Reflecting on Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests

Last week, en-route to Southeast Asia, I popped to Hong Kong to spend 24 hours with my fabulous friend Gaby who lives there. As any good politics student/ aspiring journalist would, I jumped at the chance to be shown around the Occupy Central protests by a local.

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I was there on day 69 of the pro-democracy demonstrations. Just six days later, the police ended the main sit-in, arrested 247 people and officially put a stop to the occupation.

This surprised me; I had witnessed such passion and dedication to the cause just a few days earlier.

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The bulk of the protests took place in Admiralty, the city’s business district. Though mellow and not frequented by as many as had been there at the movement’s peak, I found the atmosphere one of strong, quiet determination.

Afterwards, I sat down with Gaby’s boyfriend Tony, a keen pro-democracy activist, to get a student’s insight into Hong Kong’s fight for universal suffrage.

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The spirit of togetherness seemed a key feature of the protests. Tony, who spent both days and nights there, was enthusiastic in remembering how everyone worked together for a common cause: “I revised there and brought water and umbrellas to the protesters”.

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Occupy Central’s touching spirit was clear from the way in which people from all sectors of society, and indeed overseas, had come together to help each other out.

From a carpenter, manually creating furniture for the protesters to use, to the immense international support, it by no means struck me as a simple student protest.

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Endearing post-it notes from countries far and wide were stuck everywhere.

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These made for touching displays of encouragement:

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The protesters’ dedication to their studies was notable. The study area was hushed with young people hard at work; in fact it was probably more studious than any library I’ve ever worked at.

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Tony, who studies law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, admitted that his studies took priority, and reflected on the fact that recent exams meant he’d spent less time in Admiralty than he would have liked.

Yet the protests certainly tried to involve as many as possible – the international nature of them was apparent from how much effort was made to translate signs into English.

Perhaps not your average English lesson, but a striking one nevertheless:

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Tony argued that this outward focus on international society was representative of how aims of the protests had changed.

He said that, at first, the protests were a display to government for democracy. But since the government let them down though unresponsiveness and the police let them down through brutality, “The focus shifted onto how poorly police have been treating us and how shit Chinese officials are”.

Certainly, the officials are far from flavour of the month. Walking around the tents and stalls highlighted how irate the usually reserved Hong Kong society had become, with posters likening chief executive Leung to Dracula, telling him to burn in hell, and worse. He is criticised by many (and for good reason) as a puppet of Beijing and a symbol of Hong Kong’s increasingly inequalities.

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I also witnessed a camera crew filming 17 year old activist Joshua Wong, who was on hunger strike. His actions seemed like a last resort for the movement which had secured no concessions regarding talks from the government.

Pale and hunched over, Wong had gone several days without eating and looked pretty rough. I was glad to hear a few days later he had ended it on the advice of his doctor.

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I asked Tony his views on these tactics. He shrugged and said “I don’t think he’s that radical. People are being beaten for the sake of our future. I wish there’s more I could have done”.

He’s right about the police tactics. It’s little wonder Hong Kong’s anti-communist group ‘Civic Passion’ taught activists who support radical resistance to make shields out of cardboard boxes and kitted them out with helmets to fight against pepper spray and tear gas.

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I asked about the general attitude towards the protests in Hong Kong. Tony said that most of his fellow law students supported Occupy Central, remarking “I find it excellent seeing how many people are against the government, it’s the point of the movement”.

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He went on to mention the generational divide, noting that “Older people are generally more establishment, but I suppose that’s natural. They have more experience of life and so are more fearful about what a government can do”.

The Chinese government, at least, have indeed inspired fear amongst Hong Kong’s citizens.

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Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ rule places it in a unique situation politically, since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997, following a 1984 agreement.

Since then, the mainland has been gradually exerting more control over the region. This has affected both minor things like school curriculum changes, and bigger issues such as its protest-sparking move to rule out open nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s leader in 2017.

This goes against Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which states that the “ultimate aim” is to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage.

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Even before the umbrellas, tents and tenacious protesters were cleared, Tony was under no illusion about the obstacles the protesters were up against. He explained that the injunction granted by court to clear roads outside government headquarters would be executed next Wednesday. And it was.

I asked him whether this meant the protests had failed and was met with a philosophical reply: “From a social movement perspective, people have gained a sense of what it means to participate”.

“This is a new concept for the people of Hong Kong”.

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So, just as literal seeds were planted at Central to illustrate how long protests had lasted, in some small way, the seeds of democracy were also planted.

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Even in spite of China’s heavy handedness, Tony remained optimistic in his conclusion that “The issues will come up again if the government doesn’t respond. It might be over for now, but it won’t end in the sense that we will keep on fighting”.

For the sake of the underdog, and for the sake of democracy in Hong Kong, I sure hope he is right.

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