Why are Hong Kong students on the streets? Why aren’t university students and high-schoolers attending classes, and instead studying on make-shift tables on the once busy streets of Hong Kong? Why are they camping out on tram tracks and bus routes instead of sleeping at home? A lot of them 15 to 18 year olds. The best time of their lives. A time for learning, choosing their majors, going out with friends. What are they doing hogging the streets and disrupting quotidian life?
On 22 September, students, some tens of thousands of them, decided to boycott class. As the week went on they subsequently congregated near Tamar, Admiralty, in protest. Since the student strike began, normal citizens joined the strike, taking up most of the space outside the Central Government Offices (CGO) in Tamar, Admiralty. This student strike turned into the now Occupy Central/Hong Kong movement a week after it’s commencement, because one of the three leaders of the Occupy Central movement, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, rather haphazardly announced in the wee hours of 28 September during the student strike that Occupy Central was to begin. People, mostly students, who had by then slept and camped out in near Tamar for days, began spreading out to occupy the streets of Hong Kong shortly after the announcement. Critics say Benny Tai Yiu-ting and co hijacked the student strikes. Fair enough – adults taking the spotlight from a student lead movement is never a sympathetic political move. Though logistically speaking, the announcement’s timing made sense. By 28 September there still wasn’t a clear date as to when Occupy Central will start. Occupy Central’s three leaders had been lukewarm and vague about when to take action. The would be “Occupiers” were getting uneasy. The students, who had camped out 6 days by then, were getting impatient. Some students interrogated where Benny Tai was, when he failed to show up one particularly tough evening of the student strikes. I was there the night Benny Tai announced Occupy Central’s commencement. There was a shard of uncertainty in his excited, pumped up voice. Half of those present were shocked at the news, because they were told just days earlier by Benny that it was unclear when Occupy Central would begin. Some students at Tamar clapped enthusiastically. Some stood there in shock, unable to feign support at their now no longer student-lead movement. I gathered Benny Tai was grasping at straws, riding on the wave of the cohesive, organised, encouraging student movement to give his own disintegrating Occupy Central movement a good kick-start. People were already out on the streets. They were motivated, some angry, many already antagonistic towards the government. Their civil disobedience mindset had been initiated. What better time than now to mobilised them to occupy the rest of Hong Kong?
The now morphed student strike and Occupy Central grew in numbers. Those who supported the students, and those originally planning to join Occupy Central, joined forces and all took to the streets. Originally just Admiralty’s Tamar and Harcourt Road were occupied. Later, citizen-lead occupations spread to other parts of Hong Kong – Causeway Bay’s Hennessy Road, Mong Kok’s Nathan Road, and Tsim Sha Tsui’s Canton Road. At its peak, some 100,000 people, the day after police deployed tear-gas to disperse unarmed civilians, overtook Harcourt Road, Tamar, and the bridge towards Cotton Tree Drive. The atmosphere was tense. There was fear that more tear-gas would be used. Rumours, statuses and tweets about plastic bullet rifles were going berserk. References to Tiananmen Square were made. Protesters were out on the streets, not really believing that they’d be shot. Tear-gassed, yes, but the likelihood of another Tiananmen Square was unbelievable at this stage. There was too much press, local and international, and there was still a shred of faith that the Hong Kong Police wouldn’t do such a thing. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hadn’t been summoned yet. By now, 13 October, some three weeks after the student strikes began on 22 September, the crowd has died down. There are still hundreds of protesters in Causeway Bay, and more still in Admiralty, hoisting their tents and strengthening their barricades. But in the atmosphere there is uncertainty.
