Xu Lizhi threw himself from a Foxconn workers’ dormitory building in Shenzhen on 30 September. He was 24 years old, a migrant worker and a poet: neither line of work looks promising in China at the moment. In the 1980s ‘poet’ was a prestigious job-description, and did wonders for your love life. Now none of the papers would waste space on a poem, even as filler; if a self-advertised ‘poet’ turned up on a dating site there’d be no takers and plenty of eye-rolling: poets must be weird or poor, or both. Modern poetry was more or less buried, along with China’s golden 1980s, in the year we’re not suppose to mention.
I didn’t expect to see Occupy Central on the streets when I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of September. Like most tourists from the mainland, I went down to Central with a couple of friends for a close-up look at one of the world’s greatest consumer cultures in action, but the protest had been brought forward. On the subway there were dozens of teenagers wearing yellow ribbons in support of the cause. My friend in Hong Kong, who knows a little Cantonese, overheard one of the girls saying the boy she had a crush on had gone to the protest and she wanted to join him. They got off at Admiralty station, close to the demonstration. Love is the handmaiden of revolution. Later on TV we saw the pepper spray and tear gas, and we heard rumours – it turned out later they were orchestrated – of rubber bullets and armoured vehicles on the streets, yet there was calm for the most part, despite the odd flurry of projectiles and an attempt to shove through a barrier. The police reaction seemed guaranteed to bring more people out.