When last I posted, the police weren’t letting anyone leave the convention center, but I managed to escape with some difficulty and get myself tear-gassed. I couldn’t get dinner because the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong looks like a war zone and everything was closed. I did get some good pictures and video, which I’ll post as soon as I can. Poker at the Sands will have to wait, although for a couple grand I’ll make up some anecdotes about how Macau has become a model of economic success thanks to legalized gambling. Apparently that’s the going rate.
Here’s how I got tear-gassed: I went through a back hallway out of the convention center. Apparently a bunch of other people had the same idea. We kept running into police barriers set up in the maze of inter-building walkways that normally carry pedestrians above the heavily-trafficked streets of Hong Kong. We finally convinced the police to let us through, and I took a stairway down onto the street. Immediately I saw about 1,000 protesters gathered a little further down, and a line of police with gas masks and Plexiglas shields blocking them from getting too close to the convention center. A man was shouting in Korean through a bullhorn, and then a woman by his side was translating into English. It was the usual stuff — we tried to peaceful, but we had to make our voices heard, etc. (To read more about who is protesting this WTO conference, click here.)
Just hours before I wrote this post — after I got back to the press center — I learned that earlier in the day a group of about 1,000 protesters had deviated from a planned march and tried to break through the police cordon line blocking protesters from the convention center area. 41 were injured, including five police officers, as the protesters attacked with bamboo and iron poles. The police responded with pepper spray and tear gas, and 900 protesters were arrested and put into police vans.
But at the time, all I knew is that something crazy had happened. By the time I arrived on the scene they had calmed down, but they were still chanting loudly and vowing to stay where they were all night. After listening to this for a little while, I started walking down another street, where I saw another group of protesters and more police. When I got to the end of the street, I suddenly heard a rising din behind me. I turned around and saw a large crowd of people running down the street toward me. The air was filled with the smell of rotten eggs, and a haze hung over the street. Gradually, I felt my eyes start stinging, and then it was hard to breathe. I was snapping pictures and running backward and crying like a woman watching Beaches.
I turned the corner and kept running with the protesters, who were still chanting, “Down, Down, WTO” and yelling at any police they passed. After awhile I could breathe again, so I turned around and started cautiously walking back. The air had cleared by the time I made it back to the biggest group of protesters, whose numbers had somewhat diminished but who largely remained in the same place.
More chanting, more slogans, more “Down, Down, WTO.” I stood and watched for about 20 more minutes.
It was one of the most appalling things I’ve ever witnessed.
There were broken wine and liquor bottles and garbage everywhere. Most of the shops were closed, and all week I’ve seen reports of businesses hurt by the protests. The demonstration was largely composed of agricultural and labor unions from South Korea — a fully modernized, growing and dynamic economy. Yet here were its protected special interests, doing violence to the beautiful city of Hong Kong — a city which grew from nothing but the unfettered power of the free market — in order to keep the high tariffs that raise the price Korean consumers pay for rice to seven times above the world average and prevent rice farmers in poor countries from exporting to Korea. A privileged class in a rich country has come to Hong Kong to attack its police officers and protest a WTO that the influence of protectionists has rendered so pathetically weak, its members can’t even make the smallest concessions here in Hong Kong to break the deadlock and move forward on a trade-liberalizing agenda that would lift millions out of poverty.
And that’s the most depressing thing. Between the protectionist protests outside and the protectionist politics inside, real and passionate free trade advocacy has diminished to a spokesman’s passing rhetorical flourish before launching into an angry, finger-pointing tirade. I guess other than disgust, my primary reaction to the protesters was confusion. Having been in these talks and witnessed the lack of progress, I wanted to ask them, “What are you worried about?”
But I don’t speak Korean, nor do I make a habit of arguing with the insane. So I just went back inside the convention center where at least the disputes aren’t settled with tear gas.