All of a sudden the taxi driver has been overcome by a fit of the giggles. Is it the fare? We’ve barely moved in about 20 minutes and the meter has nudged its way up from ridiculously cheap to merely cheap. It is not the fare.
“London, Hong Kong, it’s the same,” he says finally, pointing over at the massed divisions of demonstrators snaking along Hennessey Road in the opposite direction to us. “People don’t like government, make protest. It’s same.”
Okay. Yeah, I nod. Protest. Government. London. But wait – London? Nobody’s smashing windows or setting about police vans. In fact, it’s all rather peaceable. I mean, whoever heard of an angry mob carrying parasols? Maybe the anarchists are late. No trouble, I say. No violence. Unfortunately for our conversation, no understand. Well it was fun while it lasted.
But still, I’m right. This march – they’ve been held every year on July 1 since the British split for home in 1997 – appears to stir up all the animus of a Hare Krishna rally. The government has been trying to do away with by-elections and so this is the biggest turnout since 2004. But still, not even the chanting’s aggressive. And what do they want? Well, universal suffrage would be a start. “One person, one vote” is the shibboleth. In May, incidentally, the Brits were asked whether in future they wanted two votes in general elections, or something to that effect, and declined. Instead they’ve been out marching against cuts in government spending that so far don’t appear to be cuts at all, the erosion of middle class entitlements and suchlike.
I’d seen groups of protestors gathering earlier on. Hawkers sold t-shirts emblazoned with pro-democracy slogans and – the very latest in radical chic – Guy Fawkes masks; volunteers handed out pamphlets and placards and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero blared from a loudspeaker. And it struck me that if the self-pitying jeremiads of a dead hippy were to be the democratic movement’s rallying call, then the Chinese Communist Party needn’t worry all that much.
It is often claimed, indeed, that there will be no great clamour for democracy on mainland China whilst the government is delivering nine per cent growth year on year. Growth, however, may not necessarily preclude anti-government sentiment if it is accompanied by a widening of the gap between the rich and the rest. And this, probably more than the desire for greater democracy, is what explains the 218,000 turnout in Hong Kong last week. As much as they have compounded the miseries of the poor, rising rents and living costs are squeezing the middle classes. The rentier class rules. The picture is not, in fact, so very different from that of London after all.
Later on, there were also a few arrests: 228 to be exact. But one shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The offending parties were, for the most part, demonstrators who refused to go home. There is so little in the way of crime in Hong Kong that its bobbies occasionally feel the need of something to do.