It is easy for us in America to despair about ever being able to rise up in revolution against oppressive government in the 21st century. How would we organize? There is an instructive model emerging in Hong Kong. Young people on the front lines, moms and dads and uncles and assorted adults providing the back room infrastructure and support, including McDonald’s gift certificates..
HONG KONG—Most nights, when Hong Kong fogs up with tear gas and black-shirted young protesters find themselves on the run from police, a middle-aged manager named Mr. Chan drives his silver Toyota four-door into the fray to ferry them home.
After dropping off one group, he returns for more, carrying water and a bag of T-shirts for a quick disguise. He can log 100 miles shuttling between conflict zones and the outlying apartment towers where many protesters live.
He’s part of what’s known as “the school bus”—code for a vast underground of getaway cars typically driven by older, middle-class Hong Kongers who want to support the younger generation protesting in the streets. One of the encrypted chat groups organizing the rides, also called “after school pickup,” connects drivers it calls “parents” with protester “children.” The group has some 21,000 subscribers. Tens of thousands more subscribe to other groups.
Mainland China and its handpicked leaders in Hong Kong have argued that a silent majority of citizens opposes the demonstrators who have confronted police, blocked roads and disrupted airport travel during a summer of protests against Beijing’s tightening grip. A closer look suggests a vast swath of the city is quietly helping to keep it going.
Largely out of the public eye, behind-the-scenes supporters have sprung up across Hong Kong to furnish protesters with rides home, gas masks, food money and funds for legal defense. There’s a doctors group offering anonymous examinations to injured protesters wary of being treated at public hospitals. Another group offers to listen to young protesters who don’t feel comfortable talking about what they are going through with their own parents.
“You don’t have to face it alone,” the group advertises in protester chat rooms. Its administrator goes by @cometomama.
Since June, activists have raised roughly $10 million in small donations to pay protester legal fees and medical bills. The fund is called the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” after the date of fierce clashes when some protesters were charged with crimes that can carry a sentence up to 10 years, according to Margaret Ng, one of its organizers.
“It is significant because it shows how many people in Hong Kong want to show their support in some way but can’t get out and protest,” said Ms. Ng, 71, a prominent Hong Kong lawyer who served years in its legislature.
Crowdfunding has raised millions to buy full page ads in international newspapers explaining the protesters’ cause to garner global support. The first of these were timed to hit during the Group of 20 meeting in Japan.
“We’re just neighbors getting together to do what we can,” said Mr. Chan, the ride-giver, who said he wants to protect the future of Hong Kong for his own child. As he spoke by telephone, “Stand With Hong Kong,” a nightly 10 p.m. cheer for the protests, echoed from the balconies of nearby towers. “We are like intersecting social circles that overlap and overlap until we reach the goal, like a human chain.”
The public got a glimpse of the size of that chain early this month. When authorities shut down public transport links to Hong Kong’s remote airport and left protesters there stranded, so many drivers responded to pleas for rides that they snarled traffic on a major highway. Hours into the rescue, there were more drivers than protesters. Some cars went home empty.
This support helps explain the durability of a movement that deepened this summer in opposition to a law allowing extraditions to China. The protests have persisted while police stepped up arrests and unleashed water cannons to restore order.
The support also undercuts arguments circulated by Beijing that the protests are sustained by provocateurs from the U.S. and elsewhere.
The supporters’ work is covert because they fear they could be accused of abetting illegal gatherings or other crimes. They also fear mainland China could target them for retribution. Already, Beijing has pressured companies such as Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific to fire suspected protest supporters or participants.
Many come from the comfortable sectors of Hong Kong society. Take a housewife with long hair and a prominent diamond studded wedding band who asked to be called Mrs. D, the initial of one of her names. She lives in the city’s Kowloon Tong neighborhood, a posh enclave long home to Hong Kong’s privileged, including the late actor Bruce Lee.
“You can print that I live in Kowloon Tong,” she said. “I want people to know that people like me are supporting the movement.”
Some nights after following the skirmishes on TV, she goes out to make school bus runs with her husband in their luxury sedan. She first checks in with one of the “school bus” channels on the anonymous messaging app Telegram that connects drivers and protesters using lightly veiled codes.
“Have all the children gotten home yet?” asked the administrator of one school bus group around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, a night of violent showdowns in the Mong Kok neighborhood. “If anyone would like us to pick you up from school today. If anyone wants a ride home, contact admin,” the group repeated at 2 a.m.
In July, Mrs. D was moved by reports that some young protesters weren’t eating much during the long days and nights scuffling with police. The student-aged protesters often don’t have enough money for transportation, gear like helmets and food. Some parents cut off their allowances to keep them from going out, she said.
In a matter of weeks, Mrs. D collected $25,000 worth of McDonald’s gift certificates and prepaid metro cards largely by hitting up neighbors.
Many protesters are ashamed to accept donations, she said, so she and her friends decided to present them as “gifts from an aunt.” They staple the coupons into packs with handwritten notes and little hearts. Mrs. D said she hand delivers coupons to protesters she met at rallies or through encrypted chats. The protesters redistribute the coupons through networks of their own.
“You are not alone,” read one note. “We are giving you our energy.”
Some money has come available for arrested protesters who choose to flee, according to two protesters who were offered money and two donors who know about the practice. The protesters, who fear long prison terms, typically have fled to Taiwan.