Today police have forcefully removed some barricades. Facebook is sending out photos and statuses about thugs and some taxi drivers aggressively removing barricades (some with knives) while police stood in between the protesters and anti-protesters. Rumours that people have been paid to cause destruction to the barricades and existing peaceful order of the protesters. No one has proof, but protesters and citizens alike believe, with good reason, that triad members, anti-protesters, mainland Chinese people, have been paid to disrupt. There is still immense distrust and anger among the protesters towards the police. Students have asked the government to give them back Civic Square near Tamar, where they originally carried out their student strike, in return of asking protesters to leave the streets. But can the students ask protesters to leave? There have been news reports that some protesters are acting upon their own will – they don’t have a leader. Protesters need not listen to anyone. Occupy Central is now their own self-owned movement too. They’re under no one’s command.
How will this end? The police are exhausted. The students are exhausted, but I see in them a glimmer of fire burning within. This past Saturday night, the streets of Causeway Bay were still full of hundreds of protesters camping out peacefully on Hennessy Road. Hope is a powerful thing. It helps you step forth despite the fear of shame. I say shame, because it takes courage and guts to sleep, live, occupy the streets of a once busy Hong Kong major intersection. Passersby photograph you. You’re under the threat of gang members from the triad, the police, or anti-protesters physically hurting you in the process. Protesters take turns keeping watch over their turf. It’s no political activity for the emotionally weak.
At times the protests were described as a carnival. But as the stakes got higher, as time went by, there was real danger lurking in the corner.
Apart from tear-gas and plastic bullet rifles, police found thugs carrying bags of bricks. Anti-protesters waving knives. Women and young student protesters, getting molested in public. A YouTube video captures the horrifying incident of woman molested in broad daylight by an old man, an anti-protester. The police let him go on the spot despite on scene witnesses.Joshua Wong Chi-Fung, student leader of the student strike and convener of the student activist group Scholarism, is an excellent example of this courage (see SCMP videos parts I, II and III). He has been detained. Manhandled. Blacklisted to enter areas of Hong Kong (the Bauhinia Square, Wanchai after he led the student strikes against national education in 2012) and will forever be under surveillance of the Central People’s Government. He’s made it to Time Magazine at 17. Despite these feats at such a young age, he it takes it all with humility and grace. He says his motivator is Leung Chun-Ying. Fighting for democracy is the calling he was made for – a calling strong enough to lay down his future for it. The Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, interviewed on a major television live broadcast yesterday, refused to directly acknowledge having a hand in controlling the actions of the police. No one believes him. Everyone knows he was the one who endorsed the tear-gas. It was, and is, Leung behind the police’s use of violence. The interviewer from TVB’s 講清講楚 (Clarification) asked him multiple times if he was the one behind the decision to deploy tear-gas, and whether he was the one calling for the cessation, after 87 tear-gas cans had been deployed, of its use. He never directly answered the question, and instead gave a series of unrelated, politically convoluted half-answers. He skirts questions. His image has long been shattered. Hong Kongers call him the “Wolf” – a phonetic play on his last name, and in reference to his frequent lying and predatory behaviour, sucking normal, relatively powerless citizens dry. His 22-year-old daughter, Chai-Yan, unabashed at sharing her shopping victories on Facebook by thanking taxpayers for their contributions, is worse than Paris Hilton on the scale of celebrity debauchery according to Jon Stewart (Daily Show video minute 3.03).
Another day is ending. People continue to gather on the streets. Numbers have dwindled, but the spirit is alive. The stakes are higher each day. Students miss more school. The protests grounds have now become a heated cauldron of students, civilian protesters, thugs, angry anti-protesters, police, and reporters. There’s talk, and facts, that the protests could turn violent.
Why are we fighting?
Common voices from the city:
“It’s useless fighting against China. David and Goliath. One can never win the Communist regime.” “Power trumps justice, human rights, good and evil. Whoever has power wins. Currently, the Communist Party is the one with power.”
Why are we still on the streets? Quoting Joshua Wong from the SCMP video: “We don’t know if we’ll get democracy through this protest. But if we don’t try, it is certain we will not get democracy.”
Hope is a powerful thing.
For now, it seems like Hong Kong protesters are ready for a long fight. Despite the decreasing numbers. The protests will go on until the Hong Kong Government agrees to have a dialogue. The strategy for now is a war of endurance. Related photographic post.