Organised and peaceful, student protesters in Hong Kong symbolise two of the city’s finest attributes. As I stroll past the throngs of twenty to thirty-somethings offering me bottled water, what’s striking is the civilized nature of the demonstrators.
This is the Admiralty district and the epicentre of the protests. Yet, there’s not a hint of aggression, despite the sky high passions about their cause. Even the attire of the protesters is regulated, with an expanse of black t-shirts stretching as far as the two overpasses that rise up on either side.
Many appear fatigued after days of protests that began on September 26, slumped on the sidewalk under umbrellas in the blistering heat even though the sea breeze is a mere sprint away. Only the Central Government complex, which houses the office of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung stands between the cooler air and the dehydrated.
Leung must be looking on in horror at the swathe of humanity blockading a six-lane highway, one of Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares. For two consecutive days I walked freely down Connaught Road Central, turning my head this way and that to check for non-existent vehicles. The only traffic was the stream of democracy supporters walking past me. An out of body experience, it was a challenge to assimilate this comfortably with the usual one of tearing home in the back of a speeding cab.
These young people know about the Tiananmen Square crackdown only through books, the internet or stories told by fearful parents. So, while I stumble through the protest site, I realise that while order reigns, many are scared and are keen to avoid violence.
Supporters of the Occupy Central movement disrupting business as usual outside the government complex are demanding Leung resign. Every few minutes chants of “Stand down, stand down”, ripple through the crowd from various directions.
The protesters view Leung as a puppet in Beijing’s hands. They believe that the man who should have served them instead helped orchestrate their fate and destiny from afar. Hong Kong is run as a semi-autonomous region of China, with freedom of expression and the rule of law. After several years of waiting for universal suffrage, the pan-democrats had hoped the August 31 ruling Beijing handed down would deliver them the choice to choose.
They were told, however, that a pro-Beijing 1200-member committee would elect the chief executive from up to three candidates. Any dreams of universal suffrage held by the Hong Kong people were dashed. The democrats found the move deeply unacceptable and a formerly disparate group of voices mobilised forces against the decision.
Students had been boycotting classes and took to Tamar Park, in front of Leung’s office, on Friday night as Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland headed into a major holiday period. Their efforts were greeted with pepper spray, tear gas and police in full riot gear. It was this police action, unseen since the 1960s in the city, which stoked widespread fury.
With one of the world’s top smartphone usages, Hong Kong’s seven million people are super connected. Thousands rallied thousands more to the protest site by deluging social media with images of police assaulting unarmed students, and forcibly arresting their leader, Joshua Wong. The 17-year old has since been released.
These young people know about the Tiananmen Square crackdown only through books, the internet or stories told by fearful parents. So, while I stumble through the protest site, I realise that while order reigns, many are scared and keen to avoid violence. They will certainly sit things out over the next couple of days, but whether their resolve will last longer than Leung’s to stay in power is hard to predict.
Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific. She lives in Hong Kong.