TIME Hong Kong

Fighting for the Hong Kong Dream

Pro-Democracy Student Leaders And Hong Kong Government Hold Talks
Pro-democracy protesters sit near an umbrella reading "You May Say I'm A Dreamer" as they watch a live televised talk between pro-democracy student leaders and the government outside the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty business district Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A TIME editor and lifelong Hong Konger reflects on a turbulent month of protest, backlash — and hope

Nearly 140 years ago, my great-grandfather left a small town in India’s Gujarat state to seek opportunity overseas. He heard of a tiny new British colony off the southern coast of a giant old Chinese kingdom, ventured over, and built a better life. Subsequent generations of his clan followed. I was the first to actually be born and raised in Hong Kong — and I’m glad I was. Over the decades, the city has given me and my family a chance to be educated, get good jobs and gain a global outlook. When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, we stayed on, confident in the territory’s future. Not many residents, ethnic Chinese or not, can claim local roots as deep as mine. To me, Hong Kong — dynamic, orderly, worldly — is more than a place to live and work. It’s in my DNA.

That’s why, even as I keep a professional distance as a journalist, I am personally affected by what Hong Kong is going through. Pride, shock, sorrow — like the territory itself, I have experienced all these emotions, rising and falling with the news, as pro-democracy demonstrators face off, day and night, against a stern police force and an unyielding local government.

In the first week of the sit-ins, the territory witnessed: a peaceful expression of civil disobedience by Hong Kongers, many of them students; the tear-gassing of unarmed citizens in scenes reminiscent of Islamabad, Cairo and Ferguson; and the ferocity of concerted attacks by thugs on protesters on a day that my colleague Liam Fitzpatrick, also Hong Kong–born, called “one of the darkest in Hong Kong’s political history.” That night I wept for a city I no longer recognized.

The protests, standoffs and clashes have become more violent since — an aggressive new fringe of activist has entered the fray, and the police response is increasingly uncompromising. Scores of injuries have occurred, with both sides suffering. The many whose lives, and livelihoods, have been disrupted by the occupied areas and the ensuing gridlock grow angrier. The upshot is that Hong Kong is divided as never before: pro-democracy vs. pro-China; the street vs. the Establishment; young vs. old. Nowhere was the polarity more dramatically revealed than during a live broadcast of talks between students and officials that took place on Tuesday night. In the first TV debate of its kind on Chinese soil, there seemed to be zero chance of reconciliation.

Beijing’s Aug. 31 decree imposing restrictions on the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive (CE), was the spark that lit the protests. But democracy is just the vanguard of a clamor for wider change from the marginalized to the middle class. Since the 1997 handover, little has been done to diversify the economy away from real estate and finance, lower the ever higher cost of living or create new jobs.

Instead, the emphasis has been on pleasing Beijing, an agenda that Hong Kongers have rejected repeatedly — an anti-subversion law and the introduction of “national education” had to be scuttled after massive rallies in 2003 and 2012, respectively.

Public trust in an out-of-touch government — and in Beijing — has been severely eroded. Hong Kong, a global financial hub, may be outwardly rich — GDP per capita (PPP) is $53,000 — but, because wealth is so poorly distributed, nearly a fifth of the 7.2 million population lives below the local poverty line of $1,500 a month for a family of three. With current CE Leung Chun-ying seen as a Beijing lackey, a legislature controlled by Establishment figures and an economy dominated by tycoons, ordinary citizens have little choice but to turn to the streets to be heard.

China’s rulers and their Hong Kong proxies should listen, if only out of self-interest. Democracy is no panacea, but it makes those in power more accountable to the citizenry. To the argument that China would not allow more freedom in Hong Kong because it would create a precedent for the Chinese mainland and threaten the ruling Communist Party, the right response is that it’s about time Beijing understands the aspirations of some of its people. Civic consciousness in Hong Kong has been raised to the point that it cannot be bottled. If the territory — which is guaranteed significant autonomy until 2047 through a Sino-British agreement — is so dangerous, why do so many mainlanders wish to come here to study, work and live?

The alternative is that Hong Kong, the brightest star in China and normally a wonderfully easy place to run, will be further alienated and become harder to govern. Its tough tactics may enable Beijing to win today, but longer term, China would forfeit the support of an entire generation — a generation that stands not for subversion, as state media declare, but for hope, for Hong Kong and the entire nation.

Hope is what drew my great-grandfather to Hong Kong. He was then just in his early 20s, similar in age to so many of the protesters. If the Hong Kong dream is to be allowed to be all you can, he achieved it. I’d like to think that in the Hong Kong people pursuing that dream today, a part of my great-grandfather still lives.

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

The Hong Kong Protests Are Creating a More Ethnically Unified City

Members from Hong Kong's South Asian community take part in a protest for democracy on October 9, 2014 in the Central district of Hong Kong. Holing Yip

Many members of Hong Kong's non-Chinese community have been swept up in the Umbrella Revolution

Jeffrey Andrews, a 29-year-old social worker of Indian origin, got a call from a Pakistani friend on the night of Sept. 28, when thousands of Hong Kong people, many of them students, had begun to occupy the streets to demand greater democracy. “What are we doing?” his friend said. “We should be out there with the students, this is our city.”

Andrews agreed, and the next day they mobilized a group of about 35 of their peers, printed banners that read “Hong Kong is our home, we ethnic minorities strive for democracy” and headed to Admiralty, the main protest site. Andrews admits that he was unsure what kind of reception and acceptance they would get from the ethnically Chinese crowd.

“As soon as we got out with out banners people just applauded, and we were so encouraged,” he said. And they’ve been going back there every night since then.

Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have flooded the streets since the end of September, defying Beijing in a protest that is widely seen as the most politically significant movement in China in more than two decades. Among the crowds are many non-Chinese, who insist that they too belong to the Umbrella Revolution, as the protests are being called, and that it belongs to them.

“Of course it is our movement,” says 19-year-old Kenny Omar, born and brought up in Hong Kong but Somali by origin. “We’re born here, we’re citizens, we support them.”

“This is just as much my city as it is anyone else’s,” says Nick, 23, a filmmaker of Indian origin who did not wish to give his last name. “I think the movement is way past race and ethnicity, it’s deep down in the core of humanity.”

His friend Kamal Mirwani, a travel writer who proudly sports the iconic Hong Kong skyline as a tattoo down his right leg, says the drive for full political rights has real urgency. “This is our chance — this is the only chance we get,” he says.

According to the 2011 census, Hong Kong is home to over 450,000 people of non-Chinese ethnicity, making up 6.4% of its total population. Some, like the Indians and Parsis, trace their roots back to the founding of modern Hong Kong as a British colony in 1841, when they were drawn by the fledgling settlement’s possibilities for trade. Others, like the Pakistanis and the Nepalese, came to provide the policing and military muscle of what was then an outpost of the Raj. Still later communities — like the Indonesians, Thais and Filipinos — came in large numbers to do domestic work as Hong Kong prospered into a global financial hub.

A few non-Chinese, particularly from the South Asian community, have become fabulously wealthy. But in general, Hong Kong’s minorities often face various problems, particularly in the fields of education and employment. According to government statistics, nearly two-thirds of the ethnic minority population earns less than $500 a month, in a city where the median income is more than three times that.

For several of them, supporting Hong Kong’s democracy campaign takes precedence over their pocketbook woes. “I think with this movement right now, it’s so important that we’re focused on the development of democracy, that we’re not really talking explicitly about other issues,” said Holing Yip, research officer for ethnic minority advocacy group Hong Kong Unison. “People are noticing ethnic minorities being a part of Hong Kong, being participants.”

Yip points out that ethnic minorities have always been involved in protest movements in Hong Kong, but says that she has seen an overwhelming sense of solidarity that sets the Umbrella Revolution apart.

“They really see this as a movement that they need to be a part of,” Yip said.

Or at least most do. Others prefer to adopt a neutral stance. “It’s not my job to keep track of what’s happening,” said Mohammad Noor, a 63-year-old Bangladeshi who has lived in Hong Kong for nine years and sells snacks, dates and prayer caps outside the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre. “I think it is injustice to spoil this country,” he said. “It’s giving us a place to stay and work.”

Andrews says his group has faced some opposition of this nature, especially from older members of the community. “All of them say they’ve worked so hard to establish their businesses, and ask why we’re going against the flow of things,” he says. “Many of the Pakistanis even say their country has a great diplomatic relationship with China, that we’re going out and ruining it.” But he also says that negative comments make up only a sliver of the reaction they have encountered.

Unison’s Yip also detects a degree of fatalism. “One of the retorts would be ‘Even if the majority Chinese come out and they can’t do anything, what makes us feel like we can?’” she says. “But the others will say, ‘We are a part of this, if they are helpless, we are helpless too.’”

Nick, for his part, admits that he may not entirely subscribe to the ideology of the movement. But he says that’s irrelevant. “It’s less about whether I believe exactly in what’s going on, but I would be out there because I feel like it would affect the people of my city in the right way,” he says. “That’s why I’d be out there, to support them asking for what they believe is the right thing.”

“I think we’re finally being accepted as locals, we’re finally just like one of them,” says Andrews. “No matter what the result is going to be, at the end of the day I think we’re a much more unified Hong Kong than ever before.”

As the movement enters its fourth week, it’s becoming increasingly clear that — regardless of ethnicity — anyone who wants to get beneath the umbrella is welcome.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Accuses ‘External Forces’ of Aiding Protests

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying answers questions during a press conference in Hong Kong on October 16, 2014. PHILIPPE LOPEZ—AFP/Getty Images

The remarks, made to a local television channel in an interview on Sunday, have been rubbished by the pro-democracy protesters

Hong Kong’s embattled leader Leung Chun-ying has accused the city’s pro-democracy movement of being aided by foreign elements, echoing the Chinese government’s attitude toward the demonstrations that are now entering their fourth week.

Leung told a local TV channel in an interview Sunday that the protests are “not entirely a domestic movement, as external forces are involved,” according to the BBC. The chief executive (CE), as Hong Kong’s leader is officially known, did not elaborate on which foreign elements he suspected of interfering.

Hundreds of thousands have thronged Hong Kong’s streets since late September to demand a revision of Beijing’s insistence on pre-approving candidates for the city’s next CE election in 2017.

Student leaders have also been vocal in their demands for Leung, universally known by his initials C.Y., to resign, accusing the 60-year-old of putting fealty to Beijing above the city’s needs.

The Hong Kong government had earlier announced talks with the protest movement’s leadership, a week after negotiations had been canceled at the last moment. The meeting is due to be held on Tuesday.

“To make a statement that there are foreign powers infiltrating this movement right before the discussions is evidence that C.Y. [Leung] is hoping to crack down on the entire movement,” said Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of several groups spearheading the protests. He condemned Leung’s statement as “irresponsible” and urged him to provide evidence.

Lam Cheuk-ting, the head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, called Leung’s latest comments “ridiculous,” as “we can see that the participants are all volunteers, they are not mobilized by any organization or any political party.”

“If C.Y. [Leung] has any concrete evidence, I hope he can provide it to the public and to the media,” Lam told TIME.

Lam said Leung’s statement seemed deliberate and tactical, since the CE may be seeking to foster Beijing’s support for a stronger crackdown on protesters. “I don’t think he is under pressure by Beijing, but this is his tactic to mislead the Beijing government,” Lam said.

TIME Hong Kong

The Main Hong Kong Protest Site Is a Perfect Anarchist Collective

Members of the Occupied movement rest in their tents on a highway blocked by protestor barricades in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on October 16, 2014. ANTHONY WALLACE—AFP/Getty Images

There are no leaders, but everything, from the supply tents to the recycling stations, runs just beautifully

Billy Fong is out of a job.

Until recently, this high school student had found a purpose helping Hong Kong’s demonstrators over the high median dividers cutting through their encampment in the city’s Admiralty district.

Yet, as the occupation of Harcourt Road enters its fourth week, getting over the concrete walls has become easy: protesters handy with tools have made several sets of wooden stairs for them, complete with handrails.

“I have somehow become useless,” says Fong, 17, standing idly at one such set of steps on a recent evening. “But it’s okay,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Now I have more leisure time.”

Call Fong’s job a casualty of this protest’s maturation from an uncertain settlement to a bona fide village—a transformation that smacks of pure anarchism. Not anarchy, meaning chaos, but classical political anarchism: a self-organizing community that has no leader.

Protesters in Hong Kong share a common goal of getting Beijing to agree to free elections for the Hong Kong government’s top job in 2017 (at the moment, Beijing is insisting on screening candidates). But no one is fully in charge of these demonstrations, and protesters are split over how to get their demand answered. A lack of leadership is widely cited as one reason why the conflict has not come to a resolution.

Yet leaderlessness has not stopped Hong Kong demonstrators from achieving social consensus at their biggest protest site in skyscraper-hemmed Harcourt Road (or Umbrella Square, as the protesters now call it). These days, the six-lane thoroughfare turned tent community is a microcosm of the city that hosts it except for one detail: it does not have a chief executive, as Hong Kong’s leader is called.

