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The Sunday of the two million

Hong Kong may be a small jurisdiction and a tiny dot on a map of China, but it is not just another Chinese city. It is truly unique and a remarkable story in its own right.
It is not a pawn on the international chessboard, crushed by the great international ambitions of Beijing. Hong Kong is a living city, with a feeling about its own destiny, which struggles not to allow itself to be absorbed into a system that people do not feel is their own.
In the annals of its history, June 16 will be remembered as the day almost two million people took to the streets in a demand for an end to a bill being ramrodded through the Legislative Council that would have seen extradition treaties signed between Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, and most poignantly, mainland China.
From the very young who cannot yet walk to the most senior whose legs have been robbed of their strength, a throng of people angered by the defiantly humble announcement of the chief executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, took to the streets in a mass protest against her decision to shelve the bill but not scrap it.
Lam’s defiance somehow outshone her humility as she refused to ask for an investigation into police behaviour in what had initially been described as a riot on the previous Wednesday, and then promised to do better.
The use of tear and pepper gas, as well as the firing of rubber and beanbag bullets by the police has left a deep impression on the people and imprinted a profound distrust of the authorities on their hearts.
In stark contrast to the style of the chief executive, a leader of a different kind emerged during the week in the person of Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing. He spoke and stood in solidarity with the mostly young people occupying the streets, saying, “All we want is to live in freedom, to have guarantees for our lives, to have the freedom to which everyone is entitled and no longer live in fear.”
As the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, he is proving himself a leader capable of interpreting and expressing the sentiments of young people and much of the Catholic community. He spent the night of Sunday, June 16, with the young people on the streets. “The shepherd is where the sheep are,” he said.
Bishop Ha described the people who rallied as “rational, peaceful and moderate,” adding, “Perhaps we could say that they are naive, thinking that by bringing together so many people they can change something, put off the approval of the extradition law… A young person should not face all this (violence). I never thought that this could happen in Hong Kong.
“When I heard these young people sharing their stories, I saw and felt how humanity is beautiful and good. Despite so many injustices, humanity continues to shine. Young people help and support each other.”
The bishop added, “I found that the Beijing students 30 years ago showed us the beauty of humanity in their lives. They believed there is light in the darkness, hope in the hopeless. They believed non-violence will overcome violence.”
Lam on the other hand has cast her shadow with the traditional financial and political power blocks, the elite of a governance system backed by Beijing that looks down on the people and is too distant from them.
Although a proven and talented public servant, she has shown a distinct lack of political skill during this time and been incapable of interpreting the sentiment of the people. It is a story that constantly repeats itself.
Too many bad things have happened in the past few years. The refusal to listen to the democratic requests from the Occupy Central, or Umbrella Movement, of 2014. The jailing of its leaders, then the kidnap by Chinese authorities of those selling books that are displeasing in Beijing eyes.
But the unique system of Hong Kong governance is still functioning. The chief executive still has a good deal of political autonomy. Choices can be made in dramatic cases, even independently from China, even though this may carry a high personal and political price.
Lam’s predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, was sidelined by Beijing without much fuss, a reflection that Beijing does not want a leader unpopular with the people and that Hong Kong remains a difficult puzzle to interpret and manage, even for the astute Chinese regime.
The events of these days are, perhaps, the first setback suffered by the president of China, Xi Jinping, in a political career crowned so far by successes. Hong Kong remains refractory to any simplification and normalisation.
Finally, the significant role played by Christian Churches in the events of the past week is a profound witness to the power of street ecumenism. As the words of Sing halleluiah to the Lord floated on the night air it became the de facto anthem of the immense protests.
Hong Kong has not been the same since the Umbrella Movement and it will never be the same as it was prior to the day that two million people walked through its streets.
Gianni Criveller