Why Hong Kong’s demand for democracy is not just another Occupy

HONG KONG - SEPTEMBER 30: A protester covers her mouth with tape that says "democracy." Thousands of pro-democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets surrounding Hong Kong's financial district, calling for open elections and the resignation of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Paula Bronstein

LONDON – Heading into the fifth evening of city-wide protests in Hong Kong and solidarity actions across the globe like one planned here in London on Wednesday, it’s clear that the Occupy Central movement is just getting started and will continue through the week.

But while the images of protest may be familiar, this isn’t just another Occupy movement.

The sit-in began last week as a few thousand high school and college students boycotting classes in a show of support for the concept of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, a former British colony ruled by China since 1997. On Sunday, the demonstrations spiraled into an unprecedented movement that is now tens of thousands of people strong. Much of the city has been cleared of traffic for days, as groups of protesters have clogged main arteries of the island and havetaken to sleeping in the streets.

Now-familiar makeshift first aid booths and supply stations clutter the photos making the rounds on social media, and suddenly downtown Hong Kong looks like Tahrir Square. Tents, banners and mobs packing protective goggles and cell phones fill the streets, outraged over Chinese interference with what many see as Hong Kong’s long-awaited right to choose its own government.

On Tuesday, leaders from the various protest factions came together to demand the resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive, CY Leung, a level of direct action that has been nearly unheard of in China since 1989.

“This is a war on culture. Those who win will get to keep their way of life. I hope we win,” said Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog.

But Occupy Central is unlike previous protest movements seen in past years in Madrid, Cairo or New York. This is not about independence from China, or overthrowing governments or financial systems. It’s about keeping promises. In addition, despite a heavy police presence and one of the most overbearing governments in the world, the Hong Kong demonstrators are comparatively calm, collected and peaceful.

Unlike similar protests in other parts of the world, there have been no reports of looting, vandalism or riots, and organizers have repeatedly called for peaceful protests.

The students who originally organized last week's boycott may have sounded like an echo from Occupy Wall Street. But they were seen on the streets simply doing their homework, hosting teach-ins and live streaming lectures, not throwing bricks through the windows of Starbucks. Even during clashes with police – while they were being attacked by tear gas – protesters simply raised umbrellas to block out the fray. (Hence the name Umbrella Revolution).

“For the most part, people aren’t doing anything to warrant this [kind of police action],” said Maloney Liu, a web developer and Hong Kong native living in London who has been keeping up with the situation through family and friends.

Hong Kong, while imbued with a distinct democratic backbone, still maintains a culture of law and order, for safety and for basic welfare. So although students planned protests and sit-ins on highways, Occupy Central is still much more subdued than the demonstrations that inspired it, such as the 2011 Chilean student movement and Occupy Wall Street.

“It can’t be compared to other movements,” said Liu, who attended a solidarity action in London’s Trafalgar Square on Sunday. “It’s not quite ‘civil disobedience’ because most people would go out of their way to stop trouble-makers. This is a way to say that we’re not happy about the way things are run, and that really shows in the lack of violence.”

Many citizens, originally skeptical of the protests, came out in support after seeing police brutality toward the students.

To most ordinary people in Hong Kong, tear gas and riot gear were a wild overreaction on the part of the government, and the police intervention actually had the opposite of the intended effect: it mobilized masses of everyday citizens. 

“Unnecessary force against the people was low [of the police], and encouraged people to come out,” said a London-based Hong Kong expat who asked not to be named.

The police played right into the hands of the demonstrators, and the two camps are now engaged in a battle of wills for the hearts and minds of the people in Hong Kong. Support for the protests is not quite split on generational lines, but it's close. There is deep apathy in much of older Hong Kong society, despite outrage over China’s apparent reneging on their agreement to allow elections in 2017. The people are split nearly exactly down the middle over fighting for a representative government.

Since 1997, China has controlled the executive government of Hong Kong via the chief executive. And while the people of Hong Kong seemed content to wait out 20 years of Chinese rule, the idea that they might not get the 2017 election infuriated them.

“Nobody has demanded a complete copy of the US model or UK system,” wrote professor Leung Kai Chi in a Facebook Q&A session widely shared on Reddit. “Hongkongers are just fighting to ensure a genuine choice is available in elections.”

The demonstrations are sure to continue at least through Oct. 1, China’s national holiday and a traditional day of protest in Hong Kong. Solidarity actions are planned in at least 30 cities around the world.

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