This photo essay shows the day-to-day life the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. If you would like to view the images at a higher resolution (2048 x 1035), you can visit the Google+ gallery which will contain over 200 images. (I am now starting to upload the photos to the gallery).
This is the third week of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Footage of demonstrators fleeing from police and shielding themselves from teargas and pepper spray caught the world’s attention, but those images don’t represent the whole story. The nature of the protest changes day-by-day, hour by hour. During the evening, thousands of protesters occupy the streets; but the next morning this might be reduced to a few hundred hardcore members manning the barricades as their comrades troop off blurry-eyed to work or school after spending the night on the pavement.
What makes Hong Kong’s recent pro-democracy movement distinctive has been the young protesters’ total commitment to non-violent civil disobedience—there has been no looting and no vandalism aside from chalked slogans on the pavement. Not a single pane of glass has been broken (Post-Protest Edit: though it was still a mainly non-violent protest, as the protests were coming to an end, frustrated protesters smashed a few glass panes at the entrance of the Central Government Offices, putting a blemish on what had otherwise been a remarkable show of restraint). Even the symbol of the protest movement—the umbrella—is one of resistance and protection rather than aggression and attack.
And this is ultimately what the protest is about—protection (well, that and self-expression). Concerned about the growing encroachment of mainland China into the territory’s politics, media and social fabric, the student protesters think that in order to safeguard Hong Kong’s unique culture and identity, one of the most important measures is for Hong Kong citizens to have the freedom to nominate and elect its own leader.
The Reason for the Strike
The protest started in response to the announcement by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on 31 August regarding the 2017 elections for the territory’ s top political post (The Chief Executive). The announcement can be summed up as: “For the first time you will be able to elect the Chief Executive through universal suffrage, BUT we will select the candidates for you beforehand via a selection committee.”
This proposal is arguably in line with the Basic Law, the document that is the foundation of the One Country Two Systems policy and that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a certain amount of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. However, many Hong Kong people, disenchanted withe the performance of all three Chief Executives since the handover in 1997, had been hoping for greater say into who runs the territory. The aim of the protest is to allow Hong Kong people greater say in the nomination of candidates for Chief Executive.
How the Protests Grew
The protests started as a five-day boycott (22-26 September) of college and university classes by the The Hong Kong Federation of Students, (www.hkfs.org.hk/strike/) (comprising the student unions of the territory’s eight universities). Towards the climax of the boycott it was joined by Scholarism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholarism), a political activist group led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong. As part of the boycott, students protested outside the Central Government Complex in Admiralty district and demanded free, fair and open elections. A separate protest campaign—Occupy Central with Peace and Love (http://oclp.hk/)—was to begin on 1 October. This movement is led by Benny Tai, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. As the name suggests, this campaign was loosely based on the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On Friday evening (26 September), the last scheduled day of the student boycott, a small group of protesters managed to push through the police cordon and past the gates outside the main government offices and…well…they just sat down around the flagpoles in the forecourt, where they were immediately ringed in by police. In keeping with the non-violent spirit of the protest, the student protesters did not attempt to vandalize or enter the government buildings. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but the police, clad in their usual uniform—short-sleeved shirt, trousers and cap—and reflective vests, acted with restraint. During the evening two prominent student leaders were arrested at the protest site.
The next day police cleared the forecourt of protesters. In general, the police behaved reasonably, using minimal force to carry people away, but a few officers flashed their batons and some others rashly and unnecessarily used pepper spray on students. This heavy-handed treatment of non-violent student protesters was televised live and provoked a strong public reaction. Another issue was the police’s continued detention of student leader Joshua Wong.
On Sunday morning, protesters started streaming towards the government office mainly to support the students and ensure they were not manhandled by the police. The main rallying cry was ‘protect the students‘ and not ‘occupy the streets‘. The police, now wearing helmets and with many officers clad in full riot gear, halted the protesters. I am not sure what they thought this would achieve.
