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Hong Kong Pro Democracy Protest Essay

Today, Hong Kong authorities started clearing away part of the main protest site of the pro-democracy movement that has partially paralyzed the city for almost two months. Police and court bailiffs dismantled metal barricades and dragged away tents, in some cases helped by protesters who didn’t resist.

The protesters who have pledged to hold onto their three occupied streets in the Asian financial center say that this isn’t the end. (Late in the evening, Hong Kong-time, hundreds of protesters began organizing a movement to surround government headquarters and have started to clash with police.)

If the past 30 years are any guide, they are right: large-scale demonstrations calling for democracy in Hong Kong have been erupting since at least the 1980s. If the recent protests end, another pro-democracy movement is likely to crop up again soon. Here is a look at the ones that have cropped up so far:

A democracy movement is born

After years of breakneck economic growth, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement began in earnest when more than 1,000 protesters converged on a theater in the Hong Kong neighborhood of Hung Hom in November 1986, calling for direct elections starting in 1988 for the city’s legislature. Eventually, in 1991, Hong Kong introduced 18 directly elected seats to the legislature.

In 1988, a group of 50 activists held a 24-hour hunger strike outside of the Chinese state media office of Xinhua in Hong Kong to protest a draft proposal of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, that postponed direct elections of the chief executive until 2012. (That date has now been pushed back to 2017, under a reform proposal that protesters are currently railing against.)

Promises made

After Hong Kong’s Basic Law was promulgated in 1990, stipulating that the city’s “ultimate aim” is the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage, pro-democracy lawmakers and demonstrators protested a decision to replace the city’s partially elected legislature with one appointed by Beijing in the spring of 1996. In the fall, protesters rallied again outside of Hong Kong’s convention center as a committee of 400 people, chosen by Beijing, selected candidates for the city’s top office of chief executive. A group of pro-democracy politicians took a petition of 60,000 signatures calling for democracy to Beijing but were prevented from getting off their plane.

This is similar to what happened this past weekend, on Nov. 15, when student protesters attempted to take demands for universal suffrage to Beijing but were prevented from boarding the plane because Chinese authorities had canceled their travel documents.

The 2000s

Hong Kong saw a series of large protests between 2003 and 2005. In 2003, Hongkongers took to the streets in protest of Article 23—a set of Patriot Act-like security and anti-subversion laws—that the Beijing-backed chief executive, C.H. Tung, tried to push through. Tung eventually withdrew Act 23 from his political agenda. In April 2004, Beijing announced that it had ruled out direct elections for both the chief executive and the legislature when both offices were set to change, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Then, on July 1, 2004, as many as 450,000 protesters marked the six-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China to demand universal suffrage. Protests continued into 2005.

Protesters calling for direct elections in 2012 used what would become the symbol of today’s protests—a yellow umbrella—to form the numbers “2012.” That year, students, teachers, and parents rallied against the introduction of a “moral and national education” plan that critics said amounted to brainwashing. A group of secondary students mobilized, forming Scholarism, led by student leader Joshua Wong, and continues to organize student activists today.

In 2014

In late September, students stormed government headquarters to protest Beijing’s decision that only candidates approved by a nominating committee traditionally sympathetic to Beijing could run for Hong Kong’s top office. Mass arrests of the students prompted other protesters to come out. Then those people were tear-gassed by police, galvanizing yet more demonstrators in what quickly became known as the Umbrella Movement.

At the barricade at the north of Tim Wa avenue (Admiralty)

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).

Young protesters at Admiralty

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.

The Admiralty protest site at night


The Admiralty site at night (view looking towards Central)


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.

Form 6 (Grade 12) girl with umbrella

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.

Calling for universal suffrage

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.”

Volunteers distributing tissue paper

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.

Most of the protesters are university students, but people from all walks of life are actively involved

Andrew is a retired engineer who has only missed one day of the protests

These two university students used to attend the secondary school where I teach.

Volunteers also include secondary school students like this megaphone-wielding schoolgirl.

A young woman adding a message of support

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.

Student leader Joshua Wong addresses the crowd at a rally at Admiralty

Joshua Wong (with microphone) addresses a forum for high school students (14 October). The umbrella-themed art installation behind him was created by students at City University’s School of Creative Media.

Joshua Wong meets briefly with reporters. At 17 years of age he is already a seasoned activist.

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.

One of leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students negotiates with police outside the government offices (2 August)

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.

As this illustration shows, the police use of pepper spray and tear gas led protesters to create makeshift protective gear out of raincoats, goggles, face masks and umbrellas.

The illustrator of the preceding drawing at work.

Yes, people do dress like that

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.

Police reinforcements arrive at the Central Government Complex and are jeered by the crowd (of course, it didn’t help that they were spotted bringing in barrels of tear gas and cases of rubber bullets). At least one of the police officers seems to be feeling the pressure.

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.

Students singing protest songs

Secondary school students singing at Admiralty


Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s democratic party from 1994 to 2002 speaks at a small forum. Along with the late Szeto Wah, Martin Lee led Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement during the 1980s and 1990s. The 2014 strike and protest is in part a reaction to the lack of success of Lee’s attempts to promote democracy via electoral reform and political lobbying.

The Admiralty site often has a slightly festive feel to it. Here are some volunteers at a body art station.

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.

Volunteers at one of the recycling stations

Volunteers spraying water on passers-by to keep them cool

With a partner, this young man is working on a kind of photography project

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.

Students catching up on their coursework at the study center at Admiralty

The protest study center at Admiralty

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.

More and more tents have appeared during the third week of protest.

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.

Causeway Bay

Hong Kong Mobile Democracy Classroom at Causeway Bay

Most of the time, the protest sites are calm and peaceful. A group of volunteers are taking a break at a message writing center (where people are asked to express words of support on pieces of cardboard)

At the Causeway Bay site, there are frequent talks, forums and classes. Here a volunteer is giving a lecture on digital photography.

You can see the course schedule on the right. if you stick around, you can brush up on your Japanese and refresh your memory of high school physics and biology.

Student volunteer from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Medicine helps man a first aid station

Volunteers at a resource center (the supplies are given away for free)

Causeway Bay at Night

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.

On Nathan Road

A democracy forum at the main tent

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.

Nathan Road

Tents on Nathan Road

Relaxing on one of the barricades

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.

Chalk graffiti

Go to school during the day; protest at night

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.

Preparing a banner

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.

Volunteers lay out messages of support

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.

Giving a speech at Admiralty

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:

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