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World 'Hong Kong's Not Right.' Protests Upend Life in a City on Edge.

07:06  28 december  2019
07:06  28 december  2019 Source:   online.wsj.com

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HONG KONG—Months of unrest have transformed the city beyond the tear gas, graffiti and disrupted commutes. There are deep changes in the lives of residents.

Protests have created an increasingly unpredictable state of upheaval, forcing anxious decisions among the city’s 7.5 million residents—the safest route for the kids to go to school, whether to cancel a wedding or to move away.

People are on edge and angry: some at violent protesters, most at the government for failing to resolve the crisis.

Across the city, ATMs are boarded up, traffic lights broken and once-reliable subways erratic. Social outings are curtailed, special events canceled and plans shelved. Some weeks, schools have closed. Shop and restaurant workers have lost jobs to a dying nightlife and slowing commerce. Political arguments darken family dinners. Conversations end, “Stay safe.”

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On some days, life doesn’t appear much different. The affluent still gossip over $100 lunches; private drivers idle Teslas and Bentleys while waiting for their bosses. People still haggle at markets. Yet few neighborhoods have been spared the noxious taint of tear gas and Molotov cocktails lobbed between police and protesters.

Hundreds of people have been injured and more than 6,000 arrested. Estimates vary widely, but it is believed that damage to public facilities total in the millions of dollars, and lost sales have cost billions.

The unpredictable revolt against city authorities and the rule of China’s Communist Party has residents asking: What’s next? Many fear for the future of their city, a fragile oasis of liberal life in China’s authoritarian regime.

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Demonstrations that began in June were largely contained to the central business district, near government offices. By July, protests spread to residential neighborhoods citywide and spilled over from weekends to the workweek.

The demonstrations were triggered by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed authorities to send criminal suspects from Hong Kong to stand trial in mainland China, where courts are notorious for a near-100% conviction rate. That proposal was axed in September. Protests have continued with demands for greater democratic rights and police accountability.

Hong Kong used to buzz with crowds around the clock. Residents are accustomed to spending most waking hours outside cramped apartments, visiting all-night noodle shops and ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience stores.

Now, nights are quieter, streets are emptier. Protest graffiti appears and is hastily covered over. Trash cans, used as barricades by protesters, have become a rare sight.

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Bit by bit, the fallout of unrest has spread deep into the fabric of daily life. Each time the tear gas clears, the booming sky’s-the-limit city of skyscrapers and opportunity is a little less recognizable to residents.

Early in August, the fallout reached Mei Mui, a fast-food worker. She was at a dim sum lunch with friends in Sham Shui Po, a district of violent clashes. One of the women chided Ms. Mui for wearing a black shirt, the color worn by protesters.

“You’re going to be attacked,” Ms. Mui recalled her friend saying. “Can you buy a new shirt, please?” Ms. Mui hasn’t worn black since.

Weeks later, unease edged toward trauma. Ms. Mui was at the subway station when police chased demonstrators down the escalators in her direction. Protestors threw umbrellas and bags of trash at police.

Ms. Mui quickly crouched to avoid getting hit. “My heart was beating so fast,” she said. Her fear returns on subway trips, but work requires she brave the occasional chaos of a public transit system that ferries millions a day.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re all trapped in this,” she said. “I have no idea for how long.”

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Ms. Mui, who moved to Hong Kong from mainland China about 20 years ago, is sympathetic to the young protesters. “The future belongs to them,” she said. “They are fighting for it.”

On a Sunday at the end of September, demonstrators sang anthems and chanted slogans at a mall in Sha Tin, the city’s largest residential area. Muzak mixed with protest slogans to serenade shoppers going in and out of nearby Zara and Apple stores.

Sunny Fung, a 70-year-old taxi driver, and his wife were headed to a buffet lunch and decided to take a look. From the atrium, Mr. Fung briefly shouted along with the demonstrators below: “Hong Kong People! Add oil!” a message of encouragement. He had never participated in such a public outburst.

Minutes after the couple sat down at the restaurant, the shutters were closed. While they ate, Mr. Fung and his wife used their phones to watch a live stream of the demonstration taking place just outside the doors. Like other residents, they have become accustomed to the unexpected.

Protesters stripped materials from the mall to try to block the way of arriving police. Finally, riot police and mall employees asked everyone in the restaurant to leave. The Fungs hurried home, grateful to have safely navigated a restaurant meal. “Life needs to go on,” Mr. Fung said. “It’s out of our hands.”

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Wong Man, 46, a lawyer with two sons, canceled social plans after protests erupted across the city for the Oct. 1 National Day, a bank holiday celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China.

Mrs. Wong and her friends were too scared to leave home, she said.

Shops linked to China as well as subway stations were vandalized. Fires burned. An 18-year-old protester was shot and wounded.

Violence surged again days later, after the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam declared a ban on face masks. The subway system shut down, and many residents bought food supplies in a panic.

