Flag wavers divide opinion at protests

City talk | Ross Adkin and Rachel Blundy 5 Aug 2019

British and colonial-era flags being waved at Hong Kong's anti-government rallies are a vivid rebuke to China's rule, but they have also stirred intense controversy among protesters who fear the symbolism plays into Beijing's hands.

An elderly woman known as "Grandma Wong" is among the most ardent advocates of Britain's Union flag, with her diminutive but vibrant presence a regular feature at the two months of pro-democracy protests that have rocked the SAR.

The 63-year-old, Alexandra Wong, says the flag she chooses to wave is an expression of her dissatisfaction with the years of Beijing rule since the handover.

"I want the middle-aged and older generations - many of them are still asleep and don't really understand young people - to compare now to how good it was, relatively, in the British colonial period," she says at a weekend rally in Causeway Bay.

Beijing and the SAR's leaders, she believes, are "destroying Hong Kong's core values."

The demonstrations were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, but have since evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to eroding freedoms.

Over the past two months huge crowds have gone on the streets followed frequently by violent clashes between smaller groups of hardcore protesters and riot police.

Amid the crowds, British Union flags and Hong Kong's last colonial-era flag - it features a coat of arms made up of a dragon, two lions and two trading junks - have now become a common sight.

Beijing claims the protests are part of a foreign-funded plot to destabilize the motherland. It is especially sensitive to comments from the United Kingdom, which it has accused of "fantasizing in the faded glory of British colonialism."

But for 25-year-old Neo Lai, who was waving the colonial emblem at a recent rally, the flag represents the "fusion of East and West" that many locals fear is disappearing as Beijing steps up efforts to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland.

"I think it is the only flag that represents Hong Kong," he says.

Many of those who have embraced colonial-era vigils hail from the more radical wings of the protest movement - the tiny minority of protesters who want Hong Kong to break away from the mainland, an absolute line in the sand for Beijing.

"I'm protesting because Hong Kong is not China," says Dave Lai, who was waving a colonial flag he bought via Facebook at a recent rally. "I want Hong Kong independence. I want universal suffrage."

During an unprecedented siege of the Legislative Council on July 1 - the 22nd anniversary of the handover - a colonial flag was draped in the debating chamber.

But the flag did not stay up for long - an indication of the mixed feelings it provokes among protesters, the majority of whom are not advocating for independence and fear that overseas flags play into Beijing's narrative.

By far the most popular flag of choice at the rallies has been a wilting version of a Bauhinia flower - Hong Kong's official emblem - on a black background. That's a nod to the idea Hong Kong's unique freedoms and character are rotting away.

Some Hongkongers say people's discontent with Beijing should not provoke admiration for Britain, a colonial master that never granted democracy to the inhabitants either.

A popular forum used to discuss news around the protests asked users to vote on whether they thought protesters should display colonial-era flags during marches, with 3,500 saying "No" and just 250 saying "Yes."

One person wrote: "Foreigners might misunderstand when seeing it. Hongkongers want to rule Hong Kong instead of being ruled by the Chinese mainland or the United Kingdom."

There have also been confrontations among protesters over colonial flags at rallies. During a blockade of police headquarters last month, protesters confronted an elderly man who is a regular at protests waving a colonial flag. They snatched his flag and took it away.

But Grandma Wong, who is greeted warmly by most protesters, says she will continue to wave the Union flag at rallies.

"Many people think I'm humiliating the Chinese Communist Party, holding up the UK flag," she says with a grin. "That isn't my intention, but I'm very happy it does have this effect."



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