When will things get back to normal? This question seems to be asked with daunting frequency but it begs the bigger question of what normal actually means, and indeed whether a return to things as they were is even desirable.

If it is imagined that once there are no longer people protesting on the streets everything will go back to where it was before June 2019, it can be confidently predicted that so-called normal will never be achieved.

How can things go back to where they were when confidence in the legitimacy and competence of the government has been shattered, and where trust in the police as objective law enforcers has dwindled to dangerous lows?

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

Families and life long friendships have been torn apart by differences over the future of Hong Kong. Society as a whole has largely been divided into blue and yellow camps. Perhaps, most dramatically, a chasm now separates the generations, even though, as ever, such all-encompassing generalisations are not to be relied on.

This being so, it is hard to understand what the term ‘normal’ means. Does it mean, for example, that the police will somehow regain the level of confidence they enjoyed prior to the uprising? Does it even mean that businesses who are identified as being in either the blue or yellow camps will recover patronage regardless of political considerations?

The obvious answer to these questions is a simple ‘no’ and it is more than likely that this will remain the case for some time to come.

What is less simple to the answer is the question of whether the protest movement will succeed or be crushed by a ruthless dictatorship that has become exasperated by defiant opposition within its borders.

Although the fears of a violent crackdown have receded, they are being kept alive by the Beijing government which ordered a highly publicised exercise by the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison in the past few days.

People's Liberation Army Garrison Hong Kong
Protesters passing through outside the People’s Liberation Army Garrison in Hong Kong. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Aside from the more rabid members of the pro-China camp, no one is hoping for a bloody end to the protests. Yet even something short of that, such as a mass round up of protestors, which is already underway, tougher imposition of emergency powers and all the rest of it could well bring about a prolonged pause.

More optimistically there might be some sort of negotiation but this is highly unlikely while Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), remains in office. And if there is some form of agreement it will almost certainly leave a great many people dissatisfied.

In other words the new normal is most likely to be a situation of uncertainty where, even if protestors are no longer on the streets, the enormous upheaval in society guarantees that much will change.

The protests that began last year have created a new form of civil society where mobilisation of discontent is seen not only in practically every locality but also in practically every part of people’s working lives and, as we are endlessly reminded, almost everywhere in schools, colleges and universities.

It is no exaggeration to say that civil society has indeed undergone a ‘revolution of our times’. Networks have been formed, awareness has risen and a new sense of community has been created with, at its heart, a tenacious attachment to Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: inmediahk.net.

This cannot simply be wished away nor subjugated in the manner that the hard men in Beijing wish to see it disappear.

Therefore, even if the movement staggers to a halt without the remaining four demands being met, the protests have achieved something remarkable and lasting.

They stopped the dreaded extradition law in its tracks, and incidentally, derailed the slightly barmy national anthem law. More fundamentally the movement has delivered a society which has shown an ability to stand up for itself without the need for leaders, which has shown that citizens can be united and are willing to become responsible for each other, without needing the guiding hand of the state to do it for them.

And, in the words of ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, the anthem, that has indelibly become the voice of the movement: the people have brought on the dawn, liberated Hong Kong, and with a common breath declared the coming of the revolution of our times –

May people reign, proud and free, now and evermore
Glory be to thee Hong Kong’

Who says nothing has been achieved and nothing has changed?

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship