Protesting What, Exactly? in Hong Kong

WTO negotiations inevitably draw crowds of demonstrators from far and wide, though their messages can get lost in the masses

By Frederik Balfour

I could hear the beating of the Koreans' drums long before I saw them on the first big day of anti-World Trade Organization protests in Hong Kong. About 1,400 strong, they made up a third of the 4,000 or so demonstrators who marched to the edge of Hong Kong harbor, chanting, "Down, down, WTO."

I fell in beside a group of farmers dressed in traditional white peasant garb with straw hats and red bandanas around their necks -- handy if the police start to spray tear gas. These folks were veteran demonstrators and solid-looking specimens to boot, with the broad shoulders and strong backs conditioned by years of hoisting 50-kilo sacks of rice. They wore determined expressions as they walked in formation, chanting and banging their brass gongs and drums.

Having covered my fair share of angry demonstrations in Asia, I was expecting a serious showdown. I'd missed out on the fury of protestors in Seattle in 1999 and those in Cancun in 2003, when a South Korean demonstrator committed suicide on the fringes of WTO talks. If anyone could galvanize the crowd in Hong Kong, I figured the Koreans could.


  Hong Kong's security forces apparently had a similar opinion of the Koreans -- and weren't taking any chances. Some 7,000 riot police armed with Plexiglas shields, helmets, batons, and tear gas have been deployed around the city. The WTO talks are being held on a spit of land cordoned off from the rest of the city, ensuring that protestors could be kept several hundred meters from the negotiations.

But the Koreans never really gave the police much to worry about. Sure, they had their moments, but things remained remarkably calm overall. The highlight came when dozens of them stripped down to their skivvies and dove into Hong Kong harbor to swim across to the convention center. But the whole mission lacked any urgency.

Wearing bright orange life jackets, the amphibian assault force bobbed slowly along. The swimmers kicked lazily on their backs, some struggling to carry flags on long sticks. A few eventually made it to the far side, but couldn't scale the fence blocking access to the building and had to turn back or hitch a ride from waiting police boats.


  Back on land a few minutes later, another group of Koreans made a rush on the riot police, after someone set ablaze a mock funeral pyre. Yet it seemed like a halfhearted attempt to impress the media, who nearly outnumbered the frontline protestors. Predictably, the police responded with pepper spray, and equally predictably, several demonstrators stumbled blindly backwards. But the clash never involved more than a few dozen protestors, and things settled down pretty quickly.

Soon another group of Koreans were seated cross-legged in orderly rows in quiet protest. No rock throwing, no blood, and little focus. It all felt like a set piece.

A bit later, I spotted a Japanese farmer in a straw hat. Ouchi Fuyumi, 49, from Yamagata Prefecture north of Tokyo, told me about the half-hectare plot where he grows rice and vegetables and raises poultry. Free trade, he says, threatens his livelihood. "WTO is not good for farmer," he explained in halting English. "We are a small farm, and I must do farming." At least Fuyumi knew why he had come.

9/11 IMPACT.

  WTO meetings have long been a magnet for demonstrators of every stripe, and Hong Kong is playing host to dozens of fringe groups. Take Oluwakemi Linda Banks, who came here from the Caribbean island of Anguilla to promote the Global Ecumenical Women's Forum on Life-Promoting Trade. Dressed in a flowing red robe and headscarf, Banks was concerned that workers who once grew sugarcane and bananas had been drawn into the tourist trade, only to be left without work since the World Trade Center bombings slowed tourism in the region. "Nine-eleven was disastrous for the Caribbean," she said. "As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer."

Amy Chan, a 22-year-old political-science and environmental-studies major from Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., came to Hong Kong to represent United Students Against Sweatshops. "Any trade of food, electronics, and apparel involves people's blood, sweat, and tears," she explained. "When subsidies and tariffs are set unfairly, that's a violation of human rights."

Yan and Cara, two local performance artists, dressed in black suits with mock pinstripes drawn in chalk, call themselves "Slaves to the Machine." Their mission? "Opening people's minds and hearts and challenging perceptions,'' Yan said.


  Elsewhere, some Tibetan monks led peace prayers. Another group had an exhibition of fair-trade coffee, handicrafts, and textiles. And a series of documentaries called the "Voice of the Voiceless Film Festival & Caucus" attacked everything from Disney (DIS ) to the former dictatorship in Argentina.

Perhaps the weirdest was the "Fair Trade Fashion Show," put on by a British label called People Tree. Models strutted their stuff, wearing clothes made from chemical-free fabrics that weren't produced by sweatshop labor. The lanky mannequins brandished signs with such slogans as "200,000 farmer suicides caused by pesticide-purchased debt" and "Who Made your Clothes?"

Politically correct fashion? I'm afraid I came away thinking it's something of an oxymoron.

Balfour is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Hong Kong bureau

Edited by David Rocks

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.