The arriving protesters, blocked from progressing towards the Central Government Complex by the police, flooded into nearby streets blocking traffic on Connaught Road. To take advantage of this development, Occupy Central with Peace and Love announced an immediate start to their campaign. More and more protesters started streaming into the streets, and then police made the rash decision to try to clear the streets using tear gas and pepper spray. Because of the risks associated with using tear gas on crowds, it is generally not used against peaceful demonstrators, and it is uncertain as to whether the use of tear gas by police on that day was lawful (http://researchblog.law.hku.hk/2014/09/legal-authority-for-police-to-use-tear.html). In any case, its use only served to escalate the protest.
While police were struggling in their attempt to clear the streets in Admiralty, protesters used social media to quickly mobilize. In a matter of minutes they were able to occupy main thoroughfares in Causeway Bay and Mongkok, opening up two new fronts for the police to try to control and sending a message of “Even if you keep us out of one place, we can easily pop up in another place.” At Admiralty, Police eventually ceased the tear gas attacks and retreated back inside the main government complex. Strategically outmaneuvered, the police had lost the battle. And with the heavy-handed and violent tactics, they lost the respect of many of Hong Kong’s citizens.
I have no idea if the student leaders had planned on this kind of occupation, but at the end of the day, protesters were in control of three sites.
The Admiralty Site
The main site is in Admiralty, where protesters occupy several city blocks and surround the main government offices, the Legislative Council building as well as the office of the Chief Executive. On weekends and public holidays the number of protesters swells into the tens of thousands, with numbers dwindling to several hundred in the morning as those who have stayed overnight go to school, go to work or just go home to freshen up and get some rest.
The atmosphere there is incredibly civil—kind of like a mellow folk festival, but with large rallies, small forums and informal sing-a-longs among friends.
A small army of student volunteers (as well as a number of volunteers from churches and Christian groups) help maintain the site, providing free food, water and other essential supplies.Volunteers walk through the site to collect waste and bring it to one of several recycling stations to separate it and even give talks on waste collection methods. They maintain first aid stations (whose staff include many medical students) and phone-recharging centers, assist people clambering over traffic barriers and help maintain an orderly flow of pedestrian traffic. I asked a few people who was coordinating the efforts, and they all replied that no one was actually in charge; that different groups took it upon themselves to recognize a need and then work towards meeting that need.
A study center has sprung up in the middle of the site with several tables set up for students trying to keep up with their coursework.
With the weather finally starting to cool and the the government cancelling talks with the student leaders, the protesters began to settle in, setting up more and tents throughout the site.
The Causeway Bay Site
A second site occupies a couple of blocks in Causeway Bay, a shopping and entertainment district a few kilometers to the East. The site is centered on the super busy intersection outside the Sogo department store. Usually, there are only a few hundred protesters there at any given time. The mood here is also laid back, but as an occupation site, it seems rather vulnerable—a kind of isolated outpost.
The Mongkok Site
The third site is in Mongkok, a densely populated, perpetually busy commercial and residential district across the harbor in Kowloon. Here protesters occupy the normally bustling intersection between two main streets: Nathan Road and Argyle Street, If you have watched the news and seen scuffles between civilians this is where that is happening. The protesters only occupy a couple of blocks and have been subject to harassment and attacks. (I don’t have any photos of this, but I did take some footage of confrontations that are included here in this video).
Some of the anti-protesters are local residents who are angry with the disruption in their neighborhood, but many seem to be hired thugs, members of local triads (Hong Kong’s criminal syndicates). When police arrested some of a group of men who swept through the area on 3 October and attacked protesters and pulled down stalls, several of those arrested did have triad connections. Alleged attackers have been videotaped being ushered away by police and into waiting taxis; and screenshots of text messages have been published showing payment rates for acting against the protesters.
