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Flames, flags and a flashback

IN THE FRIGHTENING, arson-filled days leading up to China’s National Day two years ago, a group of protesters in Hong Kong called for the attention of reporters standing nearby.

We walked over.

The demonstrators’ press censorship team did something unusual. They lifted their camera-proof wall of black umbrellas so that we could film exactly what their leaders were doing: setting fire to the flag of our country.

They used a cigarette lighter to create a flame and then applied it to the edge of the bright red flag of China. A long minute passed. It wouldn’t catch alight.

They tried again. Still no luck. They tried a different part of the flag.

It flatly refused to burn.

Some of the reporters started to laugh. The protesters, embarrassed and angry, barked orders that the wall of censorship umbrellas should go up again.


What they hadn’t realized is that government-mandated safety rules mean that all flags – including the flag of China and the dozens of US flags the protesters were waving – are required to have a high degree of fire resistance.

The incident was over in a couple of minutes, but it was very representative of the protests as a whole. It was as if the Universe was saying: “Hey, guys: ultimately you are going to have to stop setting everything on fire, because things like safety and respect actually matter.”


Two years later, we are celebrating the 72nd China National Day, and I breathe a sigh of relief that all bids to destroy the “one country, two systems” policy failed so badly.

It’s ironic:

  • Attempts to push Hong Kong folk away from mainland China made people with a very negative attitude to the country (including me) think more deeply.
  • Attempts to defund our city’s police force resulted in them receiving more resources and a bigger budget.
  • Attempts to paralyze Hong Kong’s civil society functions resulted in our community having a firmer government with a stronger grip.
  • And attempts to make Hong Kong into the only developed economy without a security law led to it actually getting one.


On this anniversary, it’s worth remembering that so much of Hong Kong’s troubles began with 2012 protests against government proposals that youngsters in this city learn more about their culture and history.

It was sad to see. People who don’t know their past have no context with which to understand their present – or set targets for their future.


Recent history is relevant, too. Whether we were born in Hong Kong or outside it, the well-financed attempts to destabilize the city forced residents to take a stand.

As for the “patriots please” requirements, of course it makes infinitely more sense for us to stand with legislators allied to our country and our cousins and our business partners, than to stand with activists who are openly allied to a hostile nation on the other side of the world.


Still, the past 72 years of Chinese history have taught us another lesson too. Developing countries go through difficult days and dark times: such struggles, it seems, cannot be avoided.

But if China’s rise has taught us anything, it is this: failures are not the opposite of success; they are the rungs on the ladder to success.


This week, shopkeepers near my office are happily putting up Chinese flags to celebrate National Day. Two years ago, they were too scared to do so. That’s progress.

And if someone lights a candle and places it too close to the flag, we needn’t worry, because we have learned something.

Flags are fire-resistant.

This piece is also being printed in several other places, including China Daily Hong Kong

Montage at top by Fridayeveryday staff

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