Hong Kongers Demand a Voice
In the early evening, on a weeknight in Hong Kong, people pour into the streets. Tents have been set up where volunteers are on standby to distribute food and water. A makeshift study area for students takes up a large chunk of the road, with signs advising against the use of flash photography; nearby, two artists set up a station offering cartoon sketches. Speeches are given—not by high-profile political figures—but ordinary people. Alongside banners calling for peace, freedom and democracy are reminders that protesters should recycle. Among the sea of people gathered, two students wheeling a supply of bottled water stop to chat to friends. “We’re planning on distributing these, then staying until around 11pm,” one said. “Call us later. Stay safe,” his friend responded.
For weeks, thousands of protesters have been taking to the streets of the Central district and neighboring Admiralty, where government headquarters stand. Before the campaign began, an official date had not been announced for Occupy Central. Most Hongkongers braced themselves for it to take place on the first of October, a public holiday marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong is no stranger to protests; demonstrators regularly take to the streets. A few days prior to Occupy Central’s igniting, a student-led rally at the government quarters led to the arrests of students, leading the campaign to unexpectedly kick off in the early hours of September 28. Throughout the day, more and more protesters filled the streets—reportedly over 30,000. While the protests began relatively peacefully, the atmosphere took a decidedly forceful turn as the day went on. Unable to clear the crowds, police brought out pepper spray, then tear gas—released on unarmed protesters. The people were undeterred. As the gas subsided, protesters came out of their hiding place and continued their efforts.
Ironically, police force became a catalyst that drew ever more to the movement. Hong Kong people were outraged by what they saw; the next day, some 50,000 people came out to lend their support. Roads that act as a major artery in the city’s transportation were suddenly devoid of traffic—instead, they were filled with thousands of people: sitting, standing, or singing songs. The campaign became known as the Umbrella Movement, thanks to the protesters’ use of the instruments to sheild themselves against pepper spray. Geographically, Occupy Central has extended to several different areas across the city. Occupied areas include the shopping mecca of Causeway Bay, as well as Mong Kok, a bustling neighborhood in Kowloon across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. Wan Chai district, situated just east of Admiralty, also became an occupied site earlier on in the movement—particularly the roads just outside the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, which saw tense standoffs between the force and protesters.
The seed was planted for Occupy Central in January 2013, when the University of Hong Kong’s Associate Professor of Law Benny Tai Yiu-ting first proposed a peaceful civil disobedience movement calling for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. But Occupy Central with Love and Peace—as it is known by its full name—differs from Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2011, which would later spawn similar movements across the globe. While the Occupy Movement consisted of protests against social and economic inequality, Occupy Central H.K. calls for a peaceful sit-in staged by citizens in an effort to paralyze the city’s business and financial district. The campaign advocates for universal suffrage—specifically, for Hong Kong to be able to elect its own leader without any interference from China. By bringing the city’s financial center to a standstill, the campaign would act as a bargaining chip in negotiating with Beijing for electoral reform.
Occupy Central has grown to involve more key players than just Benny Tai alone; there are several parties who are now widely considered to be leaders of the movement and students play an important role. Scholarism, an activist group co-founded by a then-15-year-old Joshua Wong in 2011, is heavily involved. Wong first shot to media attention in 2012 when he became a voice in speaking against Moral and National Education, a curriculum proposed by the national government that would effectively enforce communist beliefs onto the school education system in Hong Kong. Joshua Wong was there for a student-led rally that took place over the weekend before Occupy Central began. He was arrested and, along with a dozen others, detained for 40 hours only to be freed following an order of unconditional release by the High Court of Hong Kong. Then there is the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a combined effort from the student unions of eight educational institutions. Its secretary-general is Alex Chow, a 24-year-old student at the prestigious University of Hong Kong, who led a class boycott that also played a part in the lead-up to Occupy Central.
Addressing a huge crowd in Admiralty in his signature rapid-fire drawl, Joshua Wong is in top form. “Whether or not there is a ban in place, the citizens’ commitment in occupying will not wane,” says Wong. He refers to the Supreme Court of Hong Kong’s imposing of an injunction banning protesters from occupying Mong Kok. “Hong Kong people’s drive in civil disobedience will not change! As people involved in civil disobedience, we are willing to take the risks of being arrested… because that’s how we are as responsible citizens. This is a promise we’re making to Hong Kong people who are against what we’re doing.”