Anger has been directed against police, who have been accused of either actively colluding with the triads or simply looking the other way. Student leaders have suggested abandoning this site to concentrate their manpower at the main site, but the protest area in Mongkok is mainly run by grassroots activists (not student groups), who have no intention on leaving.
Do Most Hong Kong People Support the Protests ?
It is safe to say that most Hong Kong citizens would like a greater say in the choice of Chief Executive, but it is unclear whether this is mainly due to their dissatisfaction with all three post-handover leaders (Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang and C. Y. Leung) or a deep desire for democracy and political self-determination.
Not everyone in favor of increased democracy, however, agrees that protests are the best way forward. Among Hong Kong residents opposed to the protests are those who:
- prefer a less-confrontational wait-and-see approach in the hope that China will gradually become a more open and democratic country
- are somewhat supportive of the protests, but feel the students have made their point and should now pack it in
- have resigned themselves to the belief that the mainland’s grip over Hong Kong will inevitably become even tighter over time, so students should just return to classes, work harder, graduate and think about emigrating
- see Hong Kong’s future as being inextricably intertwined with China and believe that if one has a more positive outlook, it is possible to see and take advantage of all the things China has to offer
- work or live near the protest sites and are fed up with the disruption.
There are also those opposed to democracy in general. These include:
- Beijing loyalists such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its supporters. The DAB is a political party that has been unwaveringly loyal to China’s Central Government and has been opposed to increased democracy since the party’s inception. The party is quite well supported in Hong Kong due to its strong organization at the grassroots level and efforts at representing its constituents;
- Ardent nationalist groups such as Caring Hong Kong Power, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Youth Care. They are known for their use of Cultural-Revolution-style intimidation tactics (badcanto.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/the-conspiracy-behind-suicidal-pro-china-organisations/ & (www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2013/09/09/2003571680);
- Anti-western conspiracy theorists who view the pro-democracy movement as a plot hatched, planned and funded by American intelligence services looking to destabilize the territory and weaken China (the protesting university students are viewed as unwitting dupes manipulated into betraying their country).
There exist deep divisions within Hong Kong and it is unlikely that the majority of Hong Kong people support the protests.
Can the Protests Succeed?
Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong people have twice used massive protests to stave off unpopular political proposals. They forced the Hong Kong government into shelving the introduction of far-reaching anti-sedition laws (the Article 23 protests of 1993 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Basic_Law_Article_23) and into indefinitely delaying the introduction of a mandatory propaganda-heavy Moral and National Education curriculum in the territory’s secondary schools (the student-led protests of 2012 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_and_national_education). It was during this second campaign, that many of the student leaders of this current campaign gained experience.
However, this time the protest is against a decision by China’s Communist Party, which would not want to see a precedent of being forced though public dissent to backtrack on official policy. As Hu Jia former teenage activist in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 states:
“Mainland China is a tinderbox that’s been physically suppressed by the authorities, and Hong Kong is a seed of fire.The Communist Party is very scared of this tiny bit of land, because if true universal suffrage can blossom in Hong Kong, it is very likely true universal suffrage will end up happening in the mainland.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/21/world/asia/hong-kong-joshua-wong-democracy-protest/)
True universal suffrage happening on the mainland is the last thing China’s authoritarian leaders want. Thus, even if there is disagreement among different political factions in China about what to do with Hong Kong, the idea of Chinese leaders giving in to protesters’ demands for greater democracy seems rather far-fetched.
In addition, Hong Kong simply lacks leverage with China. With a typical strike or boycott, protesters send a message of “We are prepared to make a sacrifice to get what we want. We will suffer, but you will suffer, too; so it is in your best interest to meet our demands.” In this case, however, China can simply say “Yeah, about that suffering…if you want to suffer, that’s fine with us. We can help you suffer some more. Shall we shut down your economy?” China has started applying gentle pressure already by halting many group tours from the mainland. As Mainland tourists make up the bulk of visitors to Hong Kong, local businesses are beginning to feel the pinch. Once these businesses start laying off the staff, public antagonism towards the protesters will only grow. In this CNN video, Michael DeGolyer describes this strategy of slowly applying crushing pressure as the ‘anaconda scenario’ (http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2014/10/08/pkg-stevens-hong-kong-anaconda-strategy.cnn.html).
