The Hong Kong Protests Have Given Rise to a New Political Generation

Oct 06, 2014

Dawn in Hong Kong would break in little more than an hour, and the young men at the barricades early on Oct. 6 were nervous. A 25-year-old tech executive’s eyes filled with tears, and he clenched his jaw. Rumors, they said, had mysterious men in black shirts amassing in a restaurant in the Wanchai district, just down the deserted avenue from the roadblocks that members of Hong Kong’s protest movement had set up more than a week before.

The stretch on Queensway, in the shadow of government offices, the High Court, and a shopping mall, was empty save the few jittery barricade defenders and a fellow protester who snoozed on a wooden plank. Two of the men had wrapped their hands in towels they hoped might protect their knuckles from whatever violence might come their way.

“We don’t know what will happen,” said the 25-year-old, peering east into the dark toward Wanchai. “But we are scared.”

The men in black shirts did not materialize. Nor did the police. Despite a vow from Hong Kong’s top leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to clear major streets for the beginning of the workweek, the Hong Kong protest movement still occupies major commercial areas in the Asian financial capital. By daybreak on Monday, the number of journalists and protest tourists prowling the main demonstration site in Admiralty almost outnumbered the remaining protesters. Still, the barricades, set up to defend a movement demanding democratic commitments from the Chinese central government, held.

“I choose to stand up,” says Jennifer Wong, a 17-year-old high school student from the New Territories, near the border with mainland China. “Maybe [the movement] will not work in the end, but we will regret it if we don’t try.”

Protest leaders, from the three main groups that had banded together to establish this democratic crusade 10 days ago, strategized throughout Sunday as Leung’s ultimatum to disperse loomed. Powwows took place in the quiet halls of the Legislative Council building, where two of the protest blocs had set up makeshift command headquarters. But it was not clear who had the authority to negotiate on behalf of the protesters (or wanted to exercise that power), nor was it apparent who formally represented the government’s side. “The beauty of the movement is that there is no leader,” said one adviser to the Occupy Central group, which kick-started the peaceful siege that has drawn tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, many of them young and middle class. “But that’s also its flaw.”

Outside the Legco building, dozens of protesters tended to their encampments, accepting donations of drinking water or adjusting pieces of cardboard that served as both bedroom and living room. Some had been there since the beginning and had clear demands: the resignation of Chief Executive Leung, who is considered the central government’s proxy in Hong Kong, and a rollback of Beijing’s plan to prevent the territory’s voters from directly electing their leader in 2017. Others had joined the protest movement later, shocked into action by the aggressive tactics that had been used to try to break up the rallies, including police tear gas and thuggery from elements linked to Hong Kong’s triad mafia.

It’s clear that the protesters are joined in their anger toward Beijing, which they feel is degrading the liberties that make Hong Kong a unique city in China, such as an independent judiciary and media. (When the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, the outpost was promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years under a formulation called “one country, two systems.”) For the demonstrators, Leung is also a vilified character, maligned as much for his Beijing yes-man reputation as for the decision to unleash tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters on Sept. 28. But unity of message doesn’t necessarily mean that the protesters are falling in line behind a certain individual who can carry the movement forward.

“We all want the same thing,” says Daisy Lee, a 33-year-old clerk. “But we’re not here because we support one person or one group.” Lee worries that the diffuse nature of the rallies could undercut their ultimate effectiveness. “I’ve spent so many hours here,” she says. “But none of the so-called trio of groups has come to talk to us. Are they communicating with each other? We don’t know. We need strong leadership.”

Already, certain demands from protest leaders have gone unheeded by the rank and file, like a call from student activists to consolidate and abandon a satellite protest site across Victoria Harbour. On Sunday afternoon, a message went out from the Occupy group announcing that protesters had pulled back from a picket at the entrance to the chief executive’s office. But as night fell, students and other youth, surrounded by the inevitable journalist hordes, maintained their vigil at that precise point.

On Monday morning, the diehards that remained stood by as civil servants trooped in to work. Crisis had been averted and ultimatums or conditions from both sides were politely ignored. Throughout Monday, more talks were to take place between the myriad players in this unlikely movement. From a scorecard perspective, the protesters had prevailed the night before by peacefully defying the government’s order to cease and desist. But it’s still hard to see what significant political concessions they can wrest from Beijing, which has been churning out articles and cartoons in the state-run media both deriding and assailing their civil disobedience. Conciliatory moves by Chinese President Xi Jinping could make his administration look weak, and he has not given the impression of a leader enamored by the art of compromise.

As the workweek began in Hong Kong and traffic snarled because of the protest roadblocks, patience from a sector of ordinary citizens may wear thin. Already, some Hong Kong residents were quietly criticizing the continuing shutdown of major business and tourist areas. “Of course I support more democracy for Hong Kong and am not opposed to [the protesters’] ideals,” said a woman surnamed Liu, who came with her 11-year-old son to look at the occupied site in Mongkok district. “But we need to eat, to do business. How can we do that when they take over the streets?”

Whatever happens, Hong Kong’s political consciousness has been awakened. Emily Lau, a veteran local legislator, jokes that she’s been labeled “a head-banger” for her decades of pro-democracy work. “It’s very invigorating to have such a spontaneous, peaceful movement full of young people,” she says. “Once people have been shown their power they will know how to use it again and again.”

Lau could well be talking about Tanson Tsui, a high school student with a backpack full of English homework who was camped out at the entrance to the chief executive’s office on Sunday night. Tsui was born in 1997, the year the British handed Hong Kong back to China. “I came here because of myself,” he said. “I am not following anyone, I have no leader. I will fight to the end because I am Hong Kongese and I have to protect my home.”

With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

Photographs of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
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