What Beijing really fears: Hong Kong protests spreading across the country

The Chinese government has accused protesters of seriously disrupting Hong Kong's social order.
Alex Ogle

HONG KONG — Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters turned their backs on the Chinese flag Wednesday morning as it was flown over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in celebration of the country’s National Day holiday.  

Tens of thousands of others continued their blockade of key roads in the city’s business and commercial districts. On the fourth day of protests, demonstrators showed no sign of giving up. Many had spent the night sleeping through a thunderstorm on wet concrete.  

“Today, what the Chinese government is seeing on their holiday is over 100,000 Hong Kong people on the streets, angry and frustrated because we don’t have basic democratic rights,” 18-year-old protest leader Agnes Chow said.

People of all ages are now occupying five districts throughout Hong Kong. Riot squads had been pulled back, where they remained at day’s end on Wednesday. Protesters were in control. Risking another confrontation with the police, protesters threatened to occupy government buildings if Hong Kong’s unpopular leader, Leung Chun-ying, does not resign by Thursday midnight.

This all comes as a shock to some of the mainland Chinese residents who arrived in the city today at the start of their seven-day holiday, known as “Golden Week” — traditionally a time for travel and shopping. Hong Kong, with its low taxes on luxury goods and favorable exchange rate, is a favorite destination of China’s newly affluent middle class.

Official Chinese state media have shown no images of the protests in Hong Kong, and government censors are working in overdrive to delete discussions of the situation in the semi-autonomous enclave on social media. The government has also blocked photo-sharing service Instagram and directed all Chinese websites to remove any information related to the protests, according to propaganda monitoring website China Digital Times.

Acknowledging that the news is seeping through, however, official media have begun running commentaries condemning the protests. Predictably, the Obama administration is taking blame. A Chinese language article in the Global Times argued that the United States was "attempting to hold a color revolution in Hong Kong,” the BBC reported; another official article predicted “if the central government loses its political grip under the pressure of the opposition, Hong Kong will sink into political turmoil like countries in other parts of the world.”

“How could this be happening? Don’t these people need to go to work?” one mainland resident from Shanghai asked GlobalPost, while gawking at a group of about 200 protesters who had recently created a new occupation site on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The luxury brand stores lining both sides of Canton Road kept their doors open to their affluent customers despite the occupation.

Others lashed out at the protesters. A mainland resident who would only give his name as Gary from Hubei to the South China Morning Post debated with students, arguing that China was like a mother, with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau her children. “Children could express their unhappiness to their mother, but should do so in a way that does not interrupt people's lives,” he said.

Hours later, I witnessed a middle-aged Chinese woman yell at protesters while walking by with shopping bags, “What you kids are doing is meaningless! You are too idealistic!’’ The protesters did not react to the outbursts. “These people are the wealthy class in China. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to support us and risk losing their privileges,” protester Derek Tang told me.

But events in Hong Kong have not gone unnoticed among China’s vast population, which has surely stoked government fears of pro-democracy “contagion” spreading through the country.  

A number of Chinese citizens may have faced reprisal for publicly supporting the Hong Kong protests. The group China Human Rights Defenders has documented dozens of arrests in relation to messages and gatherings in support of Hong Kong protesters.

On Monday, prominent Chinese artist-activist Ai Wei Wei tweeted, “我是香港人” (I am a Hongkonger). He told CNN that people in China are carefully watching the protests because what happens in Hong Kong will reflect on China’s future.

The protests in Hong Kong are also making some Chinese reflect on the past. On Tuesday morning, I was walking in the middle of a six-lane highway, closed to traffic, toward the center of the demonstrations in Admiralty. A family was walking next to me and I struck up a conversation with the mother.

Jackie Ng told me she was 18 years old and a first year university student in Beijing when she decided to take part in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

"I am so moved to see this happening in Hong Kong. It reminds me a lot of what happened in 1989. Then, it was also mostly students, who were demanding similar things. They wanted democracy and they wanted the government to listen to their voices,” she said.

More from GlobalPost: Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests

But while the mood on the streets is often relaxed and jovial, Ng worries that the continued standoff may lead to a crackdown. A senior city official hinted today that the government is open to meeting with protesters, but protest leaders are now not interested in speaking with Chief Executive Leung. They want nothing short of his resignation.

The problem, Financial Times’ David Pilling writes, is that the Hong Kong government has “nothing whatsoever to offer the demonstrators.” Beijing is unlikely to ever allow open elections in the territory. If they let mass protests in Hong Kong succeed in changing their stance, this could set a highly unwanted precedent, especially as Beijing faces deepening unrest in Xinjiang.

Ng said: “I think the longer the protests drag on and their demands are not addressed, the angrier the protesters will become. That was what happened in 1989. The protests dragged on for a long time until it became a dangerous situation. The whole world is watching and the government needs to act to avoid a worse crisis.”

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