Hong Kong: A quiet revolution

The mass protests appear to be winding down peacefully, without a shot fired—and, to the protesters, that’s proof they now hold the power

Photograph by Justin Chin

Photograph by Justin Chin

Police in Hong Kong have a quaint way of signalling their intentions. An officer, equipped with a quiver full of coloured flags, stands at the front line of demonstrations and hoists highly visible warnings. Yellow means “turn back now.” Red, emblazoned with the message, “Stop charging or we use force,” is a prelude to pepper spray. And the black banner has two sides—one for tear gas and the other for rubber bullets.

It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility, then, when the leaders of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement take to the megaphones to announce that the police will be clearing out one of their blockades at precisely 6:30 p.m., that they may have been forewarned. A couple of dozen students run toward the steel barriers that have been erected on Tim Wa Avenue to stop C.Y. Leung, the region’s chief executive, from driving up to his office entrance. They don rain ponchos, lab goggles and construction masks, and sit down on the pavement to wait for the assault. “I’m pretty afraid,” one of them, Eric Chan, confides. “I’ve never been pepper-sprayed.” The 22-year-old, who studies statistics at the University of Hong Kong, has been out on the downtown streets for four days and nights, fighting for the right to vote. “We want universal suffrage, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to give it to us,” is his simplest explanation.

Across the line of steel fencing, the police presence swells. Dozens of officers stand with their arms crossed, riot helmets dangling off their belts. A white-shirted commander arrives, and so does the cop with the quiver. They pull on their gloves and approach the barricades. Two trucks pull up behind the protesters. They are delivering hot dinners for the hundreds of officers stationed inside the Central government office towers, encircled by more than 50,000 demonstrators on this hot, humid Saturday evening. The students stand and allow them to pass down the road—after looking inside to ensure the cargo isn’t more sinister. The barricades are slid back into position and the police pull back to eat. The offensive never comes.

The protests against the proposed changes to Hong Kong’s Basic Law had been planned for more than a month. Pro-democracy activists in the former British colony—officially classified as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China since the 1997 handover—are unhappy with Beijing’s bid to undermine a full and free election in 2017 by having the candidates for chief executive screened by a nominating committee of 1,200 hand-picked residents. But what promised to be a run-of-the-mill series of marches, rallies and university-class boycotts took an unexpected turn when a small group of student activists tried to occupy the courtyard of a government building on Sept. 26, and were repelled with pepper spray. Two nights later, when a larger crowd returned to the Admiralty district and blockaded a major 10-lane thoroughfare, police used 87 cans of tear gas to try to disperse them. The Umbrella Revolution was born and, soon, hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets, shutting down large swaths of the city in the largest civil disobedience campaign Hong Kong has ever known—disruptions that, even as they show signs of drawing to a conclusion, seem to have fundamentally changed the island’s political dynamic, and proven that David can beat Goliath.

After the initial clashes, “peace and love” became the movement’s mantra. Banners with messages such as, “Police keep calm and stop the violence,” were draped from pedestrian overpasses. A “Lennon wall,” named for the long-dead Beatle, was festooned with handmade signs and Post-it notes exhorting the students to keep up the struggle. “If not us . . . who? If not now . . . when?” read one. Taped next to it was a child’s drawing of Wonder Woman with a cartoon bubble reading, “Freedom is important.” Small PA systems with open mikes were set up throughout the crowd to facilitate impromptu speeches on democracy. University professors held teach-ins in a nearby park. Each night, the swelling crowd engaged in singalongs, creating their own light show by waving their smartphones in the air.

Volunteers collected garbage, separating out the compost and recyclables. Others staffed medical tents, handing out water and snacks. Marshals directed pedestrian traffic and helped people over the concrete highway dividers. Nearby, public washrooms were kept tidy and well-supplied with soap, toothpaste and toilet paper. It was the nicest, neatest protest ever.

Anthony Tsang, 20, and his girlfriend, Irene Tsui, 22, sat on the still-warm pavement, leafing through a copy of a biography of Nelson Mandela. Although the Hong Kong Polytechnic communications students hadn’t been to class in more than a week, they had decided to start research for an essay on non-violent resistance. Tsang, who was just three when the handover occurred, expressed some guilt that he was only now becoming politically conscious. “Before, maybe I was just too young to be concerned about things,” he said. “But now, we are fighting for our rights. We understand that democracy is the world trend, and they can’t stop it.”

Down the road, three young women were busy making little, pinnable yellow ribbons—the symbol of solidarity for the protest. Their first night, they had handed out 300 of them, the second, 400, and, on this, their third evening, they had lost count. Christy Chan, 23, said her parents didn’t support her being there. “They think we are making trouble for Hong Kong,” she said. But her friend Boui Yip, 24, described it as their generation’s duty. “I think that, if we don’t stand up, we will not have the chance next time,” she said. “It’s our watch.”

