TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Police Arrest Top Student Leaders and Clear Protest Site

The Mong Kok protest area had been occupied by pro-democracy activists for nearly 60 days

Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong, who featured last month on the cover of TIME’s international edition, was arrested Wednesday along with several more pro-democracy activists, after police continued their crackdown on one of the city’s three protest areas.

An activist arrested with the 18-year-old said on his Facebook page that they had been brought to a police station in northwest Kowloon. They are expected to be charged with contempt of court for allegedly obstructing the removal of barricades at the Mong Kok protest site.

By noon local time, little remained of the site, which was first occupied nearly 60 days ago by mostly young protesters demanding free and open elections for the city’s highest political office. Some protesters had started abandoning the site in the early morning. Tents, books, mats and the other detritus of an eight-week sit-in were left strewn across the road.

At its peak, the protest area — located in the heart of one of the most densely populated places on earth — was a tented community of hundreds if not thousands of students and activists, complete with supply stations, first-aid posts, a study area, library and religious shrines. Musical performances took place in the evening and academics gave lectures.

However, as police dismantled barricades and drove protesters down an eerily shuttered Nathan Road on Wednesday morning — with cleaners following behind to carry away tents and debris — traffic partially resumed along this key section of Kowloon’s major thoroughfare for the first time in two months. Municipal trucks hosed down the road and opponents of the occupation, who had massed on the sidewalks, cheered loudly.

Protesters watched in grim silence or else were seen hurriedly running down the street with bags of possessions, attempting to escape advancing police. Little resistance was offered. One man quickly genuflected in front of a cross that had been the centerpiece of a makeshift chapel set up for the protesters, then he grabbed the cross and ran.

“How can we fight back?” asked one 20-year-old demonstrator, surnamed Tsang. “We don’t have the power to fight back.”

Bailiffs began clearing the area yesterday as part of civil injunction brought by transport companies angered at the protesters’ closure of a key intersection.

Police initially gathered to ensure that bailiffs could enforce the court order, but later stepped up their action to end a protest that had sprawled across several city blocks, angering local residents and business operators for weeks. In overnight clashes, police used pepper-spray cannons on demonstrators, chasing them down side streets and arresting at least 80.

After Wednesday’s clearance, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, whose deputy leader Lester Shum was arrested along with Wong, issued a statement describing the police as the “tool of suppression of an autocratic administration” and accusing the government of daring to “use tyranny and bury justice.” It warned that if the current crackdown continued, “we will have no choice but to take our action to the next step,” but did not elaborate on what that escalation might consist of.

Police previously attempted to clear the Mong Kok site on Oct. 17 only for huge crowds to reclaim it after nightfall. This time, it is by no means certain that demonstrators will be able to do the same, even though some are already vowing to do so on social media. The police will be prepared for a counterattack, the clearance has been much more thorough, and the demonstrators are operating in a different political climate, with local polls showing that the majority of Hong Kongers want the occupations to end. The movement is also becoming increasingly divided over aims and tactics.

In the meantime, attention is turning to the city’s largest protest site, located in the downtown Admiralty district. There, thousands of demonstrators have pitched their tents in uneasy proximity to the Hong Kong Police Headquarters and the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. Barricades remain in place, but the site’s perimeters are not secure and provocateurs and police crisscross the area at will. The young inhabitants spend their days strumming guitars, reading political treatises, making protest art and looking otherwise unable to mount a convincing resistance of the clearance that is looking increasingly imminent.

— With reporting by Elizabeth Barber and Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Fresh Clashes in Hong Kong Between Police and Pro-Democracy Protesters

A pro-democracy protester chants at an occupied area before the barricade is removed in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Nov. 25, 2014.
Kin Cheung—AP A pro-democracy protester chants at an occupied area before the barricade is removed in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Nov. 25, 2014

Dozens were arrested including a prominent lawmaker

Hong Kong police charged, and used pepper-spray cannons, on peaceful pro-democracy protesters Tuesday night local time in a bid to clear streets in the Mong Kok district, location of one of city’s three protest areas.

Dozens of people, including firebrand lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, were arrested in clashes that took place in the vicinity of the luxurious Langham Place Hotel, popular with international visitors.

Colorful umbrellas, symbol of what has been termed the Umbrella Revolution, were hurriedly unfurled as mostly young protesters sought to protect themselves from pepper spray.

The atmosphere at the Mong Kok site, in the heart of the teeming Kowloon peninsula, had been tense for several hours after bailiffs dismantled barricades at a key intersection earlier in the day. The bailiffs were enforcing a civil injunction brought by transport companies objecting to the two-month occupation of the area by protesters, who are demanding free elections for this city of 7.2 million.

Scuffles broke out and arrests were made after police accused protesters of obstructing the court order and instructed the crowd — among them high school students still in school uniform — to disperse.

Police in riot gear then spent hours attempting to contain running groups of protesters, who attempted to erect fresh barricades in the densely populated narrow streets leading off Nathan Road, Kowloon’s main north-south thoroughfare. Pepper-spray cannon, mounted on mobile towers, were deployed and used liberally on the crowd.

After a tense standoff on Shantung Street, officers then charged, scattering demonstrators and arresting some who were unable to escape.

Just one block away, hundreds of tents where protesters have been sleeping for weeks remained untouched. A clearance action is expected Wednesday and is almost certain to lead to further clashes. For now, however, the mood on the streets is defiant.

“Police can’t take this all back,” 31-year-old protester Ryan Cheung told TIME. “They don’t have the right and they know they don’t have the right. They say it’s the law but that’s just an excuse.” Cheung said he would remain on the streets “as long as it goes on.”

Besides the Mong Kok site, protesters also occupy a significant portion of the downtown Admiralty district — the city’s largest protest area — with their tents pitched beneath the looming headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and Central Government Offices. A small site in the Causeway Bay shopping district, popular with tourists, is also occupied.

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Greet Court Officials With Indifference

Farcical scenes as bailiffs take down some barricades then retreat leaving other barriers untouched

Hong Kong officials began enforcing the first of several court injunctions and started removing barricades in part of the downtown Admiralty district on Tuesday morning, in the first attempt to clear the streets through judicial means since the Umbrella Revolution began almost two months ago.

But if the action was meant as a show of strength by the unpopular administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying against protesters who are demanding free elections, it was a failure and at times degenerated into farce.

The injunction had been obtained by the owners of an office building, CITIC Tower, against demonstrators who had erected barricades partially blocking vehicular access to the property, which looms over Tim Mei Avenue on the fringe of Hong Kong’s largest protest area.

However, bailiffs were only able to hastily remove a few barricades because the locations of those targeted for removal were only vaguely marked on maps relating to the injunction, allowing protesters to dispute the precise terms of the court order.

Nervous looking representatives of CITIC Tower were drowned out by a cocksure protester with a loudhailer as they attempted to negotiate. Nimble young students in hoodies and face masks were also able to seize metal barriers before white-gloved, middle-aged bailiffs could reach them. The students then carried the barriers off to reinforce barricades erected elsewhere.

Pro-democracy legislator Albert Ho, who has been giving legal advice to the protesters, said the fact that a private entity such as CITIC Tower had to resort to a civil action to clear the barricades showed the government’s weakness.

“The only explanation is that the administration has lost its confidence — because of a lack of authority and a lack of legitimacy — to enforce the law,” he said.

Earlier in the day, uniformed and plainclothes police remained on standby as bailiffs read out a court order to smirking students before dismantling the makeshift barricades. But none of the expected clashes materialized. Instead, most demonstrators lazed in the bright fall sunshine, while 18-year-old student leader Joshua Wong nonchalantly skateboarded up and down the road.

Around the corner on Harcourt Road, the main protest area, dubbed Umbrella Square, lay unmolested. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tents, formed a sea of color. At the western extremity of the site a large yellow banner read “Welcome to the Hong Kong Commune.”

Thousands of protesters have occupied crucial roads in the Admiralty district — a city-center area of gleaming corporate towers and the central government offices — and two other major commercial areas since a campaign of civil disobedience first commenced on Sept. 28.

They are seeking full democracy for Hong Kong, with the right to freely nominate and vote for candidates for the city’s top job. At present, the territory’s sovereign power, China, will only permit direct elections if it vets the candidates.

However, seven weeks in, the movement appears to be losing part of the goodwill it once enjoyed among the city’s residents. Ongoing traffic delays are forcing some parents to leave home before dawn to get their children to school on time, while retailers in the protest zones have seen their takings plummet.

A new survey published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong this week claimed that approximately 67% of the city’s residents are now in favor of the demonstrators leaving the streets.

But the feeble enforcement action on Tuesday shows that it will be difficult to dislodge the protesters, who continue to enjoy high levels of morale.

“Students and activists will respect the judgment of the courts,” Joshua Wong told TIME. “But it’s unnecessary to clear the whole of Tim Mei Avenue.”

For now, the protest site remains virtually unchanged. But many believe that today was merely a dress rehearsal for what is to come.

“This morning is more or less intended to be a show for the public,” said legislator Ho. He said he thought that the government also wanted to show the more radical protesters encamped across Victoria Harbor in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon, that it was serious about enforcing the law.

Others believe that it is only a matter of time before the government takes a tougher approach. “We think they are waiting for the right time to do something,” said protester Alex, 22. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With reporting by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

TV Face-Off Dramatizes Gulf Between Hong Kong Protesters and Officials

In perhaps the first TV debate of its kind on Chinese soil, young trumps old

Huge numbers of Hong Kong people were transfixed by their televisions and devices Tuesday night local time, as they followed the live broadcast of a historic, two-hour meeting between black-clad rebel students and suited officials.

More than any other event in the three weeks of pro-democracy protests that have rocked China’s most international city, the dialog—the government hesitated to call it a negotiation—dramatized the gulf between the generations. It was also a microcosm of the political tension at work within all of China, between a rising, educated generation groping after its political rights, and an older one insistent on withholding them.

On screens and live audio streams, five representatives from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) represented the sort of young people any nation would be proud to call its own: intelligent, informed and impassioned.

In talks with them were five senior government officials. Two officials remained mute throughout the 120 minutes and were widely mocked on social media for their silence. The others—headed by the government’s number two Carrie Lam—spoke mostly to utter legal sophistries and to tell the students what they have been saying for months: give up your fight and do as Beijing asks, because the decisions that have been made about Hong Kong’s political future cannot be changed.

To the thousands that had gathered at protest sites across the city to watch the talks on big screens, the government looked hopelessly out of touch. While the students addressed the officials formally, the officials called the students by their first names—in a move that Lam defended as friendliness, but which the Twitterverse found highly condescending.

It also didn’t help that the officials were speaking the day after Hong Kong’s patrician leader, Leung Chun-ying, made an appalling gaffe in front of foreign media, when he said that free elections in Hong Kong would allow those from lower-income groups to dominate the polls. (He later released a statement attempting to qualify his comments as springing from concern for social minorities, which probably made things worse.)

The central government says that it will allow Hong Kong’s 3.5 million voters to elect Leung’s successor in 2017 but insists that voters choose from a field of no more than three candidates, all screened by a pro-establishment committee. To the students, this is a nonstarter and it is the reason that thousands of them and their supporters have been occupying key areas of downtown Hong Kong for the past 24 days. Their protest has seen dozens injured, perhaps hundreds, in clashes with police and shady groups of thugs, and has become the most politically consequential movement on Chinese soil since the 1989 occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“What do we want?” asked HKFS deputy Lester Shum during the talks. “The right to vote; the right to be voted and voter, equally. Now the government is only telling us to pack up and go home.”

The officials, visibly uncomfortable at being brought to the table by a group of articulate twenty-somethings fresh from the barricades, offered modest concessions—more time to work out nomination procedures, more time to take soundings on Hong Kong’s long term constitutional development. Perhaps the submission of another report to Beijing.

“The 2017 [election] is not the destination,” said Chief Secretary Lam in conciliatory fashion. “We can still improve the system for [the next election in] 2022. If all the public opinion being expressed can be recorded and reflected to the central government, it will be good for democratic development.”

But it sounded like the administration was buying time and they were called on it at several points. “It is the Hong Kong government who is giving up its responsibility,” said HKFS delegate Yvonne Leung. “It has the constitutional duty to fight for a democratic reform proposal for Hong Kong.”

Large numbers of police officers were deployed on the streets in case trouble flared following the debate. But while the rest of the night appeared to pass peacefully, there is a fear that greater unrest in the coming weeks is all but a certainty, now that the chasm between the protesters’ position and the government’s is so woefully apparent. Lam’s concluding remarks bore the faint augury of difficulties ahead.

