Chaos on the streets: who's in charge?

November 15, 2019 14:35
A protester mans barricades outside a students' dormitory at City University in Kowloon Tong on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Nothing is worse than not being able to meet the four basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and transportation. Many Hongkongers went through the tribulation of not having the last one this week.

Commuters and motorists have their own horror stories to tell about how they were stuck in traffic after the Tolo Highway and the Cross Harbour Tunnel were rendered impassable by roadblocks put up by students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

Many MTR stations were closed, while passengers on trains that were running had to endure long minutes of waiting at each stop because the disruptions, like a domino chain, affected all the lines – and many ended up getting off the trains and walking instead.

A friend told me he was extremely frustrated because he followed the advice of Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and went to work on Tuesday. And so he spent hours walking to the office – he couldn't find any taxi or car for hire and the buses were all full. After work, he had to spend a few more hours to get back home. 

The chief executive praised people like him who insisted on going to work, calling them "adorable", but my friend was far from being consoled. He was furious.

“There is one simple rule for governance – to keep the traffic going,” he said. “If there are roadblocks, the police and relevant agencies have the duty to clear them. How can they stop the heartbeat of the city?”

A local newspaper based in Tai Po ran a cover story that asserts Hong Kong's end is assured if the students' roadblocks continued.

Lam called her ministers to a late-night meeting on Wednesday to discuss how to deal with the worsening situation.

Appearing at the Legislative Council the following day, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung assured the lawmakers that it was an ordinary meeting which was held close to midnight because many of the officials were busy in the daytime.

So what was discussed at the meeting? A joke was circulating on social media that Lam's cabinet came up with a brilliant solution to the turmoil, and it can be summarized in one word "wait". Did they have a Plan B? Yes, and it could be summarized in two words – "wait, wait".

It seems the government has run out of options except to ask people to wait because stepping up police action on the rebel students or, worse, calling on Beijing for help would only make things worse.

The city's police force is 30,000-strong, about a tenth of the entire college student population. That may be a big number, but not enough to stop all the protests, road blockades and vandalism flaring up in almost every district.

People of all political stripes are united in blaming the government for its poor handling of the unrest. Pro-establishment legislator Alice Mak Mei-kuen railed at the government for just sitting there and doing nothing, while Democratic Party's Andrew Wan Siu-kin made an impassioned speech blaming police brutality for the escalation of violence and chaos on the streets.

The main concern now is whether the government will cancel the District Council elections scheduled for Nov. 24 if the transport chaos continues.

This prompted activists at Chinese University to decide to open one lane on each side of Tolo Highway, with the warning that they would close the vital transport link again if the government did not commit to holding the local polls as scheduled.

Also on Friday, major thoroughfares in various districts were blocked with bricks, railings and traffic cones as office workers joined black-clad activitists in lunchtime protests.

What's in store for us over the weekend and next week. Well, your guess is as good as mine. 

In the words of the King of Hip-Hop Eminem, “The truth is you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.”

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EJ Insight writer