Democracy in Hong Kong was never of particular concern for the British—until they decided to leave. The decade before the handover to the Chinese was a period of rapid reform in the colony, and the future rights and freedoms of its citizens became the major sticking point in negotiations with Beijing.

The Basic Law, an ersatz constitution, was designed to enshrine the concept of “One country, two systems,” and guarantees Hong Kong its distinct legal system, and things such as freedom of speech and assembly, until at least 2047. But the document has very little to say about voting. “It’s very vague, and deliberately so, because China was never very keen on elections,” says Danny Gittings, author of a textbook on the Basic Law and a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Huge public protests while the law was being drafted in the mid-1980s eventually convinced the two powers to include a reference to universal suffrage as being “the ultimate aim.” However, an explicit promise of free elections only arrived in 2007, after another round of pro-democracy demonstrations, and they were punted another decade down the road.

Beijing has always worried that what happens in Hong Kong might not stay there, fretting that the SAR’s privileges will somehow undermine the system in the rest of the People’s Republic. At the same time, the Chinese government needs to keep Hong Kong open and free enough so that the banks and investors, who are helping to underwrite the explosive growth in the rest of the country, stay put. It is a delicate balancing act.

What is becoming clear now, however, is that C.Y. Leung, in trying to win favour with the Chinese government, has actually made its life much more difficult. A divisive figure to begin with—the 60-year-old fell into the chief executive’s job in 2012 after the preferred choice of Beijing and the city’s powerful business tycoons became enmeshed in scandal over illegal home renovations—he has proven to be more confrontational than almost anyone wanted. “C.Y. has adopted a very hard line toward the opposition parties and the pro-democracy camp,” says Joseph Cheung, the chair of political science at City University of Hong Kong. This is in part, it is presumed, because he wants to keep the job and fears an open competition. “But that has made him very unpopular and the people see him as arrogant and hawkish,” says Cheung.

Indeed, Leung’s resignation has become one of the principal demands of the student protesters. The Occupy sites are filled with unflattering caricatures of him, many playing off his creepily long eye teeth. (His nickname is “Dracula.”) The imperious conduct of his family hasn’t helped his image. During the height of the protests, his daughter Chai Yan posted a picture of her new diamond necklace to her Facebook page, noting that it had been “funded by all you HK taxpayers!! So are all my beautiful shoes and dresses and clutches!! Thank you so much!!!!” This is particularly ironic, given that Leung sought power by styling himself as the man of the common people.

The Chinese will stand by him—at least in the short term. But the bigger danger for Leung might be the growing sentiment among the tycoons that he has mishandled the crisis. “The businesspeople have a loud voice in this town,” says Allan Zeman, owner of the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district and one of the city’s best-known entrepreneurs. “Those pictures of the tear gas went around the world and, obviously, caused a lot of damage to the image of Hong Kong.”

Zeman, who grew up in Montreal but has made his home here for 47 years, is active in political circles and has been trying to help broker a deal between the government and the students. “There needs to be a dialogue,” he says. “Everyone is criticizing China, but they’ve taken a giant step forward by allowing everyone in Hong Kong to vote . . . It’s not Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.”

Sunday, Oct. 5, the government deadline to clear the streets of central Hong Kong, came and went without incident. The students remained in place, but made room on pedestrian bridges so that the city’s bureaucrats could return to work. The government reopened the schools. Negotiations about having negotiations—which will be between Occupy leaders and Leung’s deputy, and are fully open—are progressing. And, by early Wednesday, with a growing sense that they had proven their point, the student presence at the protest sites had shrunk to a fraction of its former strength. The police could easily dismantle the barricades, but have chosen to do nothing.

On Hennesey Road, a high-end shopping strip in the Causeway Bay district, there were piles of umbrellas, water bottles and protest signs sitting beneath empty sun shelters, and only a few students scattered over the length of several city blocks. “I think we have achieved something,” says Lily Lai, a 22-year-old graduate. “A few days ago, they used pepper spray and tear gas to urge us to leave, but they failed.”

Residents walk over and engage in debate those who remain. It’s mostly polite and respectful. (The chosen tactic to deal with those who scream and swear is to loudly sing Happy Birthday in Cantonese.) Andrew Leung, a 25-year-old laboratory technician, is patiently listening to two older men have their say. One is from the mainland, and wears a polo shirt decorated with a small Chinese flag, a souvenir of the Beijing Olympics. The other is a local. Both complain about the traffic jams and mess, but they express grudging support for the struggle, if not the means. “The government makes the Hong Kong people so angry, says Leung. “Even ‘the Uncles’ agree.”

He has spent five nights on the street, stealing away from his job whenever his boss allows. At times, he has been frightened of the police or frustrated members of the public, but, as the protest winds down, things have changed. Now he looks forward to the debates. “This is freedom of speech and democracy. We are not just talking about it. We are exercising it,” he says. “Every night, when I think about it, I almost cry.”

A victory that has already changed one system, and may yet shake another.