At the makeshift study area, I speak with a man called Tony, a 21-year-old student at a local university. Like many other protesters, he first joined the movement based on the police’s actions. “Without the Umbrella Movement, Hongkongers wouldn’t have had a sense of civic consciousness. It was because the police threw tear gas that made people want put their power together, which is something that has never happened before,” he says.
True democracy has never been fully implemented in the history of Hong Kong. The semi-autonomous region was a British colony for 156 years before sovereignty was transferred to China in 1997. Throughout the period, governors of Hong Kong were appointed by the British government. When Hong Kong Basic Law was drawn up, Article 45 enshrined the right to universal suffrage. An agreement dubbed “One Country, Two Systems” was took hold. The term refers to a constitutional principle that ensures Hong Kong would retain its capitalist economy and political structure for 50 years after the handover from the U.K. to China. The erosion of this principle less than two decades later is just one of myriad reasons why Hongkongers are concerned for their future. Hong Kong’s current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, known as CY Leung, was elected by a select committee: a group of 249,999 people, which consisted of representatives across different industries in fields such as legal, finance and education, was first put together; out of the 249,999, a committee of 1,200 was eventually chosen to cast their votes. Just six hundred and eighty-nine votes went to CY Leung, the eventual winner of the race—Hong Kong has 3.5 million registered voters.
Back at the study area, Tony admits that he’s worried about what will happen after 2047, when the “One Country, Two Systems” promise officially expires, though, he thinks it is important to focus on how Hong Kong will change in the years leading up to it. “The chances of Hong Kong becoming independent are really quite slim, but at least we’re forcing China to not overly suppress us,” he says. “At least we can try to fight for room to survive, in terms of democracy.”
The movement has certainly acted as an awakening for ordinary Hong Kong people. On a bridge connecting Central and Admiralty, we caught up with Alice, a 23-year-old who works as a host at a co-working space. “I didn’t plan on attending Occupy Central right from the beginning,” she says. She first came down to the area to support students who had been arrested the day before Occupy Central officially began. “As soon as I arrived, it was announced that Occupy Central had started. I spent the night on the streets.” The next morning, she and her friends heard reports of protesters being allowed to leave but she wasn’t allowed to re-enter. She decided to stay anyway. “Around 4pm, the police started using tear gas.” She became determined, “I couldn’t let the students be hurt.”
Since then, Alice has been coming almost every day, sometimes spending the night before heading to work the next day in Wan Chai. “I think it is clear for all to see that the Chinese government is not going to change their stance,” says Alice. “But sometimes, just because you don’t think there will be any results, doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything.”
The 2011 American Occupy Movement was often criticized for not having clear goals in sight, a problem which some worry is slowly arising in Occupy Central H.K. as well. On October 21, almost a month after Occupy Central began, government representatives agreed to sit down with leaders of the Federation of Students for a two-hour-long debate to discuss their demands. The government had previously canceled scheduled talks, leading many to criticize and question their sincerity. After the the meeting took place, most Hongkongers agreed that nothing concrete had come of it. Cat, 29, a hairdresser, holds court under a tent just by the “Lennon Wall,” which is adorned with colorful sticky notes holding messages from protesters, supporters, and well-wishers. He’s come to Occupy Central most days, but the future doesn’t look bright in his eyes. “Honestly, everyone has a pretty pessimistic attitude towards the movement. We have the drive to fight for what we want, but we know that the chances [of obtaining universal suffrage] are slim.” Still, he holds the same view as many others that protesters should not give up. “I’ve had friends say to me, ‘You’re going out there, but the government isn’t going to do anything.’ But if people don’t do anything just because they think it’s not going to happen, then we wouldn’t have things like electricity, nor the iPhone you’re holding in your hand.”
Will Occupy Central be over sooner than we had hoped? Alice believes there are wider implications for Hong Kong, though not necessary exactly what the leaders of Occupy Central hope to ultimately achieve. ”Whether or not we get universal suffrage, it has awoken a lot of people’s civic awareness. When it comes to things that are unfair and unjust, we need to stand up.”