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The day we got trapped in Hong Kong’s protests

Being caught up in this summer’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong led Claire Musters to fall to her knees in prayer for the troubled country

It was a sweltering summer’s day in Hong Kong. Our group (eleven of us, made up of three families) were travelling back to the airport by bus, on our way to the Philippines. We had spent four days in Hong Kong and were very aware of the ongoing protests. In fact, we’d narrowly missed them a couple of times:

We had avoided a violent outbreak the night before at a nearby metro station, where a female protester was hit in the eye with an alleged rubber bullet (in an act of solidarity protestors began to wear red-coloured eye patches). That same day, a couple from our group, who had taken a harbour cruise, were told that they wouldn’t be taken back to the same port they had taken the boat from as things were hotting up – thankfully they safely sped back to the hotel via taxi, watching the expanding crowds.

Back on our bus to the airport, the traffic was grinding to a halt. We were told to walk the rest of the way if we were to have a hope of catching our plane. As we grabbed our suitcases and prepared to drag them the 30-minute walk to the airport in the intense heat, we realised we were surrounded by thousands of people all heading to the departure lounge – but tellingly with no luggage and the majority dressed in black. It was only then we realised the scale of this protest.

I began to get nervous as my husband and another man in our group sped on ahead to check what was going on. I was trying to keep up enough to see where they were, but also keep my children close, as a surge of people began to swell between each of our smaller groups.

At one point, I started shouting at the two up ahead. Everyone else in the crowd was turning right towards the main airport entrance, but they were heading in the opposite direction. As I approached them, they explained that one of the protesters had apologised to them for disrupting our journey, and then gestured to a side door while shouting “level 7, level 7!” The side door revealed a lift and level 7 was the exact floor where baggage drop off was! As the lift opened, our passports were checked and we were let through. What awaited us there took our breath away – and frightened not just the children in our gathering.

The check-in areas were almost completely deserted – and, just a few short metres away, behind a very low barrier, were hundreds of thousands of people chanting and waving banners. My kids began asking whether we would be safe as we watched fellow travellers trying to climb over the crowd with their luggage. We assured them that the protesters were simply wanting their message heard and reminded them that the reason we were able to get through was thanks to the kind action of one of them. But we all breathed more easily once we were through security…

After a short delay (our flight crew had to fight their way through the crowds too) our flight took off. It wasn’t until we had touched down in the Philippines that we learned that just half an hour after our take-off the airport had been shut down. Ours was one of the last flights to get out. We certainly felt we had been looked after – possibly by an angel – that day.

The protests explained

The Hong Kong protests started back in June and have gone on for weeks with no let up.

The first protest was triggered after the extradition bill was first proposed on 3 April. If passed, it would have allowed those being investigated as criminals to be extradited to mainland China.

Just half an hour after our take-off the airport was shut down

Critics of the bill have pointed out that it could undermine both Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the rights of those under investigation, possibly endangering them through exposing them to unfair trials and violence. They feared it could be used to silence dissidents. Currently, Hong Kong has its own separate legal system, which includes freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

The protests were not violent at the start, but clashes between police and protestors got more frequent and violence occurred with injuries on both sides.

Over the summer months, other protest rallies took place in France, the UK, Canada, the US and Australia, as people sought to show their solidarity. In some instances, pro-Beijing rallies occurred simultaneously.

Opinion divided

While international opinion appears to be divided, being on the ground during some of the fiercest protests certainly gave us a clearer sense of the urgency and desperation of those involved. So many that we saw were young men and women, afraid for their futures and determined to stand up for democracy. More than once we were apologised to for the inconvenience it was causing us.

With democracy appearing to erode all around us, peaceful protest is one way that we can stand up for justice. Indeed many Christians within Hong Kong, including former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, have taken an active part in the protests (although other church leaders are simply heartbroken over what has happened, saddened by the action both sides have taken). Interestingly, a small group of Christians sang ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’ during the first protest, and thousands took up the chorus afterwards.

I, for one, have a renewed interest in Hong Kong. Having been there at such an historic time, I feel strongly led to pray for peace and for justice. In fact, doesn’t our whole world, including our own country, need us all on our knees much more?

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