Science fiction is often about some future utopia – or a dystopia where mankind are slaves to a totalitarian or alien-dominated regime. In HG Well’s The Time Machine, the hero travels a million years into the future to find an apparently idyllic world with a peaceful race living a pastoral life. However, at night the dark secret of this world is revealed – these peaceful folk (the Eloi) are reared by another race (the Morlochs) for them to eat.
Here in Hong Kong we are not quite eating each other, but passions are running high over alternative visions of the future. The students of the Umbrella Movement, the Occupy campaign, are protesting against electoral arrangements that they fear will reinforce a sinister nexus of tycoons, triads and pro-China forces; their opponents say that Occupy threatens the rule of law and social stability.
Walking through the occupied sites the other day, I was struck by how the students are not just protesting against a possible dystopia, but actually realising their own vision of utopia in the street itself. ‘Welcome to the Hong Kong Commune’, reads a sign above the barriers that block Gloucester Road at Admiralty. And if you pass the barrier, you find that indeed a commune has been built in the street.
At first the protesters slept on the tarmac, with little over their heads but the umbrellas which became the emblem of their campaign. Now, though, thanks to a flood of resources from supporters in the community, they have tents. There are over two thousand individual tents in the main Admiralty site, and marquees to provide covered communal space.
The students have organised themselves to provide certain basic services. There are resources centres where donors can bring food, drink, tools, and supplies. The supplies in turn are displayed for the use of those who need them – following incidentally the principle of true communism, ‘From each according to his means, to each according to his need’.
The Admiralty site has a tented study area, with more than a hundred places. There are first aid stations, manned by medical students or trainee doctors and nurses. There is a lending library. There are classes offering German, French, weight-loss, self-defence. In craft centres, willing hands make miniature coloured paper umbrellas – and patchwork quilts, posters, clay figurines and many other things that celebrate the campaign. There are carpentry areas, where rough tables and stools are put together out of planking. And most of all there are forums – small areas for casual discussion, and a central forum with platform for the main speaker gatherings. Anyone who does not manage to express his view there can post it on the walls available, or in a suggestion box.
As the days pass, the commune’s establishment grows. More tents are put up, more posters and artwork appear. Rough boards to clamber over the concrete barrier between the lanes of Gloucester Road are replaced by more solidly built steps with handrails. Generators provide lighting within the main tents. Rubbish is cleared and recycled; the whole place is swept clean.
Perhaps most striking is the commune’s atmosphere. Despite the passion of the Umbrella Movement, it is surprisingly peaceful. Office workers and tourists stroll through the area, or sit down among the demonstrators to take their lunch. At night, the numbers swell as people sit in groups, to chat or play music or participate in the forums. For more than 50 days, the movement was distinguished by its almost total lack of violence – not a window broken, not a car overturned. That record was marred by an attack on the Legislative Council premises led by masked men whose identity has not yet been confirmed. But even with this, it remains, so far, an astonishingly peaceful exercise.
To someone not from Hong Kong, it is hard to convey the sense of peace and freedom one gets walking through the occupied sites. Hong Kong streets are normally harsh. The pavements are crowded, the people squeezed into a narrow channel between the shop fronts and the railings that line the road – a channel often narrowed further by hawker stalls, goods awaiting delivery and construction materials. The outermost pedestrians have to duck to avoid the scything wing-mirror of a lorry or a bus. Vehicles roar past, and their fumes build up, trapped by the tall buildings.
To step from the snarling, threatening, polluted streets into the free open space of the occupied sites can be quite magical. It is like stepping into an enchanted garden, a little world where nymphs and dryads recline at ease and every traveller is welcome. It is of course a precarious world, under constant threat from aggrieved citizens and a hostile government. At time of writing, one site (Mong Kok) has already been forcibly cleared. But for a time the Hong Kong commune has provided a glimpse of utopia in a not-very-utopian world.