“We don’t have a central command to do anything,” says Daris Wong, 30, a paralegal manning a Cantonese-English interpretation booth, the latest in his string of self-appointed protest gigs.

“It’s maybe the not so good thing about these protests,” he says, “but it’s also the most beautiful thing.”

Over the past few days, Harcourt Road has acquired suburbs of camping tents. Most tents have numbers. Some are recognized addresses. A letter was recently delivered by the Hong Kong Post Office to tent 22, according to the Democratic Party’s Facebook page.

Protesters need not bring their own accommodation. Last Friday, Pat, a freelance graphic designer who declined to give her last name, opened registration at 8:30 p.m. for 67 tents donated to the supplies station she helps run. The assembled tents are called the Freedom Quarter, she said, handing a young couple waiting in line a list of rules: cleanliness is a must; checkout time is noon on Saturday.

Protesters bedding-in will find their stay clean, if not necessarily comfortable. Do-gooders ensure that public restrooms around the site are stocked with a mind-boggling assortment of toiletries, from face moisturizer to conditioning shampoo, many of them designer brands. Student volunteers mop out the facilities too, because the municipal cleaners can’t keep pace with the high numbers of people passing through the washrooms every day.

Roving trash collectors meanwhile bring waste to designated recycling areas, where the items are sorted and carted out to the city’s trash-collection stations.

“I saw that it wasn’t being done, and someone has to do it,” says Henry Ip, 23, a college student making one of his twice-daily rounds through the site with a plastic trash bag.

Meanwhile, supply tents — there are several around Harcourt Road — have become bursting emporiums of water, towels, face masks, Oreo cookies and McDonalds takeout.

“It’s messy because I just got here,” says Isaac Hung, 24, a law student who works an informal day shift at one such station, gesturing to a sprawl of snacks and medical supplies. “Every shift, I fix it, and then I come back, and it’s all messy again.”

Hung’s supplies tent has two couches, mats that suffice as carpeting, and lighting fashioned from flashlights and saline solution bottles. A walkie-talkie on the floor crackles insistently. Supply stations use them to call on each other if one runs out of something

Conservation and consideration rule this camp. Wong, the paralegal, says he often tries to pass out lunchboxes to protesters, only to be turned down: “They say, ‘Save it for someone who needs it more,’” Wong says.

“So then I say, ‘O.K., but if you don’t take it, I will give it to the police,’” he adds. “Then, they take it.” As he speaks, students sitting in a sprawling study zone that the protesters have outfitted with desks, lamps, and power outlets, politely decline a volunteer stooping to offer them tiny cakes.

Like any village, this one also has its resident oddballs. One taciturn protester, wearing a skull-print ski mask pulled up to his eyes, passes plastic cups of soup to passerby. Glass bottles of beer bob inside in his big blue cooler. His area, furnished with a vase of sunflowers, is just one photographic opportunity for visitors wandering the protest village.

Art abounds, much of it inspired by the umbrellas that became the symbol of the movement after protesters used them to shield themselves from police pepper spray. There’s a tall statue of a figure holding out an umbrella that’s become the subject of countless Instagrams. A short distance away are exhibitions of photography and ink drawings. Tourists love to gather for photos in front of a long staircase leading up to the Central Government Offices that has become plastered with thousands of brightly colored Post-It notes, each bearing a message of support for the protesters. It’s been christened the Lennon Wall.

Not that life is always colorful here. Prominent pro-democracy figures — in fact anyone with something to say — give frequent lectures to considerable crowds, but “sometimes people get tired of public speeches,” says Ivy Chan, 40, a staffer for a Labor Party legislator and the organizer of nightly documentary screenings. She briefly interrupted a Friday night showing to let the sleepy-looking, supine crowd know she had found someone’s heart disease pills.

Meanwhile, a group of law students manning a tent for legal discussions were finding the hoped-for debates stymied by general agreement among those who stopped in. As Tilly Chow, 19, put it, “the people who are really against us aren’t here, and they don’t want to know what we have to say.” By midnight, the collective had drawn its tent door closed to discuss boiling a 60-something page legal analysis of the situation into something more concise.

Elsewhere, tents were faintly lit with the glow of Facebook’s smartphone app. A young man took a photo on his iPad of a young woman popping her head out of their newly erected tent and waited as she approved the pictures. Many people were already asleep, or at least trying.

Protesters, weathering criticism from conservative Hong Kongers and business owners tired of protests clogging major traffic arteries, have emphasized that this demonstration is not a jubilant sleepover. A sign posted in the main encampment reads: “Not a Party, is a Protest.”