Mrs. Wong never paid close attention to politics. That changed in June, she said, when the proposed extradition law triggered mass rallies. She supported the peaceful marches, she said. But as demonstrations escalated to violent confrontations, she felt like a prisoner in her city. She was alarmed by videos of protesters attacking vehicles and their drivers.

While her work commute rarely takes her through protest zones, she carries a cricket bat in the car. She signed up her family for martial arts lessons.

Her 13-year-old son takes the subway to school. Each day, Mrs. Wong checks news sites “like a detective trying to figure out what might come next,” trying to anticipate any danger on his route, she said.

Mrs. Wong and her husband have decided to send her teenage son to boarding school in the next two school years. Their 10-year-old son will follow later.

“I never expected Hong Kong to be like this. The city I know, people respected each other and listened to different viewpoints,” she said. “The government is not doing anything, and police are just caught in the middle. When is it going to stop?”

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In November, the cross-harbor tunnel was closed amid clashes between protesters and police. The busy vehicle corridor connects Hong Kong island, where the seat of government and central business district are located, to the rest of the city.

Kiki Chan, a 31-year-old English tutor, had spent the previous 18 months planning her wedding. She had invited 600 guests to the banquet, scheduled for the end of November.

Two weeks before the wedding, fierce clashes broke out between protesters and police at university campuses across Hong Kong. Ms. Chan’s wedding venue was near one.

She and her fiancé talked about postponing the ceremony, fearing for the safety of their guests. She said she couldn’t happily say, “I do,” while terrible events unfolded outside.

They pushed their wedding to spring, and then they cried. “I know that my wedding doesn’t compare to everything that Hong Kong is going through right now,” she said, “but I still felt sad.”

Her living room is filled with boxes and bags of wedding decorations, party favors and artificial flowers. The couple’s wedding rings are in storage.

On what was to have been her November wedding day, Ms. Chan cast her vote in district elections. That evening, pan-democratic candidates were swept into office, in an electoral rebuke to the current administration.

“In my heart,” she said, ”there is hope for my hometown.”

The cancellations of weddings and other events have slowed work for Ng Cheuk-nam, a 63-year-old sound electrician and lifelong Hong Kong resident.

He sympathizes with the protests and is frustrated by the political impasse. He said he has no faith the government can resolve tensions.

Mr. Ng has trouble sleeping and lies awake thinking about the prospects for his only son, an air-conditioning technician. He has urged his son to move away from Hong Kong before a crackdown by Beijing.

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His son doesn’t want to leave Mr. Ng, who is divorced and alone.

“I just want him to save himself, then I will find peace,” Mr. Ng said. “I’m old. I can take it. But he has his whole future to think of.”

Amelia, 64, and Mercy, 59, are among the more than 380,000 domestic workers in the city. Like most of their peers, they generally work six days a week.

The two women arrived from the Philippines more than two decades ago. Nearly every Sunday, they would attend Mass and then gather with dozens of friends from their province in the Philippines for a potluck in a public park.

Their meals featured traditional delicacies of adobo, usually marinated chicken, and pancit, Filipino noodles, that remind them of home. After eating and catching up, they sometimes danced.

It has been months since their last potluck. Friends who live on the other side of the city worry they won’t be able to return home if there is trouble on the roads. Sundays now are a quick meal from McDonald’s, Mercy said.

Unless life returns to normal, Amelia thinks she might retire to the Philippines. “How did the city become like this?” she said. “How could this have gone on for so long?”

Across Hong Kong, many people categorize each other as “yellow,” pro-protestor, or “blue,” pro-police. People who say they are neutral call themselves “green.” Despite their stance, greens are sometimes caught in the middle.

Jenny Wong considers herself green. The 32-year-old regulation-compliance professional, who grew up in the city, said she understands the motive for protests. She also wants the violence to stop.

Ms. Wong turns off the TV to avoid the news and excuses herself from the dinner table when the talk turns to the demonstrations.

Her company lets everyone go home early at the first signs of trouble. On those days, Mrs. Wong often goes trail running to escape what is happening in the city.

The cost of saying the wrong thing is high, Mrs. Wong said, and she finds herself trying to censor her remarks. She gets into arguments with her blue-leaning husband during his rants about protesters.

In the last wave of protests five years ago, Mrs. Wong said, she made an offhand comment that police didn’t have a choice but to crack down. The remark offended a friend who never spoke to her again.

These days, she tries to nod at whatever people say about the unrest.

Passersby who speak against protesters have been attacked. One was set on fire. Protest supporters, too, have been assaulted with knives and fists.

“Taking such extreme sides is what’s dividing society,” said Mrs. Wong,

Mrs. Wong believes in the resilience of Hong Kong. She and her husband are trying to have a baby and hope to buy a home if high prices ever dip. Yet the troubles cloud her view.

“I have a great apartment, am happily married and just got a promotion,” she said. ”But Hong Kong’s not right.”

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com

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