It is 9.30 pm in the Admiralty district—an extension of Hong Kong’s central business area. A sea of humanity stretches as far as the eye can see. The air is festive, the mood is upbeat. People are waving, singing lustily. It’s a popular song that roughly translates as ‘Forgive me my pursuit of freedom...but I am not afraid of falling down’. There is no leadership in sight, only a collectivity, acting as one. Fuelled by instant noodles and a passion for democracy, the protesters look to be in no mood for compromise.
The issue at stake is the election of the chief executive of Hong Kong, the city’s top leader, scheduled in 2017. While China has granted universal suffrage to this special administrative region—returned to it at the end of a 99-year lease by the UK in 1997—it will allow only one or two candidates handpicked by Beijing to contest, thereby turning the poll into a farce. “Universal suffrage without civil nomination is bull****,” says a poster at the protest site, reflecting the mood.
Such was the scene at the main protest site till a few days back. But from October 5, the crowd dwindled steadily—from tens of thousands it fell to a few hundred on October 8, as people started returning to their jobs and classes after nearly two weeks of demonstrations. The sentiment against the Chinese authorities’ proposal remains strong, in spite of talks between the authorities and pro-democracy protesters set to begin on October 10. The negotiations could turn out to be a long-drawn affair, in which China is expected to be stubborn and inflexible.
Interestingly, China has allowed candle-light vigils to be held every year to commemorate the student-victims of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Hong Kong, even as it has brutally suppressed its memory from the mainland. The leadership in Beijing and the students in Hong Kong have both been careful even while sticking to their entrenched positions. While China wants to showcase its ‘one country, two systems’ policy in Hong Kong, demonstrations have not crossed limits. Even so, students’ attempt to convey that they were fighting for ‘genuine choice’ and not the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy has wider implications for Beijing.
What had started as a week-long boycott of classes transformed into a mass movement after the police used 87 rounds of teargas shells to disperse students armed only with umbrellas. The use of excessive force led to a groundswell of support, and thousands poured on to the streets, laying siege to the business and government districts. Images of protesters using their umbrellas to protect themselves from teargas shells gave birth to the sobriquet ‘umbrella revolution’.
Klavier Wong, a university student, bleary-eyed from sleeping rough at protest sites, says the response to the cause has far exceeded expectations. “The civil disobedience group Occupy Central had wanted 10,000 people to sit in Central and court arrest. No one expected it to turn into such a large-scale movement. People have felt compelled to come as they feel if they don’t Hong Kong will die. It will become just another city of the mainland. We can already see the suppression of freedom of press.”
Even under the British, the governor of Hong Kong was nominated and never elected. When China took over, it was allowed a vibrant media and an independent judiciary as part of the ‘one country, two systems’. And so, the former British colony enjoys far more freedom than the mainland. But in recent years, China’s intervention in the city’s affairs has risen and resulted in growing anxiety among Hong Kongers about losing their distinctiveness.
With roads blocked and schools closed, the movement polarised society, about how long this should drag on.
This brazenly rigged electoral framework announced by China recently proved to be the last straw. “Hong Kong witnessed such a big social movement for the first time in its history. It was a miracle that has caught the world’s attention,” says Agnes Chow, from the student group ‘Scholarism’, whose leader, 17-year-old Joshua Wong, is one of the faces of the movement. “The fact that it was not led by any political party but showed the power of the civil society and its ability to put pressure on the government has impressed the world,” she adds.
Celina Wong (50), a retired teacher, claims the impact of the movement “has woken up an entire generation”. She points out that “the willpower and determination displayed by students has impressed and drawn the older generation of Hong Kongers who remembered the terror of Tiananmen and focused only on building a good life for themselves”. Perhaps this can only be expected from a post-1989 generation, free from the fear instilled by the ruthless crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Yet, with arterial roads blocked and schools closed, the movement had also polarised society, raising questions on how long this should drag on. A curious problem faced the youthful protesters—in its second week, they seemed uncertain on how to end the impasse.
The call by chief executive C.Y. Leung—under a cloud after reportedly receiving millions of dollars in a payout from an Australian mining firm while in office—for dialogue on ‘constitutional development’ seems to have convinced the protesters to agree to talks. However, it is widely believed that an unyielding Beijing was using the talks just to wear out pro-democracy supporters. It has ruled out any change to the restrictive model for nominating candidates.
“When China retook Hong Kong, it was a political showcase for the one-country-two-systems model, to show Taiwan that reunification won’t be such a bad thing. But it is bankrupt as a political showcase now,” says Francis Lee, a professor. He explains that the situation is a result of Hong Kong’s diminishing value to China in the last decade. “The rise of a civil society and social movements for democracy in Hong Kong is also worrying...because they can’t give this region a free press and democracy and not expect it to have a ripple effect on the mainland,” he adds. Not surprisingly, coverage of the protests has been censored heavily by China for its mainland readers.
Letting the protests fizzle out may work as a strategy, but Nathan Law Kwun Chung of the Hong Kong Federation of Students argues that negotiations does not imply that they were backing down. “The only way we will leave is if we get reform to have genuine democracy. The government knows that the situation cannot be solved unless it comes up with a concrete proposal.” However, the original demand being that Beijing withdraws its decision and people be allowed to nominate their candidates directly, it’s difficult to see how a middle ground will be arrived at.
“Although the government has not made any concessions, this is the first time that protesters and government are having a dialogue on an equal footing. This is unheard of in China,” says Law. He feels that Hong Kongers will be back on the streets if no progress is made towards a truly democratic election.
A first unprecedented step—negotiations—has been gained through the force of youthful idealism. But if one goes by past experiences, Beijing may find a way out to tame the agitation and wrest back total control of Hong Kong. The students might have a job on their hands.
By Swati Maheshwari in Hong Kong