What do you see in the Hong Kong protests?

I asked this of my friend Vikas Hsin, who was taking part in the protests: what they were like and why people were out on the streets? She wrote the following about what she sees as the causes and central aims of the protest. I've translated her essay into English, and the original Chinese is below.


The people of Hong Kong are known for their apathy toward politics. “Occupy Central” had been floating around for over a year; most assumed it to be merely the laughable rhetoric of a few marginal politicians. The “Student Boycott” had been in the works for months, and many thought it was just a bunch of young people carried away with their own political idealism. It was August 31 when Beijing announced it had approved the controversial draft on the framework of proposed elections in the city, crushing hope of true universal suffrage for which so many had fought, but even this did not stir many of the city’s residents to action. As of September 22, only a few thousand out of Hong Kong’s over seven million residents had joined sit-in protests. But when the first tear gas and pepper spray were released into the air on the night of Sunday, September 28, when police forced down the first line of protesters, social media selfies began to disappear, replaced by yellow ribbons. In that moment, 87 canisters of tear gas were enough to bring tears to the eyes of all of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s student movement began to coalesce in 2011, when students, parents and teachers alike stood up against proposed changes to the educational curriculum – changes that would have introduced “patriotic education” that some thought was little more than brainwashing. But this movement’s momentum was limited, it lacked professional training. So why did authorities send riot police against them, armed with tear gas and batons?

You could say it was because of bad judgment calls – on the part of the police and government as well as the protesters. Occupy Central, which had been scheduled to start on October 1st, announced Sunday morning that it would begin early, so the police officers in charge of maintaining order there traded a day of rest at home with their families for duty on the front lines. And as these police gathered, the students who had been there for days also became those protecting order on the front lines. Without any single leader, the goals of the protesters were disparate, and as a result, things began to spiral out of control on the scene. The police attacked the people they were supposed to protect, and the people screamed at the police officers they were supposed to trust.

The most heartbreaking part of it all was that the night pitted Hong Kongers against each other, though we all love this place we call home. The more tear gas was fired, the more people came running to the scene. It didn’t change the fact that some of us are still politically apathetic, some didn’t necessarily have a clear stance on the political reform. Some were not even inclined to support the student movement or Occupy Central. But because they believed that the democracy movement should not become a scene of violence, they gathered one by one, carrying their umbrellas. It was not for political beliefs, or for economic reasons, or for the causes of factions. They wanted peace for the people of Hong Kong.

On September 29th, a dreary Monday, public transit saw no crowds of professionals on their way to work. Those riding buses would smile when they saw another person wearing black in protest. Victoria Harbour, Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok, major commercial and political areas in Hong Kong, were paralyzed. The wide streets and small alleyways were blockaded, and the doors of stores shut tight. Protesters came by foot and bicycle, and people from all over Hong Kong donated generously to them.

Every ten meters or so, a makeshift stand would hand out water, food, sweets, fruit, tissues, face masks, goggles, ponchos, cooling patches, plastic wrap, and umbrellas. In each area, these donated goods seemed inexhaustible in their supply, coming in batches delivered almost continuously, just as people were constantly collecting trash and recycling. This was a peaceful demonstration neither violent nor uncivilized.

At five o' clock, students arrived in their uniforms, carrying their book bags. At seven, professionals came in their business attire and their high heels. At nine, young people, ethnic minorities who grew up in Hong Kong and spoke fluent Cantonese, arrived on the scene to proclaim their support for the peaceful movement. Around eleven, tattooed punks began to arrive by motorcycle and delivery truck, unloading material goods to help those gathered there. Such a spontaneous outpouring of mutual aid was unprecedented in Hong Kong, and brought rounds of applause as well as tears as protesters welcomed the selfless donations from people of all walks of life, and everyone put aside their disagreements and differences. On that night, a feeling of peace truly suffused the over 100,000 Hong Kongers who had joined together.

But underneath that peace there was a current of anxiety. The shut-off areas were too peaceful. Some began to play games with the donated goods, some brought their pets to the crowds to enjoy the atmosphere, some got riled up and demanded protesters march to the front lines, and some politicians even seized microphones and called for the downfall of the CPC. The peaceful movement had begun to change, turning into a carnival or an extremist meeting.

But just as things reached this point, people gathered there began to call for the crowds to calm down and be cautious, reminding everyone that this movement was about peace, and urging them not to forget its original purpose – they were not here to have a good time, or to lash out in violence, but to seek peace together. Everyone was able to calm down, and unite once more.

Although this peaceful movement was not a single entity, there was a special kind of understanding everyone shared, an understanding that when a clash with the front line of police occurred, everyone would step back and disperse, not hold fast and oppose them. This sounds like a kind of retreat, but in truth it was the peaceful resistance of Hong Kongers, who are not violent vandals but law-abiding citizens. We knew that we did not need to sacrifice those on the front lines, only to act rationally, as a united whole. Although physically advancing is a form of progress, in this particular instance, retreat was a better choice. After waiting until the site became more orderly, everyone silently returned to their originally positions, opened their umbrellas and sat down in silence, sticking together in non-violent resistance.

The power of the Internet was easy to see in all aspects of the movement. Protesters distributed needed items to the various areas they were gathered based on information they received via smartphone and app, while updates on the status of different groups were shared in the same fashion. But at the same time, misinformation crept in, and some people tried to stir up trouble and spread lies.

Several times, it seemed that things might erupt in violence. Conspiracy theorists believed that this was a plot by China’s central government, that once the protests got out of control, they would have reason to use the troops based in Hong Kong to crush them. Whether true or not, when things began to shift, Hong Kongers who had remained at home took to their computers and waged an all-out war against the false reports, and protesters on the scene verified and disproved the rumors floating around. They also reminded everyone not to be fooled or incited to rash acts. Though the police may have acted improperly, the people of Hong Kong did not need to strike back. The government may have been cruel in its enforcement of the law, but the people protesting had no need of violent retaliation. The purpose of the umbrella movement is to demand change with peace, to respond with peace. It began this way, progressed this way, and at each turn, at each moment it might spin out of control, it remained this way, depending on everyone working together to maintain calm.

In that respect, is it not much like psychological warfare? Perhaps, but the people of Hong Kong have not started a war nor have they engaged in one – they have only resisted peacefully. 







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