Indeed, as midnight neared, three young women paused at a quiet, unclaimed plot of pavement and began unspooling tarp from a bag, looking anything but party-ready.

“This is not fun,” says Tracy Leung, 28, who works for a retail chain, holding a corner of the rumpled canvas, which she hoped would eventually be a tent, but did not yet look like one.

“No one likes to sleep on the street,” added her colleague, Carol Lee, 26.

But they had a critical role to play in this village, the three friends said.

“I’m here as one more body,” said Leung. “Because for every one less body here, it gets more dangerous for everyone else.”

TIME Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, No Endgame for Chaotic Protests

With protesters and the authorities refusing to back down, hopes for a peaceful resolution are ebbing away

(HONG KONG) — Three weeks ago, students at a rally stormed a fenced-off courtyard outsideHong Kong’s government headquarters, triggering unprecedented mass protests for greater democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese city.

Since then, the movement has spiraled into a volatile and dangerous crisis with no clear endgame. Support for protesters is fast waning, as days of violent clashes between activists, their opponents and police overshadow the movement. Vast differences over political reforms divide the students and the government. Key thoroughfares remain closed. Some protesters are digging in for the long haul at the main occupation zone, while others fight to retake ground lost to police.

Against this backdrop, a government offer to negotiate with students appears highly unlikely to resolve the largest uprising since the former British colony returned to Chinese control 17 years ago.

“The endgame is nowhere in sight,” said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University ofHong Kong. “Short of using a high degree of force, which might exacerbate dissatisfaction among the public, it looks like neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government has what it takes to defuse the crisis.”

Here are three key questions as the democracy protests continue to unfold:

What is the Hong Kong government’s strategy?

Hong Kong authorities have been inconsistent both in handling the students’ call for political reform and in tactics to clear the streets.

The city’s highly unpopular leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying — known as CY — angered protesters when he abruptly called off scheduled talks last week, saying a constructive outcome was unlikely. He then revived the proposal for talks a week later, amid soaring tensions and public anger over a video showing police beating a handcuffed protester.

Even if the talks materialize, chances that they could resolve the deadlock quickly are slim. Leung repeatedly has said that Beijing will not give in to the students’ demand to open up nominations for the city’s inaugural direct election in 2017, and he has little wiggle room to offer compromises to the students.

“At this stage, Beijing is running the show. Beijing is dictating ways and means that it hopes theHong Kong government will take to defuse the crisis,” Lam said.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s police appear entirely unprepared as they face a level of civil unrest not seen in the territory for decades.

A heavy-handed strategy of unleashing tear gas to disperse protesters on Sept. 28 and detaining student leaders backfired, drawing more supporters to the streets.

Police then veered toward a softer approach, leaving the protest zones alone. This week they carried out surprise pre-dawn operations to retake parts of the streets — including clearing out the second-biggest encampment, in blue-collar Mong Kok — but those actions appear to have triggered a backlash from angry protesters. Hundreds returned to Mong Kok on Friday, leaving the area convulsed in chaos for hours as police tried to hold back the crowds.

The volatility and Leung’s ineffective leadership are putting huge pressure on police to maintain order, said Steve Vickers, former head of intelligence with the colonial-era Royal Hong Kong Police Force, who now runs his own risk consultancy.

“The absence of any dialogue between the government and the public puts the police in a very exposed position,” he said. “The inability of the Hong Kong government to directly make decisions is exacerbating the situation. What I’m saying is CY’s not fully in charge.”

With Beijing appearing to want to avoid both bloodshed and a compromise with the student leaders, Lam said, “we have the making of a stalemate.”

Where does the protest movement stand now?

From the start, a key feature of the protests has been their amorphous and organic nature. Three groups at the heart of the movement have rallied the crowds and led efforts to negotiate protesters’ demands with the government, but there is no central leadership. Many taking part say the groups, headed by students and a law professor, do not represent them.

That spontaneity appealed to many supporters, but it’s become clear that the movement is unraveling at the edges and losing its unity of purpose.

As the standoff drags on, factions of more radical protesters are breaking off from the peaceful sit-ins at the main protest zone. For several nights in a row, large, rowdy crowds have stepped up their tactics to gain control of streets, scuffling with riot police. Others responded to calls on social media for flash mobs and what police condemned as “guerrilla tactics,” sporadically rushing into traffic to dump barriers in the road before running away.

Most protesters say they want the movement to stay peaceful, and some are frustrated by the divisions among activists.

