Hong Kong! Hong Kong!
Occupy Central’s energy is fading, but that doesn’t mean the movement is over.
As I write this, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is entering its second week with a shortage in morale. It was an overwhelming scene in the beginning, with 30,000 peaceful and joyful people filling the streets and plazas, signs in hand reading: “Genuine election!” and “Democracy & freedom for Hong Kong!” Later, pictures emerged of people using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas and wounded protesters with bleeding faces. Then came images of protesters sleeping in the streets.
Seven million people live in the narrow space of Hong Kong peninsula and scattered islands. Almost ten percent of the population has participated at the demonstration for more than ten days. Despite the numbers, the crowd did not leave behind a mountain of trash. One police van was vandalized, but a protester left a note apologizing for the damage. There have been no broken shop windows or signs of mass violence or destruction whatsoever. Indeed, this is amazing. Although Hong Kong is a familiar city to me — I visit often, and have many friends and colleagues there — I do not speak their language, Cantonese. My understanding of Hong Kong as a commercial metropolis is only a biased snapshot of a complex mosaic. Hong Kong is not only a paradise for tourists, gourmets, and adventurers, but also a city with its own character and soul. The sight of several hundred thousand people, most of them young students, walking to the Central district with the words “Occupy Central with love and peace” held in their minds and written on their little flags became a problem not only for local authorities, but for the rulers in Beijing. The authorities are accustomed to using the excuse that demonstrators are thugs, trouble-makers, or even “terrorists” or “separatists” to suppress protests. Here, the “Tiananmen Solution” cannot be applied. “Occupy,” that damn word, is a real headache for those in power. They believe that only the CCP can occupy the land, resources, heritage, and the right of discourse, and that only Xi Jinping can occupy the state’s use of propaganda, secret police, and military power.
Now imagine: these demonstrators with their backpacks, umbrellas, and sunglasses also want occupy! They do not protest corruption, power-abusing officers, or economic inequality but a promise that went unfulfilled. The Hong Kong people are angry with the government for going back on its vow to make their 2017 elections open and free. Instead, an electoral committee of tycoons, oligarchs, and Beijing supporters will vet the candidates for chief executive. The Hong Kongese do not want to accept another leader that’s an obedient pet to Beijing, like the incumbent C.Y. Leung. The protests are their veto of China’s authoritarianism. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration guaranteed that Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty for fifty years. When the People’s Congress passed the resolution to torpedo the terms of the agreement, it triggered political turmoil.
“Occupy Central” will paralyze Hong Kong’s economic and administrative life. Although this will be damaging to the rulers in Beijing, the propaganda machine may try to claim that the protests are damaging to the entire Chinese people.
The occupy action is reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. At that time, Hong Kong showed solidarity with Tiananmen students, providing them with materials, information, and both logistical and spiritual support. After the crackdown, Hong Kong even organized a rescue operation for the wanted activists and student leaders. Now, in a reversal of those events, the Chinese people have left Hong Kong alone. Because the Chinese government blocked all information about the protests, the majority of the people inside China have only a vague idea of what is happening in Hong Kong. The official media reports that “foreign hostile forces are involved in the domestic affairs of China, and are trying to separate Hong Kong from the motherland.”
Only the minority with the knowledge to traverse the “Great Firewall” can send their words of solidarity to the movement. But for the protesters involved in the movement, one interesting aspect of “Occupy Central” was the way in which social media became the most efficient tool for organizers. In addition to using Facebook, Twitter, and email to organize protests, the new Firechat app helped Hong Kong protesters chat via Bluetooth when mobile phone networks became jammed. As the protests continued into the night, the tens of thousands of illuminating iPhones – one phone for every individual – held aloft made for an impressive view. Through using the cameras on their smartphones, individuals were able to document almost every minute of the movement.
After two weeks of emotional and enthusiastic protests, quiet has fallen over Hong Kong as some demonstrators have returned to work. Almost everyone in Hong Kong was inconvenienced by the occupation in one way or another, and businesses – especially the small ones – have lost money. The return to calm may show the pragmatic nature of this metropolis, and demonstrate that the protesters may have learned something from March’s Sunflower Student Movement in Taipei.
Like Occupy Central, the Sunflower Movement was a model of peaceful demonstration. Young students occupied Taiwan’s parliamentary chamber for weeks to protest a trade and service agreement between Taiwan and China. Citizens from a wide array of backgrounds supported the protesters. Although the negotiation with President Ma Ying Jeou failed, the student leaders were rational. They cleaned and then vacated the chamber’s premises after they thought their aim was achieved, and spread the movement to Taiwan at large. The temporary return to daily rhythm and social order in Hong Kong does not mean that the movement is over. As it is likely that the movement will pick up again at any time, there are several actions that the organizers ought to consider: Create a round table or a united platform in order to coordinate and combine different groups and forces. Choose leaders and representatives so that they can take the lead in dialogues with the government. Limit the area of occupation so that commerce and traffic will not be disturbed, and Hong Kong’s citizens will not lose their sympathy for the movement. Create a schedule for protests. For example, at first the protests may occur every day, and later on perhaps every Friday (or another weekday) between 5-7 p.m. A fixed location would allow protesters to participate after work or school, and a platform would allow people to give speeches, sing songs, or show pictures. These actions can uphold the coherence and solidarity of the movement.
This is only the beginning of what will be a very long and unpredictable struggle for the people of Hong Kong. May Occupy Central continue peacefully and achieve a satisfactory goal. In a world full of turmoil, war, and violence, we need a model for peaceful, yet successful, revolution.