Hong Kong—An hour before the anti-government rally in Causeway Bay, a district crammed with elegant Japanese department stores, boutiques and clubs, I was having dim sum with friends. They were all dressed in black, the color of protest on July 1, the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's Handover to mainland China.
“Why are you wearing orange?” asked Joey, the ringleader of this band of protesters, all of them hip young Cantonese from the advertising, publicity or film industries.
“Cause I'm not a fashionista,” I replied to her, avoiding a minefield—the issue of the censorship that's expected if the government passes the security bill known as Article 23.
After devastating the shrimp buns and leaving a mess of noodles, our tall, stunningly attractive field commandante—dressed in combat khakis topped by a torn, chrome-studded black T-shirt—led her troops to the top of a double-decker tram. The alleys and overhead walkways on this bright, sweltering afternoon were crawling with the battalions of the night, a rolling black tide of anger. To me, the symbolism was unfortunate. It didn't remind me of democratic protest, but of Mussolini-era fascist militancy.
The silent, black sea swelled over the streets of the Wanchai district. Only the effigies of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Financial Secretary Anthony Leung, and Security Chief Regina Ip—hanging by their necks—drew snickers from the crowd.
The humorless mood was in stark contrast to the protest marches of my younger days, when students chanted and embraced the cause of the downtrodden, love, sex and rock 'n' roll in a dizzy fusion of compassion and passion.
This crowd was vastly different from the radically democratic American students who stormed Chicago's Democratic Convention in 1968, or the Red Guards waving Mao's little red book. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nicaragua's Sandinistas, the Right, not the Left, has led the really effective demonstrations that have taken down governments around the world—from Gdansk, Poland, to Timosoara, Romania, and Moscow.
Sadly, the more appropriate analogy for this huge protest is Mussolini's March on Rome in October 1922, the coming to power of the fascist Black Shirts.
Rome in the Roaring '20s and Hong Kong of the third millennium may seem eons apart, but there are similarities. In many ways, Hong Kong is actually more Catholic than Italy after the latter's secularist reforms known as the Risorgimento. An ally of the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement that has tried to depose Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen is the spiritual center of the protest. Hundreds of thousands heeded his call, if only because they were educated in Hong Kong's Catholic schools, the legacy of a British colonial establishment that never bothered to organize public education.
Mussolini-style fascism was the combined muscle of the "little guys," small-time property owners and professionals who envied the capitalist plutocrats and feared the leftist labor unions. Most of the Hong Kong marchers may be unfortunate, but they are not the downtrodden. Hundreds of small businesses are going bankrupt every month here, and free-falling property prices have clobbered professionals who own more than two apartments. Put together all the "little guys" of Hong Kong and you get more than half a million protesters.
The marchers vented all their fury on Tung, a former shipping tycoon, and Leung, a onetime banker with Citibank and Chase. The Handover six years ago cemented an alliance between the mainland bureaucrats with the local tycoons and multinational corporations. No venom was aimed at the labor left, mainly because there's not much left of it after the flight of factories from the city to the mainland. China's new prime minister Wen Jiabao came for this Handover anniversary to sign a free-trade pact to benefit Hong Kong industry. But businessmen and labor leaders alike admit the tariff reductions are too little, too late.
The labor unions marked Handover Day with a pro-China soccer fair in on the opposite end of Victoria Park. Some 200 listless workers were scattered among the red banners in the vast concrete playing field—too few for a Venezuelan-style street battle with the black-clad marchers.
Rally organizers admit most of the turnout was not against the Beijing-backed security measures or the city's nearly 9 percent unemployment rate. Few people are suggesting that the paternalistic Tung is autocratic or evil, in the way of a Berlusconi or a Saddam. If there is a single complaint against the Tung administration in the wake of the SARS epidemic, it's that government officials are incompetent bunglers.
Incompetence—therein lies the main grudge that swept the Fascists into office in Italy. Mussolini got the trains to run on time, and that is exactly what these half a million protesters want: a government bureaucracy that operates as efficiently as a Swiss watch, at least between the hours of 9 and 5.
The marchers’ “Down With Tung” slogan clearly spelled out their goal: not a mere revision of security laws but the downfall of the Tung government. The new Black Shirts are aiming for a coup that will propel them into power and onto a confrontation course with the communist mainland. Though Marx may be rolling in his grave, Mussolini would be proud.
The one sure guarantee against any threat to civil liberties hidden in the small print of Article 23 is that the current government will be too ineffective to carry it out. The real danger for Hong Kongers—as the Italians discovered to their dismay by the 1940s—is that they just might get the government they desire.
Yoici Shimatsu (email@example.com) is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong and former editor of The Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo.