy political parties can stay on the same front, albeit rather loosely, without running into internal conflicts.
Another crucial factor is the young protesters.
“They have demonstrated an ability to adjust their strategy in protests. It’d probably be fine if they keep things that way. Otherwise, things may become worrying,” Leung said.