“I hope you have the courage and wisdom to think of a way out of the current situation,” she said, sounding unintentionally ominous. “I hope you share the responsibility with us.”

Out on the street, Ivan Tsang, 23, an office assistant, spoke for many when he urged protesters to ramp up their campaign. “Overall [the students] represented me and I respect that,” he said. “But I believe we need to make our actions more aggressive so the government will listen.”

Nick Lee, 24, a cook living in the blue-collar district of Mong Kok, where some of the worst clashes have taken place, said: “[Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying] thinks he cannot give more power to the people, but I should have the power, not him.”

Michael Davis, professor of law at Hong Kong University, said that the government had given the protesters no reason to leave the streets. “The government doesn’t seem committed to do anything,” he said. “They only hinted they might file this supplementary report.”

What is certain is that the students came out best from the talks, shoring up their popularity before a large television audience that doubtless, until tonight, contained many undecided viewers.

“I don’t know what the next plan is” said Dora Ngan, 19, who watched the debate on a large screen at the teeming Causeway Bay shopping district. “But I will follow the student leaders.”

—With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Charlie Campbell, Rishi Iyengar, Per Liljas and David Stout. Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Is Bracing Itself for More Anti-Occupy Violence

So-called "blue ribbon" mobs continue to fight with student activists

Anti-Occupy groups continued to harass Hong Kong’s pro-democracy students at the Mong Kok protest site Saturday morning local time, with reports of fighting as people attempted to stop activists rebuilding an encampment destroyed by a hundreds-strong mob the previous evening.

Students chanted “call the police” as scuffles broke out and objects were thrown.

Pro-government demonstrators also jeered students as they passed the main Admiralty protest area on Hong Kong Island in a tense procession on Saturday morning.

Members of the anti-Occupy movement have adopted blue ribbons as their symbol in opposition to the yellow ribbons of democracy activists. At stake are opposing views of how China’s most international city should be governed, with the pro-democracy camp demanding a freely elected leader and the anti-Occupy movement insisting upon loyalty to Beijing, which is only prepared to grant Hong Kong limited political autonomy.

Local media reported that 18 were injured and 19 arrested after one of the darkest nights in Hong Kong’s political history. Blue-ribbon factions, in what appear to be coordinated attacks, struck at two pro-democracy sites beginning in the mid-afternoon, hitting and kicking students, tearing down banners and destroying tents. Many assailants were masked.

Students allege that females were being targeted for sexual assault. Amnesty International issued a statement Friday saying that police had “failed in their duty” to protect women and girls from attackers. “The police inaction tonight is shameful,” said Mabel Au, Amnesty’s local director.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong said both local and foreign journalists were attacked and intimidated, with female journalists threatened with sexual assault. It released a statement saying it was “deeply disturbed” by the reports.

There were also reports of attacks on students outside the glitzy Pacific Place mall on Queensway, home to five-star hotels and luxury boutiques.

Local criminal syndicates, known as triads, are widely believed to have participated in the violence. Some of those arrested reportedly had triad affiliations.

Most members of the blue-ribbon mobs, however, appear to working class, conservative Hong Kongers, who regard the student protests as a threat to economic stability when the ruinously high cost of living makes day-to-day survival difficult for many.

“I’m expressing my anger—they are disrupting order” said a woman who identified herself as Liu. The 60-year-old school bus driver had shown up at the Causeway Bay protest site to remonstrate with the students because the Occupy protests had left her out of work.

The police have been criticized for not adequately protecting students during last night’s violence and for double standards in deciding not to use pepper spray on anti-Occupy mobs. This is in contrast to the pepper spraying of students earlier in the week, whose use of umbrellas to protect themselves gave the democracy movement its nickname: the Umbrella Revolution.

“I think the police here cannot protect us anymore,” said a protester surnamed Fong, who declined to give their first name. The 24-year-old civil servant said last night’s violence “told me I cannot be safe in Hong Kong.”

Leading student activist, Joshua Wong of the group Scholarism, told local media that “The police clearly have double standards. We are very angry, but we will keep the protests peaceful.”


The lack of an official condemnation of blue-ribbon violence has been conspicuous. The police issued a general appeal to people “to express their views in a peaceful and rational manner,” while Chief Secretary Carrie Lam asked for democracy protesters to withdraw from the Mong Kok site after yesterday’s clashes. But neither referred specifically to anti-Occupy elements.

The government meanwhile issued a hardline statement Friday attacking student demonstrators as “inhumane” and “worse than that of radical social activists,” and accusing them of creating “almost complete anarchy.”

The harsh wording appears at odds with the widely reported peaceful and well-organized nature of the democracy protests.

Proposed talks between students and the government have been canceled in the wake of Friday’s attacks. The city remains tense with further rallies planned later Saturday by anti-Occupy groups.

Paul Zimmerman, a district councilor who daringly stole the show during official National Day celebrations by unfurling a yellow umbrella in support of the students, called on activists to consolidate protests in the main Admiralty site and avoid further “violence by provocateurs.”

“Keep up your presence, but try to give people the street back,” he said. Otherwise, he fears “It’s all going to be ugly.”

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Rishi Iyengar and David Stout

TIME Hong Kong

Anti-Occupy Mob Trashes Hong Kong Protest Site

An anti-Occupy protester shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images An anti-Occupy protester shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.

Attack comes on the sixth day of democracy protests, with many students exhausted

A pro-government mob, hundreds strong, destroyed one of Hong Kong’s democracy-protest sites Friday afternoon local time, attacking students, trashing student tents and hurling obscenities.

Police were initially overwhelmed and failed to separate the two sides, although they were able to evacuate some democracy activists from the site, located in the densely populated district of Mong Kok, on the Kowloon peninsula.

The anti-Occupy crowd destroyed banners and posters and chanted “go home” at the students. Water bottles were thrown. Abandoned buses that had stood at the site since activists occupied it were boarded and driven off to loud cheers.

Another protest site, in Causeway Bay, was also reportedly attacked.

There were allegations that female activists were being sexually molested and foreign journalists set upon.

Occupy Central, one of the city’s main pro-democracy organizations, condemned what it called “police inaction.”

It could not be immediately confirmed if the anti-Occupy mob belonged to a specific political group. However, the South China Morning Post reported that they were being directed by a “middle-aged Putonghua-speaking woman wearing a face mask using a loud hailer.”

The attack on the Mong Kok site comes after a day of growing tensions, with the authorities and students at an impasse and protest leaders unsure of how much longer the movement will retain popular support.

The movement has been hampered by the lack of a politically experienced leader, able to unite its disparate elements and woo long-term support from a wider public that is torn between the desire for electoral reform, the social disruption a prolonged campaign could bring, and the fear of invoking Beijing’s displeasure.

— With reporting by David Stout / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Fresh Demonstrations Rock Hong Kong as Protest Leader Warns of Backlash

Pro Democracy Supporters Attempt To Bring Hong Kong To A Stand Still With Mass Rally
Chris McGrath—Getty Images Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong government complex in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014

Occupation of key districts is unsustainable and could invite a harsh crackdown, top activist says

A co-founder of the Hong Kong pro-democracy organization Occupy Central said late Monday that the group will change tactics because the unprecedented protests it has helped to organize are unsustainable and could backfire.

Sociologist Chan Kin-man, a former professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, told TIME it’s “unrealistic” to expect protesters to continue to occupy key downtown locations for much longer, bringing roads to a standstill and disrupting businesses. He hinted that the barricades should come down and blockades end on Oct. 1 — China’s National Day.

His thinking seemed sharply at odds with the mood on the streets Monday, and would shock many of the tens of thousands of mostly young demonstrators who unloaded truckloads of supplies as the night wore on and looked set for a protracted siege in their push for free elections.

Protesters’ ranks appeared to have grown considerably since the weekend, and an almost jubilant air could be felt as demonstrators in Queensway, close to the city’s legislature, passed around chocolate cake, cookies and freshly grilled hotdogs while a student group performed a dance routine. Some played soccer. At one point, thousands held up backlit cell-phone screens, forming a stunning ravine of light that stretched into the distance.

Across the harbor in Kowloon, a black-clad DJ flipped open his laptop, set up his mixing console and entertained hundreds of demonstrators at the Nathan Road protest site with an impromptu set. Families with children could be seen among the demonstrators, who chanted and listened to speeches as they sat or reclined along a broad stretch of road that is normally one of the city’s busiest.

The protest was remarkably peaceful and orderly. Protesters erected signs apologizing to office workers for the inconvenience. At one point, a group of activists began directing traffic along busy Hennessy Road.

