Serving sweet milk tea and French toast with fermented tofu, Kate Lee’s traditional diner has become a sanctuary for Hongkongers opposed to youth-led democracy protests sweeping the city.

On a recent Saturday morning, the restaurant was packed with hungry patrons served by volunteers who have flocked to take orders and bus tables after Lee spoke out in support of the city’s police force.

Hong Kong tea house Kate Lea protest I love Hong Kong police t-shirt
This picture taken on October 26, 2019 shows restaurant owner Kate Lee preparing a cup of milk tea at her restaurant in Hong Kong. Photo: Philip Fong/AFP.

“I think they (Beijing) have already given us many many freedoms in governing us and given us many good policies that have allowed us to prosper,” said Lee, who has become somewhat of a celebrity in Hong Kong’s pro-police camp and feted by Chinese state media.

Hong Kong’s government supporters are known as “blue ribbons” because the colour is associated with the police. Pro-democracy supporters are dubbed “yellow ribbons”.

After months of huge, frequently violent protests in which millions have hit the streets, recent polling data shows the city’s unelected pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam has historic low approval ratings, while an October poll revealed two-thirds of Hong Kongers are dissatisfied with the government.

But loyalists do exist – from die-hard nationalists repeating Beijing’s fiery denunciations to more moderate types who favour stability over the political chaos of the last five months.

Lee, 51, said she did not follow politics closely, but she disagreed with the violent methods used by more hardcore protesters.

“I want to ask them, do you really have no freedom in Hong Kong right now? Can you really not say the words ‘rehabilitate June 4th’ in Hong Kong? Is that something you can say loudly in the mainland in Tiananmen square?” she said, referring to calls to vindicate victims of Beijing’s 1989 bloody crackdown.

‘Black hands’

Beijing portrays the protests as a separatist movement backed by foreign “black hands”, primarily aiming their ire at the US and Britain.

Hong Kong cafe Kate Lee blue ribbon
This picture taken on October 26, 2019, shows stickers of Chinese flags on a menu at Kate Lee’s restaurant in Hong Kong. Photo: Philip Fong/AFP.

They have provided little evidence beyond supportive statements from some western politicians. Still, the idea that Hong Kong’s protests are foreign-funded and not a popular revolt permeates the blue ribbon camp.

“There’s no need for universal suffrage,” said Erica, an art teacher in her late twenties who was volunteering as a waitress.

“We should ask why they want to fight for universal suffrage in the first place, everybody knows it’s the Americans telling them to do that.”

Others AFP spoke to said they supported greater democracy in Hong Kong, but they felt improvements needed to be made gradually, fearing a backlash from authoritarian China if protesters push too hard.

Fong Fong, 60, told her son after he attended anti-government protests that she would turn him in to the authorities if she ever caught him rioting, a comment she said prompted the 28-year-old to bang his head against the wall in frustration.

“I told him: ‘If you are a rioter and you got hit by police, then you deserve it’.”

september 15 China extradition police causeway bay
Photo: Studio Incendo.

She said she valued stability and livelihood over high-minded ideals, saying the ongoing unrest infringes on the rights of those who want to go about their daily lives without disruption.

“I think we should have democracy, but you have to achieve universal suffrage step by step. You can’t reach heaven in one step,” she added.

Many younger protesters counter that the failure of older generations to push back against Beijing eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms is what has resulted in this summer’s rallies.

The result is a desperately polarised city.

‘Don’t cross the line’

Beijing supporters have attacked opponents throughout the summer, often in targeted assaults against prominent government critics and opposition politicians.

Crowds of pro-democracy protesters have also routinely beaten their ideological opponents, usually in spontaneous mob violence during rallies.

Businesses are now often labelled as blue or yellow.

san uk ling September 27 assault woman
File photo: Laurel Chor/HKFP.

A 61-year-old retired civil servant who declined to give his name said he felt protesters were trying to fight an unwinnable war against an unassailable opponent.

“In the end you have to admit that Hong Kong is part of China, this is not something that you can deny,” he said.

“You can’t go against it… so the only thing you can do is to accept their rule.”

He added that he was not worried about Hong Kong losing its freedoms in 2047, when the 50-year guarantee of its autonomy expires under the deal Beijing agreed with Britain before the 1997 handover.

“Mainland people have adapted to this environment,” he said of people in China, who he felt had learned to live with the Communist Party’s rule in return for stability.

“You will adapt with them. Yes, you have to be careful that you don’t say anything that crosses the line.”

“This is a package. If you are to accept it then you have to accept these things too.”

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