In Hong Kong, Life Goes On (Despite the Whiff of Tear Gas)

HONG KONG — Most of Hong Kong’s newspapers carried the same photo on their front pages Monday: a police officer in riot gear, his eyes wide, pointing a revolver at protesters. The photo, also beamed around the world on satellite television, captured a single, electrifying moment in months of demonstrations, which have often been described as “paralyzing” and “roiling” this city of seven million people.

But other images tell another, less tantalizing version of events: that despite the protests, life is proceeding relatively normally.

In a video recorded by a New York Times reporter, students in a baking class barely batted an eye last weekend when black-clad protesters surrounded their classroom in a shopping mall. In a photo that spread across social media this month, a man at a street stall nonchalantly purchased fish balls, a popular snack, as smoke from a tear-gas canister swirled around him.

In short: This bastion of capitalism on China’s southern coast is still going about its business. The ATMs are dispensing cash. The stock market is filling orders, although it has lost $300 billion in market value since June and many economists predict the territory could soon fall into recession.

High-end restaurants are taking reservations. Street vendors are hawking their wares. And with few — but very notable — exceptions, the trains are running on time and the airport, the world’s seventh busiest, is operational. (Protesters, however, have vowed to disrupt the airport again on Sunday.)

Lawyers, civil servants, accountants, teachers and aviation employees have all held demonstrations in recent weeks — an indication of broad antigovernment sentiment — only to return to their jobs after a few hours, a sign that showing up to work is still a priority. Citywide transportation shutdowns and days-long general strikes have yet to materialize. The school year is set to start next week, right on schedule.

“Yes, of course people are still eating and working,” said Jeffrey Mok, 33, an employee at a roadside fish ball shop in Kowloon. “Those office workers who buy their breakfast here still come every morning, and they go to work just like that.”

“Just because Hong Kong has a huge problem now doesn’t mean we have to put our lives on hold,” he said, summing up the sentiment of many. “We are all worried, but life goes on.”

The worries are real. Most residents have seen nothing like this in their lifetime. The “one country, two systems” arrangement under which China took back the onetime British colony in 1997, promising decades of freedom and relative autonomy, has never looked so fragile.

And yet the city goes on. So confident are the protesters that its ubiquitous 7-Elevens and McDonald’s outlets will stay open, no matter the chaos, that the former is relied on as a dispensary of umbrellas (surprisingly good at repelling tear gas canisters), while vouchers to the latter are often distributed at marches to feed and hydrate weary protesters.

For many of the hundreds of thousands of residents who have joined the protests, demonstrating is a weekend activity. Come Monday, everyone goes back to work.

“Our lives are actually still very normal on weekdays,” said Karen Lau, 22, a university student. “Just last Friday, I went to do my nails with my close friend and then we had Japanese food. It sounds funny, because the very next day we were facing tear gas and risking our lives in Kwun Tong. I think this is what’s unique about our protest this time. We are all ordinary people living our ordinary little lives.”

Hong Kongers may be willing to rock the boat, but for now, they are unwilling to capsize it. Beijing also seems unwilling to push the envelope too far, advancing a policy of stalemate rather than risk a bloody crackdown.

Even the local government seems torn between describing the protests as a growing menace and a contained exercise. Soon after the State Department issued a warning to American travelers visiting Hong Kong, officials here said the city remained a welcoming place for visitors and had a long tradition of peaceful protests.

“The impact of these illegal confrontations is confined to a limited area near the procession routes, and is not widespread,” the government said in a statement.

Despite Beijing’s claim that the protesters are attempting to foment a “color revolution,” similar to those that upended governments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, there are, as of now, no signs of the political instability or breakdown in civil society that were hallmarks of those events.

None of which is to say that the protests have been small or unsuccessful. Nor is it to say they have not taken a toll on the economy, or descended into violence.

Shops may be open for business, but those catering to foreign tourists and mainland Chinese visitors have been particularly pinched. Luxury brands, hotels and airlines have seen, or expect to see, a decline in business. Visitors are expected to put off traveling to the city because of the protests, which the authorities have characterized as “riots.” Even Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show,” cited the protests when he canceled a comedy show here this month.

“Recent events in Hong Kong over the past two months did not substantially impact our passenger business in July,” Ronald Lam, a spokesman for Cathay Pacific, the territory’s flagship airline, said in a statement. “However, we anticipate a much more significant impact to our revenue in August and onwards. Traffic into Hong Kong, both business and leisure, has weakened substantially.”

Thousands of residents have taken to the streets weekly since early June, when the first large demonstrations were held against an unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the courts. Since then, the protesters’ demands have expanded to include universal suffrage and an investigation into allegations of police brutality.

Most of the protesters have been peaceful, with rally organizers applying for permits and marchers mostly sticking to routes approved by the police.

The protesters grabbing headlines of late have not been the hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, but a subset of several hundred who are willing to block roads, destroy property and fight the police.

In a single day this month, the police used more than 800 cans of tear gas against protesters. In July, demonstrators stormed the local legislature, breaking windows and marring the walls with graffiti. Protesters have accused the police of using excessive force and letting thugs assault demonstrators with impunity. The police say they have shown immense restraint against the protesters, some of whom have attacked them with makeshift weapons.

The officer in Monday’s front-page photo, for instance, was pointing his gun at protesters with sticks who were charging at him and his fellow officers. He didn’t shoot anyone. But someone fired a warning shot.

Katherine Li contributed reporting.

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