Wednesday 3 December 2014

Lessons in Dissent

There is a natural reticence on the part of many Westerners in Hong Kong to demonstrate overt support for the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central. However sympathetic to the cause, they fear it might inadvertently reinforce the Beijing fictional narrative that youthful dissent on the streets of Hong Kong is somehow inspired and supported by Western capitalist agents.  In reality, many of the activists weren't even born when Hong Kong was a British colony and when you visit the Occupy sites most of the well-behaved youngsters in the sprawling tented communities assume you are just another gawping tourist. 'Gweilos' are just about irrelevant in their campaign.

My  feeling of impotence and irrelevance was only increased by watching the excellent new movie by Mathew Torne, shown at the Foreign Correspondent's Club this week which succeeds in touching a few raw nerves.

Lessons in Dissent documents the contrasting political development of two very young social activists, Joshua Wong,  the church-going co-founder of the student group Scholarism and Ma Jai, a more vehement anti-establishment figure and instinctive rebel, with appropriately long hair and a rock & roll personal image. Curiously, both boys grew up on the same middle class housing estate in Ap Lei Chau and while Wong becomes the well-scrubbed media darling of the student campaign to oppose National Education and Beijing's tightening grip of authority on Hong Kong's civil society, Ma Jai becomes slightly cynical about relying on media-invented celebrities like Wong to achieve political change.

It's a fascinating dual portrait combined with an exposure of the extremely mild but determined and idealistic version of radicalism, born in Hong Kong schools and universities that is now at the very heart of the Umbrella Movement. Torne should be congratulated for his foresight, fortune or instinctive talent for spotting such an influential movement and its key characters, at such an embryonic stage and bringing it to wider attention.

Joshua Wong appears as articulate, energetic, persuasive, politely recalcitrant and occasionally over- zealous as he  confronts leading establishment figures about their failures in office. He is truly impressive and the viewer has to remind themselves this is a vulnerable 15 year old child we are witnessing, directing dissent against arguably the most powerful and ruthless organisation on the planet- the Chinese Communist Party.

Wong, now just 18, is on a hunger strike. Today it was reported that his blood sugar levels are dropping to alarming levels but he is refusing medical advice to accept glucose water. He is younger than my youngest son and he and his colleagues like Ma Jai, are prepared to risk their health for their ideals while the rest of us gawp, sneer, ignore, or even moan about them delaying our taxi journey by a few precious minutes.

Hats off to Mr Wong. That's what I say.  Well done son and please ...take care.