What does Hong Kong Inc get out of the WTO jamboree?

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By:
Chris Leahy
Published on:

The security for the sixth ministerial conference was intense but Korean protesters were still able to set off a police fishing operation and the director-general did not escape a barracking, while residents wonder what it’s all for.

“Welcome our friends from all over the world”, read the signs on Hong Kong school children’s paintings hanging from empty freight containers. The rusting hulks, stacked two high, formed the walls of a fortified compound housing the expensive limousines used to chauffeur dignitaries during the sixth World Trade Organization ministerial conference in Hong Kong in December.

Whether the children’s warm welcome was meant to extend to the eclectic group of non-official visitors to Hong Kong during the conference is debatable.

A walk around the conference location suggested that Hong Kong’s finest had their own welcome in mind for the students, overseas workers and professional protesters that have become as much a part of the WTO circus as the delegates themselves.

Glue and netting

The mood ahead of the conference was nervous, with an astonishing police presence across Hong Kong island. One-third of the territory’s 27,000-strong police force was on the beat and in a particularly assiduous mood. Lessons had clearly been learnt from previous WTO events. Manhole covers were glued down, netting covered all pedestrian walkways over crucial roads, and checkpoints and pedestrian calming barriers were erected anywhere near Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the venue for the conference.

Not to be outdone by the police, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous security guards in public and commercial buildings gleefully used the opportunity to inconvenience office workers more than usual under the pretence of additional security. Nets were erected over the windows of strategically placed buildings, metal detectors were shipped in and shiny new signs and barriers appeared everywhere to shepherd Hong Kong’s already harassed workers around town.

Security around the convention centre itself looked more suitable for Iraq’s green zone than one of Asia’s most peaceful cities. Predictably, huge plastic barriers ringed the entire perimeter, but behind those sat a sinister black fence that looked as if it might be able to withstand a direct nuclear hit. Delegates, media and workers all sported oversized identity tags around their necks.

The police left no stone unturned – literally. One restaurateur busy finishing off the renovation of a new bar in Wanchai, Hong Kong’s sin city, was astonished to receive a call on his cellphone from a senior police officer asking him to remove a few loose bricks from outside his premises. “It worries the hell out of me,” he says. “They’re too efficient: how the hell did they get my cell number?”

To many of Hong Kong’s residents, it all seemed a bit like overkill. Hong Kong is a business city. Most citizens are too busy – either enriching themselves further or trying to make ends meet – to worry about the more lively aspects of most WTO conferences. That should help the police in spotting protesters, argued one banker. “This is Hong Kong,” he says. “People are very law abiding. In Europe, you’d have no shortage of thugs ready to take a swing at the police alongside the real protesters, but not here. Any protester is going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Perhaps – but that did not stop a group of Korean farmers from taking the police by surprise on the conference’s opening day. Although the farmers were sporting telltale lurid life jackets designed especially for the occasion, officers were caught unawares when the Koreans hurled themselves into Hong Kong’s smelly harbour. No doubt horrified that any right-minded individual would be prepared to brave one of the world’s most polluted waterways, officers reluctantly rushed to fish the offenders out.

Sheep

“It’s really quite funny,” said a banker watching the mayhem from his office. “There’s a whole bunch of Korean farmers in bright orange life vests bobbing up and down in the harbour and the police following in launches desperately trying to herd them like sheep.”

Less amusing was the afternoon standoff between protesters and police in full riot gear, which ended with scuffles and pepper spray. Not an auspicious start to the conference. Despite the best efforts of police to prevent known troublemakers from entering Hong Kong, early indications were of abject failure. By the time the conference opened on December 13, protesters had already appeared in their thousands. Some even found their way through the cordons and into the conference hall to heckle poor Pascal Lamy, the WTO director-general, during his opening address.

Although an organization such as the WTO in Hong Kong might seem an appropriate visitor to one of the world’s most capitalist cities, many questioned the wisdom of holding a crucial meeting of the organization there.

“This is going to be a huge payola for some,” said one observer. “But where’s the real benefit to Hong Kong of all this? Run the numbers and tell me what Hong Kong Inc. gets out of it. I’m not sure this is such a great advert for Hong Kong.”