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“We have to be here, for our future”

3 October 2014

China’s hardening response to protesters could radicalise a whole generation, reports Duncan Hewitt in Hong Kong


Turning point: students protesting in Hong Kong on Chinese National Day, 1 October. Alex Leung/Flickr

Turning point: students protesting in Hong Kong on Chinese National Day, 1 October. Alex Leung/Flickr

In Hong Kong, few people have any illusions as to who’s ultimately in charge. In the city’s bookshops, shelves groan under the weight of books in Chinese about China’s president Xi Jinping. The topics vary – his anti-corruption campaigns, his family, his rise to power – but many depict him as an autocrat, some in the costume of an emperor. In one shop I counted more than fifty such books. Some are aimed at visitors from mainland China, who might pick up a copy or two to take back home – if they dare. But they are also aimed at Hong Kong readers. This is a city that knows in whose shadow it lives.

Which makes the past week’s demonstrations against the electoral system offered to Hong Kong by Xi’s government all the more remarkable. To be sure, anger in Hong Kong had been simmering since the summer over Beijing’s very limited interpretation of the universal suffrage it had promised the city for its next leadership election in 2017: effectively a choice of “two or three” candidates who must first win the approval of the majority of a Beijing-appointed selection committee. One poster on the street in Hong Kong labelled this “North Korean–style universal suffrage” – an appropriate comment, perhaps, since Zhang Dejiang, the head of China’s National People’s Congress who oversaw the drawing up of these rules, is one of the small number of senior Chinese officials who was educated in Pyongyang.

But the initial response didn’t seem like it would be too radical: the middle-aged academics who head the civic protest movement that styles itself “Occupy Central” spent several weeks humming and ha-ing, before finally announcing that they would stage a sit-in with “Peace and Love” in Hong Kong’s Central business district on 1 October, China’s National Day and the start of a two-day public holiday. They certainly hoped that the choice of a holiday would attract more people to come out, but it seemed like a typical Hong Kong–style protest: carefully organised, designed not to cause too much disruption to the business that is so important to the city, and all rather polite and “civil.”

Even the week-long “student strike” that preceded it began in a very orderly way, with a rally by 13,000 people on the leafy campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, far away in Hong Kong’s New Territories. And when the students eventually moved downtown, close to the city government offices, many of them spent much of the time keeping up with their studies at a series of public lectures in a nearby park.

Yet as Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-Ying, generally seen to be Beijing’s mouthpiece in the city, studiously ignored student demands for dialogue, the mood began to change. By joining hands and pushing together, the leaders of Scholarism – a group of mainly high school students who first got together in 2012 to oppose plans for a Chinese-style patriotic “National Education curriculum” – succeeded in bursting through a police cordon around Civic Square. This plaza was originally designated for public gatherings, but the government irritated many people by fencing it off this summer. The police responded by using pepper spray against the protesters, and hauling more than seventy of them – including Joshua Wong, Scholarism’s seventeen-year-old co-founder, and the two heads of the Hong Kong Student Federation – off to the cells. Overnight, more and more young people converged on government HQ to express their anger.

The next day’s response – when police in riot gear marched into the crowds, now tens of thousands strong, and began shooting tear gas right into the faces of peaceful, mainly young demonstrators – may go down as a turning point in Hong Kong’s history. Rather than running away, the crowd regrouped, and thousands of local people, young and old, many of whom had never taken part in a protest before, began arriving to offer support and supplies. Within hours the students and other young protesters had spontaneously organised stations to distribute water, along with face masks, goggles and plastic wrap for protection against the gas and sprays. Rumours swirled that the police might use rubber bullets, but nobody left: people simply started organising emergency first aid stations by the roadsides, with medical professionals coming out to volunteer to help.

Overnight, protests spread to several other areas of town, as locals took over streets and blocked traffic to express their fury at what many saw as a travesty of everything they believed Hong Kong stands for: transparency in government, rule of law, the right of the public to express themselves. “This is not our familiar Hong Kong,” Chloe, a student of English at Hong Kong University, tells me, “we had to take action.” Ken, a nineteen-year-old civil engineering student, who took part in one of the sit-ins which continued to paralyse several parts of the city for the rest of the week, echoes her views: “I’ve never been to a protest, but when I saw the tear gas on TV, I felt I had to come here to show my anger.” A little further down the street, Winnie, a sixteen-year-old high school student, says that after witnessing the arrests and then the tear gas, “I couldn’t concentrate on my studies this week, I had to be here to support the protesters – the more of us, the less the police will dare to do.”

With those volleys of tear gas – “very few, just eighty-seven” of them, according to a police spokesman (who also claimed that the crowds had misinterpreted police signs saying “Disperse or we fire” and that there was never any intention to use bullets) – Hong Kong’s police may just have succeeded in radicalising a whole new generation, or at least crystallising an already growing mood of social awareness and civic consciousness among the territory’s young people.

Despite China’s best efforts, predictions that the young generation would be educated to support the Chinese government’s line after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 do not seem to have proved accurate. On the contrary, many student protesters cite the compulsory course in Liberal Studies introduced in the territory a decade ago, with its emphasis on civic values, as having inspired them to speak out against what they see as injustice. Eddie Shee, vice-president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, says the course was originally introduced as a means of injecting more of China’s cherished “national education” into the curriculum, but has been turned by many teachers into a forum for debate on China – and social issues in general.

