How Long Will the Umbrellas Hold Out? Report from Hong Kong

By | October 11, 2014 | No Comments

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In Hong Kong, many of the protestors see their struggle as a matter of life and death for democracy. | Image: Byul Ryan-im

Adding another urban center to Sino-NK’s global reach, our Junior Fellow for 2013-2014, Durham University’s Byul Ryan-Im, has decamped for her third year from the land of the Prince Bishops to the University of Hong Kong. Much to the world’s surprise, the slightly uneasy status quo following the withdrawal of British power in 1997 has recently ruptured into virulent and colorful protest. Hong Kong’s more politically active and assertive no longer comfortable with Beijing’s long hand nor the CCP’s apparent desire to break with the spirit of the Basic Law have come out on the streets, challenging both local and Chinese structures of power. Writing on October 4, Byul offered us this front line reportage from what international commentators briefly attempted to name “the polite revolution.” — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

How Long Will the Umbrellas Hold Out? Report from Hong Kong 

by Byul Ryan-Im

After seeing the shocking scenes of Sunday’s Occupy Central protest and noting the uncanny lack of students on my university campus, I went down to Central on Monday night armed with bin bags, eye protection and plasters, intending to clear up any litter and keep the protests the calm and collected scenes they have been thus far. When I arrived I felt helpless–only because everything was already so very controlled and well organised and, try as I might, I could not find a single piece of litter to remove.  The so-called “Umbrella Revolution” has caught attention worldwide for its remarkable organization and a sanity uncharacteristic of typical scenes broadcast from other global zones of protest and resistance.  Despite Sunday’s tear gas and rumors of rubber bullets being shot by police, the demonstration since Monday remained peaceful and polite, at least until recent friction in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.

Posters plaster Central district’s billboards and bus stops, calling for true “universal democracy” in Hong Kong and for Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung to step down. Meanwhile China has told local foreign embassies that “radical groups in Hong Kong are staging illegal activities of assembly and ‘Occupy Central’, some acts of violence and legal offences have procured as a result.” CY Leung has called the situation “out of control” and insists the protesters should end their demonstration as they promised to do should it get out of hand. Unfortunately for him there are no signs of that happening anytime soon, unless further unnecessary force is shown by the police. The “radical” and “out of control” groups continue to write messages like “Stay Calm” and “We are the people” in various languages but always on paper; there is no graffiti in sight.  People with megaphones were not shouting abuse at China or the police (who, incidentally were a rare sight in the area and non-existent in the blockaded protest streets), but rather congratulating the crowds on their tidiness and calmness and offering sane advice on how to react to tear gas and what to do if the police returned.

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Image: Byul Ryan-im

There are plenty of first aid and supply shelters–volunteers bombarded me with face masks, water, forehead cooling strips – anything I might (but really didn’t!) need, but returning to the scene on Thursday there were signs politely asking people not to use up donated supplies unnecessarily (possibly aimed implicitly at Mainland tourists who might be there for a few holiday snaps of the demonstration, given announcements were made in Mandarin as well as Cantonese). Nevertheless, as I talked to one student volunteer another offered me some chocolate wafers and all were more than willing to translate announcements and give their opinions on the protest’s potential for success.

Medical students were on hand for first aid and there were makeshift recycling areas, a smokers’ area, people directing the flow of protesters to less crowded roads, and signs (by the protesters) apologising for the inconvenience caused by shut station exits. On Wednesday a student apologised by megaphone to local residents for the inconvenience caused by the shutdown but said he hoped they could understand its necessity. And until Friday evening it seemed they were doing just that; although Occupy Central has shut down many businesses and disrupted the public transport the crowds are a mixture of students, the elderly, middle aged workers and even primary school children sporting the symbolic yellow ribbon.

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Image: Byul Ryan-im

Workers seemed supportive of the movement despite its effect on business, yet all that changed on Friday when angry anti-Occupy groups in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay attacked students, telling them to go home and throwing water bottles at them. The Occupiers for the most part seem to have maintained their calmness, although some fights did break out it seems that in general the students were on the receiving end of attacks by pro-Beijing groups. Sadly the police, who were quick to fire tear gas at the passive Occupiers on Sunday, failed to take significant action against the anti-Occupy mobs, apparently standing back as students were unduly attacked. The police deny this inaction, but the students have accused them of not aiding injured protesters and there have even been suggestions that the anti-Occupy groups are government-hired triad members.

The protesters’ aims so far remain clear and united: universal suffrage and for Hong Kong’s leaders to apologize for Sunday’s violence and step down. One can only hope that this unity does not, under the influence of time, exhaustion and the recent provocations dissolve into conflicting factions. Speaking to some of the protesters, it became clear that they, too, were clueless when it came to predicting the protest’s longevity or outcome. Some admitted that they doubted true democracy would result but pointed out that there was really no other way for them to express their discontent. The thinking seems to be that though unlikely to change China’s “Tiger Mother” attitude towards Hong Kong, as one student described it to me, Occupy Central is better than the only other option: doing nothing.

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Image: Byul Ryan-im

Until Friday’s clashes I was beginning to wonder what if anything could come out of so passive a movement. How long would people continue to occupy Central with only smartphones, books and rubbish-sorting to entertain them, before boredom initiated a return to work and lectures? Apparently thinking along the same lines, Leung’s policy seems to be to wait it out and let the protest die a natural death. Now though, clashes between the occupiers and their opponents, who have begun wearing blue ribbons, have rekindled the flame in flagging protesters and sparked new supporters upset by the unwarranted attacks on students. One volunteer said: “I was looking on Facebook. Many people were neutral about the movement, now support it after Mong Kok.”

As the events unfold by the minute (live updates are available from the South China Morning Post), it is now anyone’s guess as to the outcome. Yet despite blue- versus yellow-ribbon friction, one cause for hope is the unity and composure of the Occupiers thus far. So long as they remain peaceable they will continue to have the support of the international community and be able to shelter under that umbrella until the storm clouds over Mong Kok and Admiralty clear away.

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