Hong Kong was braced for more thousands-strong protests last night, following a weekend of chaos with police repeatedly launching tear-gas attacks to push back crowds of passionate pro-democracy demonstrators.
The tiny territory awoke yesterday to find many public transport routes cut or diverted, schools closed across parts of Hong Kong island and Hong Kong’s government still refusing to meet protest leaders. Unions called strikes and a number of government buildings were closed, including City Hall.
Protesters slept through the night on the streets in protest sites across Hong Kong, and yesterday they remained defiant in the face of continued calls to disperse, many vowing to stay put until their demands are met – they want to be able to directly vote for Hong Kong’s chief executive, rather than choosing from among China-approved candidates. They are also calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s current chief executive CY Leung.
Expected to intensify tomorrow – a public holiday and the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China – the protests have rattled Hong Kong’s authorities, who have responded by deploying riot police armed with rifles and teargas. At least 78 people have been arrested, and more than 40 injured.
Milton Wong, 26, a freelance music writer, told The Australian that Hong Kong’s future rested on the shoulders of the mostly-young protesters. Like many others, he spent the night on the street, and he was ready to do it again.
“The news was all over the place, so I wanted to come, to be responsible as a citizen,” he said, as Hong Kong’s temperature climbed to 32 degrees. “I kept thinking and thinking, it’s really the right thing and the responsible thing to do. The tear-gas was really a shock to me and my friends.”
He cited China’s decision on Hong Kong’s election process as key to his decision. “We are doing this to show our opinion about a decision the mainland (China) has just made. The election, they way they will do the election, is a fraud.”
Like many Hong Kong residents, Wong is concerned about China’s increasing influence over Hong Kong’s decision-makers, particularly the chief executive, CY Leung. Wong wants a direct vote to make a difference, even though, in common with nearly all of his fellow-protesters, he has never lived in a fully-free democracy.
Britain ruled Hong Kong until 1997, and appointed governors rather than holding elections. Since then, the Hong Kong “special administrative zone” has fielded approved candidates. Wong wants to choose his own candidate. “This is what we deserve,” he said. “We want a better deal.”
The weekend’s eruptions of mostly-youthful public fury made headlines around the world, and the forceful reaction from the police startled many more conservative Hong Kong residents. The Hong Kong Bar Association said in a statement it was “deeply disturbed by, and deplores and condemns, the excessive and disproportionate use of force” by police on the weekend.
Like Wong, protester Nehemiah Lee, 23, a computer science student at Hong Kong’s City University, spent the night on the street. He was worried about the consequences if he was arrested, but he was determined to carry on with the protest. “I think it’s worth it, he said. “I will go home, but I will come back if I need to.” He was disappointed though, when he ventured outside the protest zone and found Hong Kong’s CBD functioning smoothly and apparently unaffected.
The Hong Kong protests were slammed in mainland China, and approving posts on China’s social media platform Weibo were routinely censored. China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said the “radical activists were doomed”. “These activists are jeopardising the global image of Hong Kong, and presenting the world with the turbulent face of the city.”
Many of Hong Kong’s school students took advantage of school closures to join the protests. Joseph Liu, 18, turned up at the main protest site with a group of friends to have his say. “I think the teachers won’t teach us about government,” he said. “We will learn more about Hong Kong here. If we don’t come here, China’s government will take care of Hong Kong.”
Dressed in pristine white school uniforms, and sporting the yellow ribbon of the protest movement, 14-year-old Neige Au and 15-year-old Eunice Ngo said their parents had no idea where they were. “I think I need to support the people who are here,” Au said. “This means a lot. We need to fight for our liberty; fight for our democracy.” Ngo, too, said she felt compelled to join the protest: “My father would be furious, but I had to come.”
With the inevitable comparisons with China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Hong Kong’s government has insisted that despite rumours to the contrary on the internet, it has no intention of seeking assistance from China’s People’s Liberation Army to deal with the protests.
Meanwhile, Australia and Italy have both issued travel warnings for Hong Kong, urging citizens to avoid protest sites.