“This course has actually given students a lot of time for free discussion, about China, about national matters,” Shee said, as he handed out stickers calling for “true universal suffrage” to a stream of protesters close to government headquarters on Wednesday. “There are no text books, so many teachers bring their own material, like newspaper articles. When we were in high school,” he added, “there was seldom a chance to talk about politics, but now the kids are much more active. So I’m quite proud of the younger generation: they’re fighting for the democracy that belongs to them – they’re the people who are going to vote in the future.”

Other young demonstrators added that their parents’ generation, many of whom arrived in Hong Kong as refugees, were focused on making a living – and were often opposed to their taking part in the protests. “They think you should be grateful for what you’ve got,” said Ken, the engineering student. “But we know we have to be here, for our future.” The students’ sense of civic duty has been reflected in the care with which they have organised cleaning rotas to pick up litter from the streets they’ve occupied – and the posters warning people not to turn the protests into simply a carnival: “Respect,” said one. “Please don’t perform music and fool around during the demonstration.”

But other banners displayed a rebellious, satirical streak that may also be more pronounced among the internet-savvy generation. On the streets of Mongkok district, a fake “lost pet” notice featured chief executive Leung’s picture, describing him as the “dog of the Chinese Communist Party” and suggesting he should be handed in to the nearest Chinese government office if found. Many posters called on Leung to step down, using his nickname “689,” a reference to the number of votes he garnered from the official committee that chose him for the job. On a nearby bus, marooned in the middle of the road when protesters sealed off the street, the bus route number had been changed to “689,” and the destination to “Hell.”

There were reminders, too, that it’s a serious business: posters on walls warned the demonstrators to avoid being incited, and to be aware of infiltrators, reflecting the fact that many fear that China is keen to see violence in order to enable it to depict the protesters as “extremists,” as some Chinese media have described them. And the reporting of the protests in some Hong Kong media reinforced the impression that many media organisations have cleaved to China’s line over the past decade and a half – just one important example of the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s independent values that worries many of the protesters. Several once-liberal newspapers focused less on the protesters and their ideals and more on the damage to the economy, tourism and Hong Kong’s image. Only the Apple Daily, owned by pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai, has been unambiguous in its support for the protests: its edition on 1 October featured a picture of the crowds with the headline “Rise up, people who do not want to be slaves,” the first line of China’s national anthem.

In Beijing, such a message would be seen as highly provocative – indeed Lai has recently been under investigation by Hong Kong’s anti-corruption commission, as has another pro-democracy politician, in a case that democrats say has raised further questions about the once-cherished independence of government bodies.

Hong Kong remains a very different place from China. Not long after the student leaders were detained after bursting into Civic Square at the start of the protests, for instance, a High Court judge ordered their release. But it’s clear that China is extremely concerned about the possibility of events in Hong Kong, and the city’s different political system, setting a precedent for the rest of the mainland. David Zweig, professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says that Chinese officials also seem obsessed by the idea that “foreign forces” (code for the United States and other Western countries) are “actively using Hong Kong as a base to influence China and undermine China’s security and sovereignty. They talk about this all the time.”

Zweig does not believe that China would deploy troops in Hong Kong, as some fear, “unless there was really bad civil unrest.” Otherwise, he says, “the police will handle it.” But others are less sure. Willy Lam, a long-time China-watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says China’s president Xi Jinping will be fearful of losing face over Hong Kong – not least among political rivals back home, many of whom he has alienated with his anti-corruption campaign. “The longer this goes on, the more Xi would lose face – he has a lot of power, but a lot of enemies – and they would pounce if he is seen to fail.”

Lam suggests Xi will want Hong Kong to be calmer by November’s APEC meeting in Beijing, and he believes that China might bring in Cantonese-speaking police from across the border in Guangdong province to quell protests if they do not subside in the next few weeks. “We’ve heard that the police in Guangdong have ordered several thousand Hong Kong police uniforms, just in case.”

Lam doesn’t expect that talks between protesters and the Hong Kong government could lead to substantial progress, though he says there may be a willingness to allow some public voting for members of the selection committee that will choose the chief executive. Overall, he says, Xi Jinping wants “to show Hong Kong that Beijing is the boss.”

Back on the streets, many protesters acknowledge that it will be very hard for them to achieve the goal of full universal suffrage. But many say that doesn’t mean they will give up. “I will come to join in the protests for as long as they continue,” says sixteen-year-old high school student Winnie. Joseph Chan, professor of politics at Hong Kong University, suggests that the protests could be the start of a long-running struggle for a more democratic society – “like in South Africa, or Burma. Maybe it will take twenty years, until there’s a different faction in power in China, but you have to carry on.”

And while some fear that the protesters could make things worse for Hong Kong by provoking a nervous government in Beijing to take an even tougher line towards the city, those who have participated in the Umbrella Revolution say they are not afraid. “If you don’t do something you’ll have no hope,” a first year university student told me. “You have to give yourself hope by believing that you can achieve something.”

And there’s no doubt that the recent events have galvanised people in the city to defend what many describe as the “Hong Kong spirit.” I caught a glimpse of this feisty, determined approach on a street in Hong Kong’s Central District on the second night of the protests. At a junction where a crowd of student protesters stood, kitted out in masks and goggles in the face of an anticipated police charge, I met a cropped-haired young woman, who had just pulled off her face mask to light a cigarette. “You’re not scared that the police will come?” I asked her. “We’re not scared,” she said matter-of-factly. “We are Hong Kong people.” •

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A struggle for influence and power: The US aircaft carrier USS George Washington after flight operations with its air wing in the South China Sea last month. Chris Cavagnaro/ US Navy

A struggle for influence and power: The US aircaft carrier USS George Washington after flight operations with its air wing in the South China Sea last month. Chris Cavagnaro/ US Navy