It was late evening in October and Hong Kong’s streets were in turmoil as the war between pro-democracy protesters and police raged on following another day of demonstrations.
After months-long protests, which first began in response to the proposed 2019 Hong Kong Extradition Bill in June, shop-front shutters remained down, businesses were deserted. Instead, tear gas canisters and water cannons were deployed relentlessly by police in a bid to disperse the black-clad protesters embroiled in destructive rampages in what they call Hong Kong’s fight for freedom.
The vibrant signs that light up the city’s streets were a stark contrast to the violent clashes that played out amid the thick fog of tear gas, as police and protesters exchanged rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails.
It was amongst this chaos The National first met Chen, a finance worker at an investment bank, sitting in the driver's seat of a Porsche. Through his wound-down window he urgently calls out to a mother trying desperately to wash the burning tear gas residue from her screaming toddler's face. He offers them an escape from the bedlam in his car – which they gladly accept.
Action to this extent has dwindled in the last couple of months as a result of the global coronavirus epidemic, but hasn't dissipated completely. When protests do erupt from time-to-time Chen, who is using a pseudonym to protect his identity, continues to show up to offer lifts home to protesters and anyone else caught up in the demonstrations who needs help.
Today, he is offering his free ‘taxi’ service at an event marking the six-month anniversary of the 31 August Prince Edward station attack, in which the police were heavily criticised for their aggressive approach.
The multiple Porsche owner began providing rides in August last year, sacrificing at least two evenings every week until the Covid-19 crisis hit at the beginning of this year. He began the charitable endeavour after protesters knocked on his door, desperate for help hiding from the police during the July 31 solidarity protests.
“I think everyone in this city has a role. I’m not young and I’m a little bit fat so I can’t be a front-liner. Driving protesters home is a role I can perform,” says the father-of-one.
Chen is just one among many other Hong Kongers carrying out this role affectionately referred to as ‘school buses’ or ‘parents collecting the children’. The rides are organised through instant messaging app Telegram, which protects users’ identities as they share their location.
Those involved in the ride-sharing network are continually implementing further precautionary steps to ensure their security. Real-time information on police road blocks through Telegram helps drivers avoid being stopped and one of Chen’s friends has even hired a taxi to look less conspicuous, he says.
“I’ve had people as young as 13 in my car and I was among the alliance working to rescue the hundreds of people trapped inside both the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the PolyU [Hong Kong Polytechnic University] while they were under siege,” he says.
Chen was already taking a big risk, especially as he regularly travels to mainland China for work; if he was stopped by police while carrying out these journeys he could face serious repercussions. Now, though, he also has the health risk to contend with.
“We all make sure we wear masks and wash our hands regularly, and I take to my car to be cleaned the next day,” he says.
“The risk I take is nothing compared to the risk the youngsters are taking. The behaviour of the authorities is unacceptable. Police officers are not being held accountable for their actions,” says Chen, who adds that although he doesn’t like violence he understands why the demonstrations turned this way.
“Here in Hong Kong, we have tried many peaceful methods to achieve a response from the government. These attempts have all failed. Now, the only option left is violence.
“I have many mainland friends. Most of them will say the protesters are paid by the United States government. But I know this isn’t the case, they’re just school kids. This is just propaganda.”
The 2047 deadline, which will see the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement — and has allowed Hong Kong greater autonomy since 2007— is a conscious worry for Chen. He is considering the prospect of moving his daughter overseas.
“I want my daughter to grow up without fear,” he says.
Another ‘school bus’ driver is aviation lawyer, John, now living in Germany, who has been using his annual leave to return to Hong Kong to join the ride share network.
“I’m not suitable to be a frontline warrior. At the same time, I have a family to support and a career I don’t want to sacrifice,” he says. Although Hong Kong’s unemployment rate is low at around 3 per cent, the average annual salary is around $207,000 Hong Kong Dollars (Dh48,000) in a city deemed the most expensive in the world for new home buyers.
The promise of higher salaries and a better quality of life are driving factors for those choosing to live overseas, in addition to the promise of a freer society, says John, who also uses a pseudonym to conceal his identity.
His passenger is 19-year-old Georgina, who is a regular attendee of the protests, unbeknown to her family. The swimming coach says that since the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) began closing at 10pm — essentially implementing a de-facto curfew — the ‘school buses’ have been invaluable; if protesters are even able to flag down official taxis, fares are expensive in comparison to public transportation. It is also risky.
“One taxi driver called the protesters cockroaches and I wasn’t able to say anything. I was very angry,” says Georgina. Although, there are a small number of official taxis who offer free rides to those involved in the demonstrations.
Putting her faith in the anonymous underground network of drivers is still a risk. At the start, passengers could run license plate checks through the Telegram network to determine whether the car is owned or operated by the authorities or suspected pro-government individuals. This, however, is no longer a secure check, says John, who highlights the increasing danger to all those involved.
“The police have been stopping ‘school buses’, arresting the driver and then using them as bait to arrest passengers,” he says.
But protesters and drivers have continued their efforts nonetheless.
Despite the current pause on rallies, support for the Hong Kong protesters has risen, according to a Reuters poll. Sixty-three per cent of participants interviewed last month support the resignation of the city’s leader Carrie Lam, compared to 57 per cent in December. The survey also demonstrated a substantial increase in support for protesters’ key demands.
“Protest action has slowed down but it won’t stop and we’ll continue as long as there is a need,” says Chen.