Chan said the Occupy Central group wants “the people to stay out until at least Oct. 1.” After that, he says, “we will announce a new stage of the campaign.”

The activist is worried that a prolonged occupation will eventually invite a bloody crackdown from the authorities. He also believes the goal of many on the streets — major electoral concessions from Beijing — is unrealistic, and should be replaced with the more achievable aim of ousting the city’s unpopular leader, Leung Chun-ying.

“Once he steps down, we can start over,” Chan told TIME.

Demonstrators occupying the city’s main business district reacted to Chan’s words with skepticism.

“Many adults feel like they cannot do anything to change the situation, but young people have a dream,” said 21-year-old student Nicholas Ng.

Eric Ng (no relation), a 21-year-old event planner who has been on the streets for three days, leaving only to take quick shower breaks, said, “I’ve never seen this many people asking for what we need. We’ll still stay here. If we leave on Oct. 1, it won’t have been here long enough.”

Chan’s moderate stance highlights what many say is a growing generational gap between a protest leadership of middle-aged academics and professionals, and rank-and-file demonstrators, who are mostly students and impatient for the electoral freedoms they have come to regard as their birthright.

Tensions between the two camps emerged over the weekend, when some students participating in a classroom boycott accused Occupy Hong Kong of hijacking their campaign in order to launch the broader protests, bringing forward the widely expected start date by several days.

The police use of tear gas on Sunday evening has also galvanized sections of the public that had previously remained on the sidelines.

“To be honest, I didn’t really support this,” said Raymond Chan, a 38-year-old high school math teacher. “But when the police used tear gas on people last night, that changed my mind. They used tear gas, without any warning. The fact that they did that just makes us stronger and more unified.”

“The police were very harsh firing the tear gas yesterday, and that’s why I’m here,” said Lillian Chung, a young arts student. “If we don’t come here, Hong Kong is going to have a sorry, sorry future.”

Occupy Hong Kong is hoping that people like Chung will leave the streets and find other ways of continuing the protest in two days’ time. Before the week is out, they will know whether or not they are still in control of a sweeping social movement they helped launch.

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Charlie Campbell, Rishi Iyengar, Reno Ong, Emily Rauhala, Helen Regan and David Stout / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China’s Freest City, Grapples With Political Reform

Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images Demonstrators rally against the Occupy Central movement to show their support to the Hong Kong government in Hong Kong on July 15, 2014. Hong Kong's government has unveiled its vision for electoral reform as public pressure for democracy grows and activists pledge to take over the city if their demands are not met

An official, 100-plus-page report to Beijing on Hong Kong's political development is unlikely to satisfy the city's increasingly frustrated democracy activists, but Hong Kongers are beginning to tire of confrontation

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers — perhaps even hundreds of thousands, depending on whose estimates you believe — marched for the right to nominate candidates for the city’s top job. Civil nomination, as it’s locally known, would make Hong Kong the only place on Chinese soil with such a free and open manner of choosing its leader.

On Tuesday, they were flatly told by their current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (or “C.Y.,” in the Cantonese fashion for abbreviation), that future Chief Executives would not be elected that way. Instead, there would be incremental changes of the existing system, under which candidates are put forward by a nominating committee and then voted on by an electoral college (which presently consists of just 1,200 establishment types but could be expanded). This method of doing things, Leung said, represented “mainstream opinion” in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s democratic camp was livid. “We’re pretty disappointed — we’re pretty angry,” Johnson Yeung, an activist with the Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the annual July 1 protest march, told TIME on Tuesday night. “The Chief Executive is telling lies about the majority of society. The majority of people support civil nomination.”

Leung was speaking on the release of the findings, which will be submitted to Beijing, of a five-month public consultation on the city’s constitutional development. The process was made up of town-hall meetings — between nervous officials and often fractious members of the public — and a review of written submissions from individuals and groups, of which nearly 125,000 were received. As a view-gathering exercise, it was undeniably thorough and when Leung says that it has “truthfully collected views of the people of Hong Kong,” he isn’t just politicking.