At the same time as public support for their protests is beginning to wane. the students themselves are getting worn out mentally and physically as they try to cope with the pressures of living on the street while trying to keep up with their classwork and negotiate with disapproving parents.
As the situation at the protest sites can unfold so rapidly, even if protesters do get away for a night’s rest, some of them will set the alarm to wake up every two or three hours so that they can return if needed. The effects are beginning to take their toll and the students’ resolve will be tested in the coming weeks.
It is hard to see what the students can gain from Beijing. Perhaps, the best they can hope for is to extract some minor concessions from the local government. Commenting on an article by local businessman Allan Zeman (www.ejinsight.com/20140925-we-can-keep-building-on-our-can-do-spirit/), James Tan suggests these possible concessions:
“[for the HK government to (for example):
- hold independent public enquiries into allegations of: 1. use of excessive force by the police since September 27th during all the recent protest; 2. collusion between police and triads in recent days.
- apologise for illegally detaining student leaders for over 48 hours;
- review all charges against all protesters since September 27th;
- consider conveying student and protesters’ demands w.r.t. NPCSC’s Framework for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017 to the NPCSC, subject to the outcome of planned negotiations between students and the government”
What do the Protesters Expect to Achieve?
I asked many participants this question. Surprisingly not one of the people I spoke to expected the protests to change anything. They all said that they simply wanted to voices to be heard and realized that this might be the last time they would have the chance. Perhaps the Umbrella Movement’s leaders had higher hopes, but the ordinary people I talked to were all rather pragmatic and pessimistic.
No matter what happens, however, it is hoped that the local government will be more responsive to its citizens’ needs and wants. The government cannot be ousted at the ballot box, but the students have shown that Hong Kong people are willing to make a stand for what they believe in. If a more careful, caring and considerate governing style takes root in Hong Kong, perhaps that will be the lasting legacy of these protests.
You can visit the Google+ gallery (https://plus.google.com/photos/103920099084839198317/albums/6069577533246412705) album where there are more than 200 images (including the ones on this page) at a resolution of 2048 x 1035. Uploading is now in progress.
The protests came to an end in mid-December after bus companies obtained court injunctions requiring the streets to be cleared. One by one, the protest sites were cleared. Protesters packed up and police and cleaning crews moved in, meeting little to no resistance.
There were quite a few causes for the end of the protest:
- The legal actions taken by the bus companies, which would have put anyone failing to comply with the orders to clears the site in contempt of court)
- The protester’s exhaustion (many of them were students, who would soon sit for exams)
- Dwindling public support
- Lack of leadership among the protesters (there was no one actually in charge of the protests)
- Government intransigence.
Were the protests successful?
The government made no concessions and the protests ended, so it emerged as a clear ‘victor’.
I put ‘victor’ in quote marks because by taking such a hardline against peaceful protesters and refusing to make any concessions, the government unwittingly gave birth to more radical protest movements that have ideologies ranging from stressing localism to calling for independence. When the opportunity came to protest again during the so-called Fishball Revolution (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Mong_Kok_civil_unrest) during the Lunar New Year Holiday in 2016, the number of protesters was much smaller, but they were a lot nastier, as witnessed by the attack on police The protest quickly escalated to a riot, with protesters hurling bricks at police and assaulting a fallen officer, leading to one of his colleagues firing warning shots into the air.
The protesters of the Umbrella Movement won nothing. However, regarding the people I spoke to, the ones who expressed a desire to be heard, I suppose that to a certain extent, they did succeed. For a couple of months, their voices were heard. Will they once more want to speak up or have their voices been silenced forever?
~Photos and text by longzijun
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