When I arrived in Hong Kong a month ago, the city overwhelmed me. Suspended between the mountains and the sea, between its colonial, British past and Chinese communism, Hong Kong’s identity faces many paradoxes. Less than a month has to pass before I’d realized how fragile a construction this remarkable city was. Although echoes of previous pro-democracy marches reached foreign media, it was the student class boycott movement, now nicknamed ‘the Umbrella Revolution’ that turned the eyes of the world on Hong Kong. Standing in front of a police troop on a Sunday night, eyeing possible exit routes in case of a tear gas offensive, I asked myself: how did we get here? How did the peaceful streets of Hong Kong turn into a surreal war zone [link], swarming with students wearing surgical masks and goggles, using umbrellas to shield themselves from the police bombarding them with tear gas?
The Umbrella Revolution intensified the already problematic relation between Hong Kong and China. During the handover negotiations in the 1980s, China agreed to a ‘universal suffrage’ proposed by the United Kingdom, promising that Hong Kongers would be able to control the state of their own country by participating in a fully democratic election. Since the 1997 handover China has not delivered on this promise.
This August 31st, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced a brutally anti-democratic reform that prevents anyone not approved by Beijing to become a candidate in the coming elections. Instead, Hong Kong will hold a ‘mock-election’, with candidates hand-picked by the Communist Party to ‘vote’ for. The protesters demand the reform’s revocation, the resignation of the Chief Governor CY Leung, and a free election. At first, it might be difficult to understand why it was this reform, of all attempts to restrain Hong Kong’s freedom [link], that motivated between fifty and a thousand people to take to the streets and paralyze large areas of the city. The protesters feel that the freedom they were promised is an ever-shrinking box of empty promises, and their cultural identity is slowly being eradicated.
The protesters feel that the freedom they were promised is an ever-shrinking box of empty promises.
It is not only the threat of reform itself, but the possible consequences that drove the demonstrations. Failure to have free elections could quickly lead to abolishing freedom of the press, or freedom of speech. China’s response to the protest exemplifies what the demonstrators are trying to prevent. The Communist Party ordered a complete media blackout [link] and Chinese newspapers ran a story stating that Hong Kongers are actually celebrating the reform. Many Chinese activists who support the protests, or even so much as share the photos documenting it have been arrested [link].
Sunday, the 28th of August will forever remain an important date in Hong Kong’s history, a day when the most peaceful of protests was brutally interrupted by the riot police. That night, I planned to join the main protests, held at the Government’s Headquarters, but all access to the area was blocked by the police, and mobile networks were disabled, preventing communication among protesters. The police used the metro system to transport more troops into the area, some of them carrying rifles loaded with plastic bullets. I stayed on the outskirts, where protesters provided surgical masks, umbrellas, and first aid kits. During the next few hours, I was the victim of several teargas attacks. I saw the police pushing encircling groups of students and bombing them with gas, even though they held their hands up. Protesters were pepper-sprayed at a point-blank range. The blatant abuse of human rights by the riot police is still something the Hong Kong government needs to account for.
Yet, Hong Kongers display an impressive sense of community against such centralized power.
A few days after that infamous Sunday, police brutality became a distant memory. Foreign and local media repeatedly label Hong Kong protesters the kindest, calmest, and most peaceful in the history of revolutions [link]. The protesters not only support one another by providing food, water, and first aid kits, but are committed to keeping their beloved street trash-free by recycling. Their empathy and sense of organization is remarkable – they set up emotional support stations for protesters and the police alike or clear out a whole street if an ambulance is passing through. They are never provoked to violence by (rare) cases of pro-Beijing displays. This is not only an expression of their personality, but also a clever political plan [link]. Beijing cannot afford to lose face again by ordering the police to suppress the protests, as it did over the weekend of the 27-28 of August.
Protesters were pepper-sprayed at a point-blank range.
The coming days will prove very difficult. CY Leung avoids any confrontation with the people and he insists that the protesters leave and stop disrupting the life of the city [link]. An increasing number of businessmen and expats are unhappy with the protest putting their lives on hold, and criticize the protesters for standing up to Beijing. They point out that the Communist Party is dangerous; they also point out that economic stability is more important than political activism.
I can’t help but think such responses are short-sighted: Hong Kong attracts expats and business precisely due to its intellectual and economic freedom. A battle against centralized power is difficult, but important. I believe that this generation of Hong Kongers will change the future of its city. The protests are only the beginning. It’s impossible to overestimate the experience young Hong Kongers had during the protest – the ability to put the whole city on hold, and voice their opinions on their future. To communicate and come together in a city that’s usually incredibly busy. To reclaim their space, their streets, and in consequence their fate. I believe they will be Hong Kong’s future leaders and they will protect their freedom for decades to come. As for us, we must continue to watch and support the struggle. We are lucky that we can - Hong Kong still has its freedom of speech and media.
Protesters protecting policemen from rain. (source unknown)
Protesters demonstrating peacefully while being watched by the police. (credit: Daren Leung Shi Chi)
Sunday the 28th. (credit: Real Hong Kong News)