A cleaning worker who stands for justice in the time of tumult

On August 5th, the anti-extradition movement was at its height. People in Hong Kong staged a politically motivated general strike. Strikers rallied in seven districts. In the afternoon, protesters started to block roads. Later, the situation escalated and turned into clashes between the police and the protestors. According to news sources, when some protesters were gathering near the Cheung Sha Wan Government Offices, a man who lives in the neighbourhood, in his slippers, held out his arms and stood between the police and the protestors, telling the protestors to quickly retreat. Eventually, the man was arrested for ‘obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty.’ His name is Loong, a night-shift cleaning worker. 

Do they have a stake in the society?

Loong joined the profession in 1989. He started as a glass cleaner, and undertook various roles over the years, including building maintenance units, floor-scrubbing and field supervisor. 'It was easy to make money in the 1990s', Loong recollects, the daily wage for working on building maintenance units ranged from $1200-1300, however, it has dropped to $800-$1000 nowadays, the lowest [I have heard] is $650. Over the years, the consumer prices have doubled, but wages are done by a third. Working in the industry for more than three decades, Loong has witnessed outsourcing, as well as multifarious means of exploitation of labourers, become more and more common. 'The people who participate in "defrauding" tend to be of higher positions [compared to the past]. For example, a person who is a manager of a company also owns a business in the same sector. He outsources the projects from the company to his own business. In the process, the honest workers of the lower hierarchy are often deceived and exploited.'

The partiality in law enforcement of the Hong Kong Police in recent months has led to the situation in which some of the protestors resort to vigilantism. Loong says that he had encountered a ‘snakehead’ (broker) who defaulted on his wages and ran away with the money to mainland China. In such a situation, it is usually useless to report to the Labour Department or the police. As Loong has been in the business for many years and has built up a personal network, in this situation, he rather finds the broker via Facebook posts, and if the broker is found, he settles the matters 'on his own'. However, there is often a bottom line for people resorting to personal vengeance, such as 'one shall not retaliate against the family members', even if one has learned the broker's home address. 

Loong frankly admits that he had gone astray and met some friends with dubious backgrounds when he was young. But as he has aged, he prefers a quiet and simple lifestyle, with the company of animals. Now he lives with a hedgehog and two spurred tortoises in a 120 square feet apartment on the sixth floor of an old tenement building. Loong enumerates his changing living conditions throughout the past thirty years. He has lived in various old tenement buildings, firstly at 88 Staunton Street, Central, then he moved to Quarry Bay, and later Shum Shui Po. The rent of the apartment has risen over time while the living areas become smaller and smaller. His rent was $2500 seven years ago, now it is $5200. 

On August 9, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in a press conference, criticized the protesters and stated that they ‘have no stake in society’ and ‘did not mind destroying Hong Kong’s economy’. Since Loong is among the protestors (and even got arrested), naturally he becomes one of the groups of people who were targeted in Lam's statement. On the one hand, cleaning workers do have a stake in society since they undoubtedly have contributed to the economy. On the other hand, Loong, even if he is no longer a grass-root worker in the cleaning industry, has not got a fair share of the fruits of economic success. In this sense, a part of Lam’s remark may be true. In Hong Kong, economic has been flourishing since the 1990s and the society has been prosperous. But whose prosperity?

A matter which concerns all Hong Kongers. 

Speaking of political participation, Loong mentions the June 4th incident. ‘I have considered the students the future of society since then.’ As Hong Kong society has rapidly changed since 1997, Loong not only joined the June 4th Candlelight Vigil and July 1 March, he also participated in the Umbrella Movement. ‘I do not join in every political assembly, but if I see thugs attacking protesters and bullying citizens and youngsters, I always stand out.’ Loong recalls that there was also triad attacking the demonstrators during the Umbrella Movement. Even though the police did not make every effort to combat assaults on the protesters, the police were not going too far either. Compared to the time of the Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong police is entirely out of control now. 

The police violence angers Loong the most. 'Why do they hit the protesters on the head? Why do they shot the protesters at close range? Why do they disperse people on a crowded escalator? People could die!' Faced with an indifferent government and an unprincipled police apparatus, the protesters' violence escalates gradually. The government repeatedly vilifies the protesters as ‘rioters’, but Loong disagreed with the opinion. ‘If the protesters are truly rioters, there would be a lot of dead cops!’ Indeed, as the movement has been going on for more than a hundred days, innumerable protesters were injured. Many protesters suffer from fractures, were bashed on the heads and shot in the eye. Compared to that, the number of police injuries is very low and the injuries are not severe. The reasons behind such glaring disparity are not difficult to grasp. Not only are the police well-trained and fully equipped, they also enjoy institutional and legal protection. 'When a thug hits you, you can fight back. When a policeman hits you, he is “enforcing the law”. If you fight back, you will be charged for assaulting police officers. It is a no-win situation.'

Loong sighs at the fact that he is the minority in the industry. He has learned that many people working in the sector still hold an attitude that ‘Do not stand in my way to earn a living’. Even if they are aware of the social problems, they would not voice their opposition.

‘A human being should have some obligations to others. Shouldn't one listen to the youth's opinion? Should one not protect the children? For those who do not care about politics, have they ever considered, if it was their kids that were injured?’ Loong hopes that those who are indifferent to politics will step forward, ‘If you stop working for a few days, you wouldn't die of starvation, would you?. This is a matter which concerns all Hong Kongers.’

Together we can win the battle

As the saying goes, 'When it rains, it pours,' Loong’s father passed away a few days after Loong’s arrest. Fortunately, with the assistance of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, the funeral expenses were covered. However, before the arrest, Loong had two night-shift cleaning jobs. His jobs were to grind and polish the ground in shopping malls in Tsuen Wan with marble cutters. He was well-paid and the jobs were flexible which guarantee a certain degree of freedom. After the arrest, he was restricted by court-ordered curfew, and can no longer work the night shifts. Luckily, he has found a new job. Loong says that he can not anticipate the future development of the movement, but he is sure that 'Together we can win the battle, or we will lose from infighting.' Lastly, Loong advises the protesters, ‘Do not separate from your comrades, in these days, the police are as dangerous as the gangsters.’ 

Afterword

Loong’s case was mentioned in Kowloon City Court on October 2. The prosecution indicated that they would amend the indictment against Loong. The Prosecution changed the indictment from 'resisting or obstructing a public officer' under ‘Summary Offences Ordinance' to 'resists, or wilfully obstructs any police officer in the due execution of his duty' under ‘Offences against the Person Ordinance’. The amendment provides for a quadrupling of the maximum period of imprisonment, from six months to two years. Everyone in Hong Kong worships the rule of law, but the legal institution is largely manipulated by the government. The government is using the law to severely punish the protesters while the pro-government culprits are lightly sanctioned. Furthermore, the witness statements to the Defence were still missing from the Prosecution on the second mention. The judge criticized the Prosecution for this matter. After the mention, Loong's elder sister said to me, ‘They should handle the documents properly before prosecuting people. What about [the impact] of the court-ordered curfew that was enforced between the mentions?’ It is considered to be obvious, but apparently, the actions of the Hong Kong government can no longer be measured by common sense anymore.