Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am

What has changed in Hong Kong since the handover, long-term residents are frequently asked? Here's an obvious, if rather unsettling answer: the street-protest culture has become so deeply entrenched that heavy metal barricades are now permanently deployed around key public areas.

Next time you walk through Central, take a look at the usual gathering spots for disaffected citizens. Portable steel barricades are stacked all around the Legislative Council Building, Statue Square, Chater Garden, the Court of Final Appeal, the Central Government Offices and Government House - anywhere, in short, where public demonstrations are likely.

During the devastating 1967 riots, many protesters were paid by prominent, wealthy leftists to block the roads, wave Mao Zedong's 'little red book' and generally stir up mayhem. Free meals and so on in return for making up the numbers at rallies - commonplace elements of rent-a-crowd politics in the developing world - are also staple features in contemporary Hong Kong.

Several key lessons were learned from 1967. Large public spaces where crowds could quickly and easily gather were, wherever possible, broken up into smaller areas that could be tightly controlled or rapidly locked down. When Chater Garden was remodelled from the old Hong Kong Cricket Club grounds, the creation of a large open space was avoided. Ever noticed how segmented Victoria Park is? Unimaginative civic design has nothing to do with it.

Protest-management lessons were also learned from other places. Singapore experienced repeated, devastating riots throughout the 1950s and 60s and bans on public assembly in the Lion City date from that time. Hong Kong's racial and linguistic homogeneity - for all the 'international, cosmopolitan, Asia's World City' spin - is a key reason for its internal stability. This demographic factor puts Hong Kong in stark contrast to Singapore, where throughout that period, political protests quickly assumed extremely ugly, very violent racial dimensions, even when ethnic politics were not the underlying cause.

Put another way, given the broader demographic realities, Singapore's kiddies are not allowed to play with matches - period. Because it seldom gets out of hand here, Hong Kong generally tolerates this kind of behaviour in public places. But only within designated areas, when plenty of responsible adults are standing by with fire extinguishers and sand buckets, just in case those exercising the city's 'essential freedoms' get a bit carried away.

Let's see just how many extra truckloads of metal barricades are rolled out around Central and Causeway Bay ahead of Wednesday's Legislative Council vote on political reform. Have an interesting summer!