Hot, tired and emotional, Kit Wong couldn’t control his tears. Awake all night, watching television footage of Hong Kong’s riot police launching tear gas and pepper spray against young democracy protesters sheltering behind flimsy umbrellas, the 26-year-old travel agent was appalled.
When this violence shattered the peace of Hong Kong last Sunday night, it was a call to arms for tens of thousands of residents who were shocked by the police reaction. The following morning, Wong rushed to the protest site in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district.
Walking towards the site, in the searing sun, his voice shook and he turned his face away as he began to cry. “I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t … I had to come”.
Hit with a deluge of condemnation, by Monday the riot police had put down their arms and backed away, apparently deciding to wait for the protests to dwindle and die of their own accord. But the democracy issue packs a lot of weight in the tiny Hong Kong “special administrative region”, and by Monday evening huge crowds of mostly young protesters were hunkered down at three key business district sites, ready to spend their days on guard and their nights sleeping on the tarmac. Crowds at the protest sites ebbed and flowed over the week, peaking on Wednesday, the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Wednesday and Thursday were public holidays in Hong Kong, and the week is often called “golden week”. Many residents take the chance to have a week-long break, lasting until this coming Monday, when Hong Kong will rev back into gear. If the students have won no concessions by then, their chances look bleak.
Operating under a specially-contrived “one-country, two systems” modus operandi, Hong Kong enjoys a measure of independence from Beijing, and protesters insist they were promised free and fair elections following Britain’s handover of the territory in 1997. Yet in recent developments it appears Beijing has a different idea of democracy, ruling that Hong Kong residents will only be able to choose from a pool of Beijing-approved candidates.
In the days after Sunday evening’s flash of violence, parts of Hong Kong were transformed. These streets are usually filled with slowly moving vehicles, office workers striding to work and shoppers intent on Hong Kong’s bargains. Within hours they morphed into protest sites. Walls and fences were plastered with posters and decorated with signature yellow ribbons, umbrellas were lined up for rapid deployment, and piles of provisions – plastic bottles of water, packets of biscuits, oranges and bananas – were on hand at strategic points.
Many of the protesters are still at school, young idealists who risk parental wrath and even arrest to stand up for what they believe in. Many have worn their school uniforms to the protest site. Some even do their homework behind the barricades.
School student Siobahn Leung, 17, was born and raised in Hong Kong. Like so many others, she turned up at the Admiralty site on Monday morning, the day after the teargas barrage that shocked Hong Kong.
“It was heart-breaking,” she says with a wince. “I cried and cried. I’ve never seen violence like that happen in Hong Kong.” She was particularly outraged by footage of a protester trying to walk away from a police officer, who tapped him on the shoulder, and when the protester turned around, sprayed him full in the face with pepper spray.
Managing one of the resource caches at the Admiralty site, handing out water and snacks, twenty-year-old Kenny Wong says he is increasingly frustrated by the Hong Kong government’s stance.
Taking a course in liberal studies at a Hong Kong university, Wong says simply getting rid of Hong Kong’s current chief executive, CY Leung, would be a step in the right direction, but he really wants Hong Kong to have direct elections for the chief executive. Leung was elected in 2012 by a 1200 member committee, made up of Hong Kong citizens from supposedly broadly representative sectors of society, and he is widely regarded as a Beijing puppet.
Wong’s parents own and run a restaurant in Perth’s Chinatown. A frequent visitor to Australia, he says he knows how to breathe free air. “We hope we can end (the protest) this week, we want the government to speak to us, and listen to our voice, and then maybe we can get a solution,” he says. “If they would listen to us, I think we would leave (this protest site).” A chorus of young women standing with him agreed. If only the protesters were heard, they said, much of the fury would dissipate. By yesterday it seems the government had agreed, and talks were imminent.
Across the road, protesters huddle in patches of shade, sleeping, chatting or using their smartphones. Sitting alone on a concrete lane divider, 52-year-old business agent Dixon Chan smiles benignly at the crowds of youngsters surrounding him. Nearly all the protesters are under 25. Their parents are not joining them in what many in conservative Hong Kong see as a futile and ultimately time-wasting exercise, and one that could easily damage the relations the “special administrative region” has with Beijing.
Hong Kong, with about eight million people, relies on massive China’s population of 1.3 billion for revenue. Fifty-four million Chinese tourists visited Hong Kong last year, spending almost one billion Australian dollars a week, the equivalent of almost 16 per cent of Hong Kong’s GDP. All Beijing has to do is stop the visits, and Hong Kong will come smartly to heel. China has already blocked tour groups. Chan, for one, is well aware of Hong Kong’s economic vulnerability.
“I came here to support the students,” Chan says, adding that his girlfriend would probably join him in the evening. “The police, they were very violent. It was ugly.” Like most of the protesters, Chan planned to pace himself, protest for a time, then go home for a rest, before returning again. “I think this is a long journey, a long fight,” he explains. “I saw it on TV, it was like Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Then I was so young. I don’t want it to happen again here. I’m very afraid for the students.”
Protesters have refrained from annoying the Hong Kong public any more than is absolutely necessary. They are quick to cart away their rubbish and keep the protest sites as clean as possible, and they even try to keep the noise down. They regularly apologise for any inconvenience. This is carefully controlled and extremely polite effort at civil disobedience. They will not raise a fist, or push down a door.
“I don’t think the other citizens like violence,” says Henry Wong, 24, a recent film school graduate. “They won’t support us if we’re violent, they will turn away.” Sitting in a chair made of cardboard boxes, emblazoned with yellow stickers bearing the slogan ‘we are not enemies’, he shrugs. “They hope we’ll go home; I think they won’t discuss anything,” he says with a grimace of resignation. “I will stay until CY Leung goes”.
For most of the week the protests remained remarkably calm and united, but tempers began to fray late on Thursday. By yesterday violence had erupted at the protest site in Mong Kog when irate shopkeepers attempted to dismantle protest barricades.
Threatening to surround more government offices, the protesters finally won a concession from Leung who said his deputy, Carrie Lam, would lead a team to negotiate with protest leaders.
“It’s a start,” says Wong. “But who knows? We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”