Major logistical efforts go into providing front-line protesters with the gear they use to protect themselves from tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and less-lethal projectiles like bean bags deployed since the demonstrations began.
A full set of gear—respirator masks and filters from 3M , yellow construction helmets from Korel, goggles and gloves—can cost $50 or more. Replacing top-of-the-line air filters on a mask after heavy use can cost between $22 and $35.
The equipment is difficult to find anymore in Hong Kong’s shops but is in ample supply in the streets. It is common at protest staging areas to see stacks of helmets still in their plastic wrapping or boxes of shop goggles left out for the taking.
Sources: staff reports; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images (photo)
Pro-Beijing journalists, businessmen and politicians have cited the seemingly endless supply of apparently new gear as evidence the movement has the backing of anti-China organizations, potentially with funding from the U.S.
“I was told a few vans would pull up behind the front lines, and out would come helmets, masks, you know, first class equipment,” said Alan Zeman, a prominent Hong Kong property developer and supporter of the local government who said he believes protester funding could be coming covertly from the U.S. “They are kids, but they are very well prepared with masks and all that. There is an organization behind it.”
A supporter who called himself Mr. Ko, a top regional executive at a global company, said he spends much of his spare time acquiring and distributing such gear.
He is part of an informal group of around 100 people connected through Telegram who share information about sourcing, shipping and distribution. They import the gear from Taiwan, where they believe suppliers would never give their names to police.
“We only buy a few sets each, to stay under the radar,” he said. “But if we each buy five, that’s 500 sets.”
An engineer in his mid-30s whose surname is Cheung brings in far more. He works at a construction site, so he has a plausible reason to buy gear in bulk. Right now he said he has six boxes of full-face 3M gas masks stacked at the site ready for the next big march.
He stays connected via membership in a recommendation-only chat group of engineers—many groups require an existing member to vouch for a new one to fend off police infiltrators. The group discusses buying gear and other engineering topics, including possibly using carbon fiber to make lightweight shields for the protesters.
Mr. Ko delivers the gear to protesters that he knows a few days before a demonstration. “I tell parents it’s similar to what you face with kids and sex,” Mr. Ko said. “You know they are going to do it anyway, so you give them protection. We know they are going to protest, so let’s give them protection.”
Mr. Ko believes the protesters prefer a more expensive model of air filter for their masks in part because of the model’s striking hot pink color. “They really want the pink ones, so we get it for them,” he said.
Older Hong Kongers supported past protests, too. They supplied food, tents and aid during a 79-day sit-in by students demanding democracy in 2014.
Their support is more active now, said Chris, a trim man in his mid-50s who owns a logistics and shipping business. Back in 2014, he made the local news for carrying wood planks in his business suit after work to help build desks so school-age protesters could continue their studies.
Now he said he often stands very near where the masked protesters are confronting police, in part to see if they need anything.
“I feel I owe these kids a lot,” he said.
His parents fled mainland China after the Communist Revolution with nothing, and built new lives in what was then a British colony. The U.K. returned the territory to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement that promised Hong Kong a measure of autonomy until 2047.
That arrangement was challenged this year by a proposed law allowing extradition to China. The bill, which followed a number of other erosions of Hong Kong’s rule of law, sparked the current protests. Chris saw it as the death of one country, two systems and Hong Kong’s way of life.
“This is a fight about freedom and democracy versus authoritarianism and communism,” he said.
On June 12, when tens of thousands of protesters massed outside the legislative building to prevent lawmakers from passing the bill, he went, too.
Expecting police to disperse the crowd with pepper spray, he went from store to store buying every umbrella he could to be used as shields. He purchased at least fifty and sometimes paid just half price, which he said reflects the level of local support.
The legislators were forced to suspend the vote on the law, and a summer of confrontation kicked into high gear.
The protesters have now organized into self-directed teams ranging from a handful to a couple of dozen youths. Chris said he forged links with a representative of one of these teams and basically adopted them. From there he met others. He provides them money to buy protective gear, food and other things they need.
Of all the methods of support, the school bus brings the older generation of supporters into closest proximity with the young protesters. Sometimes it unites father and son.
A 23-year-old accounting school graduate called Tim sometimes goes out on late night school bus runs with his father after making it home from protesting himself. His father drives while Tim assures the protesters his middle-aged dad isn’t a cop.
“This experience has drawn us together,” he said.
The school bus started because protesters needed ways to get from marches on Hong Kong island back to their homes on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. It has become more important now that authorities are shutting metro stations early, leaving protesters wandering the streets and vulnerable to arrest.
A protester called Desmond first asked for a free school bus ride on July 21, after word spread that protesters had been beaten in a subway station. He was running from club-wielding police that night in the city and needed to get back across the harbor. He asked the anonymous administrator of one of the school bus chat rooms to help him.
The administrator told him to go to an address on the edge of noisy bar district, where a bunch of cars waiting around wouldn’t attract attention. Desmond found 20 cars lined up, their drivers calling out destinations such as “West Kowloon!” and “East Kowloon!”
Once a driver picks up a protester, the intergenerational chitchat is kept to a minimum, said Mr. Chan.
“If you start talking too much and asking questions, they start to get nervous that you are a cop,” he said. “I just drive and let them off wherever they want.”
This article by John Lyons first appeared \at wsj.com on September 20th, 2019