Earlier this month, I joined the “Press March,” as the shorthand of the day had it, joining journalists and photographers to protest at the Hong Kong police’s harassment, and at times violence, towards the press. There were, in my amateur estimation, some 1,500 present. Had the official police counter not been enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in, they might have put it at 85.

The event was billed as a “silent protest” which suited my delicate Sunday morning constitution. There was to be an absence of slogan shouting, fist-pumping and barrier hurling. And as we set off on the gruelling 200-metre procession to the first port of call, the Wan Chai police headquarters, I realised it was more a shuffle than a march due our confinement to pavements. No closing of traffic on Queensway for us.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The march was well-organised with noble aims, a secondary one being to urge Carrie Lam to reflect on the Pledge to Uphold Press Freedom she signed in the build-up to the chief executive selection process of 2017.

The march gave me the opportunity to reunite with some of the now-dinosaurs of local media. Like me, Stuart Wolfendale was a scribbler on the periphery who would reliably meet deadlines for a weekly column or two that might afford the readership a wry smile.

We reminisced for a while on those ancient times in the 1980s before moving on to our amazement and admiration for the nimble use of social media to rally the public in unprecedented numbers. Of course, neither of us had the first idea how it all works.

In the following few days, over an hour or two, I was guided through the online content by a young Chinese friend. I got a vague grasp of it as most of it was images and videos, but never got to the bottom of how two million people were motivated to take to the streets. I asked about leadership and my young friend just shrugged. What I had been doing was looking at “the watery people” in online participation.

Photo: May James.

The phrase is my weak neologism harking back to Bruce Lee’s invocation to “be water.” It seems our stagnant government has no answer to this fast-flowing expression of dammed grievances.

Let me paraphrase the back-end of Carrie Lam’s “the bill is dead” pronouncement on-camera on June 9 after the one million-man march. Our chief executive promised to enhance the role of non-executive members of Exco in engaging public opinion and reflecting those opinions to me. (Not me, the CE).

“Hurrah,” the watery people must have shouted, “appointed Beijing grovellers will be our conduit of grievance to Carrie.” Yet there was more to convince them to abandoned protests immediately. This was talk of setting up interactive platforms, open dialogues in an inclusive fashion and other such tin-ear palliatives. All of this delivered with pomade earnestness.

Yet within minutes of the evasive utterance – “the bill is dead” – the watery people had deconstructed it online to have no legal meaning. And lampooned it in a face-replaced movie poster of Kill Bill.

Carrie Lam. File photo: inmediahk.net.

These are more than protesters. The watery people are innovators of adroitness on social media, the progenitors of memes of momentum that inspire their followers to refreshed enthusiasm to participate. The instant sardonic responses to authoritarian pronouncements become bellows to the embers of insight. And invoke, too, bellows of laughter.

Laughter, when shared and spread, becomes a powerful reaction to the absurdities of entrenched authority and its confected systems of governance. We then meet the fine line between laughter and derision. And now we’re there: derision of authority.

Yet my umbrella is quickly furled when it comes to mob violence, as happened later, in New Town Plaza, on that afternoon on which I began this piece. The expression “add oil,” as I understand, is a watery people mantra.

It expresses encouragement and support not further escalation of attacks on the police. I suggest the removal of masks and hard hats, keep the numbers up, and just laugh. Communism is confounded and impotent in the many, many faces of laughter.

David Price

David Price arrived in Hong Kong in 1978. He wrote weekly columns for the SCMP, its Sunday Magazine and the ‘Village Life’ column for the Hong Kong Independent. He is now a movie screenwriter, although agents and producers, at every turn, would deny this. He was also once an actor, as a search for David Does Dallas would confirm.