World is watching: People are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University this week Picture: AFP/DALE DE LA REY
World is watching: People are detained by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University this week Picture: AFP/DALE DE LA REY

Two years ago I was strolling along a wintry street in a coal town at the edge of the Gobi Desert in Xinjiang in the far west of China.

The town was remarkable for its many security cameras mounted on streetlights. We stopped and pointed at one, then walked on. When I looked back, the camera was tracking me and I felt a chill colder than the air settle on my skin.

The people who live here are mostly from the Uighur ethnic group. The Uighurs have been in the news recently — though not a fraction as much as their fellow citizens in Hong Kong — following a heavy-handed crackdown in which as many as 2-million people have, since April 2017, allegedly been detained in what Beijing says are "vocational training centres".

The demonstrators in Hong Kong have everything going for them. They live in a global financial and tourism centre with exceptional access to the rest of the world and they are using this gift like a sledgehammer.

The authorities convulse with every blow, such as when a Hong Kong court ruled that the proposed ban on face masks was unconstitutional. The response from China’s highest legislature was that only it had the power to rule on constitutional matters.

We’ve seen this movie before.

The protests — now into their sixth month — have signalled deep and increasing unhappiness among the youth with both Beijing and Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous government.

This week, police laid siege to the city’s Polytechnic University in an attempt to winkle out a few hundred antigovernment protesters taking refuge there.

The one good thing about being a demonstrator in a city where the whole world is watching is that you are unlikely to be rounded up and sent to a "vocational training centre".

Not yet, anyway.