At the same time, reformists claim — also with some justification — that their voices deserve more prominence. Besides the support for civil nomination expressed on the July 1 march, they also point to an unofficial, civil-society-backed referendum in June in which nearly 800,000 people voted on their preferred methods of choosing their leader, with civil nomination being involved in each of those methods. Leung only indirectly referred to the march and the referendum in his report — referring to views other than those that have been officially gathered is a rookie political error when dealing with Beijing, and yet they remain glaring lacunae in the eyes of many.

The truth about what Hong Kong people want is, of course, more nuanced. There can be little doubt that Hong Kong’s well educated, sophisticated and forward-looking population would like as much say as possible in determining how the territory is governed. But at the same time, the number of those who have the appetite for a protracted political confrontation with Beijing must be very few. And confrontation it will be, for the simple fact that civil nomination is not permitted under Hong Kong’s miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law, which came into effect when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Say what you like about China, but it is a scrupulous observer of formal agreements.

Hong Kongers — sober, decent, pragmatic and hardworking — are mostly not the sort of people who gravitate to the barricades and the streets. Neither do they need to be made aware of the political realities of having China as a sovereign power, for the simple fact that postwar Hong Kong has only ever existed with China’s permission. In the 1960s, the local joke was that Mao Zedong could send the British packing with a mere phone call.

With that vast, brooding power lying just over the Kowloon hills, tiny Hong Kong’s style has always been to play China cleverly — to push where it can (in matters such as education and national-security legislation, where it has won important battles) and to back off where it cannot. When establishment figures talk of having, as Chief Executive, “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong” it is coded speech, referring to somebody who is a master of that game and who is not like, say, Leung Kwok-hung (no relation to C.Y. Leung) — a radical legislator who hurls objects around the debating chamber and who once set fire to the Chinese flag. The election of somebody like Leung Kwok-hung to the position of Chief Executive would be the only excuse Beijing needs to employ repressive machinery far beyond anything Hong Kongers have imagined. The threat of the Occupy Central movement to bring Hong Kong’s financial district to a standstill if its demands for civil nomination are not met will also play beautifully into Beijing’s hands.

A compromise is being offered. Within the constitutional report’s prose are certain suggestions that, while subtle, would mark unprecedented concessions on China’s part, should the National People’s Congress approve them. Namely, C.Y. Leung calls for some amendments to the structure of the controversial nomination committee, which vets potential candidates for the Chief Executive election, that may render it a more democratic grouping.

“I see that as a concession. I see that as a position that allows for a democrat to get through to the election,” says David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “General public nomination — it’s not going to happen. It can’t comply with the Basic Law.”

And that, in the end, is the peculiar agony of Hong Kong — to be a city of politically mature individuals that was simply handed back from one sovereign power to another, without any consultation, unable to determine its fate. Today, it is culturally, legally, historically and linguistically distinct from the rest of China, but it will never be able to parlay that into greater autonomy than what it presently enjoys. It will always be a subject territory.

It turns out that many Hong Kong people only want to get on with their busy metropolitan lives and are O.K. with that. They do not want to choose between democracy or death, and that political realism is itself an important milestone. In that sense, when C.Y. Leung said, “Today is a historical moment in the constitutional development of Hong Kong, we will be able to leave our differences behind in a rational and pragmatic way,” he was absolutely right.

With reporting by P. Nash Jenkins / Hong Kong


10 Things Only People Who Celebrate Lunar New Year Will Understand

1. How lifting the lid off one of these still gives you a feeling of totally childish joy.


Getty Images

2. This video by the perpetually awesome Fung Brothers.

3. How this tune can both grate and be deeply comforting at the same time.

4. Rising to this year’s sartorial challenge of adopting an equine theme.


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5. This song about the inevitable, annual questions from prying relatives on each and every stage of the life cycle

6. This Facebook app.

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7. Feeling crazily incomplete without at least one of these on the lawn or patio or balcony.

back alley stash of kumquat trees ready for the lunar new year, hong kong

A photo posted by Alex Ogle (@alex_ogle) on

8. The schadenfreude you feel on seeing someone who’s clearly been coerced into sporting traditional garb.

9. Why this is the most important flowchart you’ll ever come across in your young (or older-but-still-not-rolling-in-it) life.

10. That there’s never been a better year to gift your daughter or your niece that special edition My Little Pony.

My Little Pony Chinese New Year Pony
And whatever you’re doing this Lunar New Year, here’s wishing you an amazing and wonderful Year of the Horse! Giddyup!


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