The video of police officers kicking a handcuffed protester — and images of police dragging activists away and aiming pepper spray at protesters’ faces — have ignited even more volatility.

On Thursday, student leaders urged protesters not to let anger at police distract from the movement’s core purpose, or drive more ugly scenes that would spoil the movement’s public image.

“We came here to protest, not to let out our emotions,” Joshua Wong, an 18-year-old student leader, told protesters.

What are the likely outcomes?

The Hong Kong government now faces myriad scenarios, none of them particularly palatable.

Both sides could try to move forward on talks based on minor compromises. Officials hinted Thursday that there could be room for maneuvering over how a committee that nominates Hong Kong’s leader is picked, and that changes to elections could take place after 2017.

“If we don’t do it in 2017, we could try to do it in 2022,” Leung said.

The students could also be placated by Leung’s resignation, though it’s unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping would allow that, given his hard-line stance on dissent in China’s other outlying regions, such as Tibet.

In the shorter term, authorities could continue trying to wait the students out while police clear more protest zones in surprise raids. The strategy could be used to shut down the third and smallest site, in the Causeway Bay shopping district, where as few as 30 protesters were occupying about 100 meters (yards) of road on Friday morning.

But chances of success are less certain at the main site in Admiralty, a sprawling zone filled with tents, banners and protest art.

Vickers said the single biggest risk in the days ahead is the escalation of clashes between the protesters and their opponents, including triads, or criminal gangs who are widely suspected of being paid by shadowy pro-Beijing groups to stir up trouble.

“Police are going to be caught between the two groups, and that is not a nice place to be,” he said.

TIME Hong Kong

Fresh Clashes in Hong Kong As Thousands Take to the Streets

Protesters recapture Mong Kok occupation site

Thousands of people in Hong Kong recaptured a protest site Friday night that was cleared by police just a few hours before, in a show of force by the almost three-week-old movement demanding greater democratic rights.

Hundreds of police officers attempted to keep the boiling crowds in the Mong Kok area at bay, many times with the use of batons and pepper spray, but to no avail. Around midnight, a canopy of umbrellas—an icon for the protest movement—triumphantly started moving down the thoroughfare of Nathan Road, trailing scores of retreating police officers.

“This sends the message that we can’t be suppressed or bullied, we will fight back,” said 17-year-old high school student Joel Christian Banerjee Dilan on the front line. “We’re not scared anymore.”

Since Sept. 28, protesters have occupied three areas of Hong Kong with the help of roadblocks and camping sites. They’re demanding the right for citizens to nominate their political leaders, but have so far received no concessions from the government. As their numbers started dwindling over the past week, authorities grew emboldened and became more aggressive trying to clear the protesters. But scenes of police violence have incensed the population, and boosted support for the protesters’ cause.

On Friday morning, police expeditiously tore down the barricades and tents of the Mong Kok protest site, leading to a call on social media to recapture the lost ground in the evening. As thousands of people bore down on the neighborhood, some cited anger with the police force as one of the main reasons they had shown up.

“They’re puppets, scum, they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Peter Ho, a 50-year-old trader.

Joel Christian Banerjee Dilan said not all officers were aggressive, but that the actions of a few were affecting the corps as a group. Ling Cheng, a 26-year-old wedding consultant, said she had never been afraid of the police, even though she always brings her protective goggles to the protests. “But I’m scared of the police now, they’re so rude,” she said.

Others said they were there because of the tactical use of the Mong Kok site.

“If we lose Mong Kok, then all the police can go to [the central site in] Admiralty,” said 26-year-old environmental engineer student Kwong Leong. “Then everything might be lost.”

The evening was fought on several fronts, as both sides tried to gain new ground as well as hold what they had already grabbed. With throngs of increasingly frustrated people spilling into alleyways adjoining the central boulevards, it was often a losing battle for the police. At the front line on Nathan Road, they whacked indiscriminately at the wall of umbrellas poking in their direction, dousing it with pepper spray—but had no alternative other than to fall back when protesters poured in from their sides.

Scuffles and heckling continued well into the first hours of Saturday on the fringes of the protest, with incidents involving police officers in riot gear drawing scattered roars from around the neighborhood. Some were busying themselves with erecting new barricades. Inside, on the newly occupied swathe of asphalt, several sleeping mats had already been carried in, aiding protesters to a moment of rest after several hours of tense altercations.

Police officers also took turns sitting down and having something to eat, the two groups curiously at ease in each others vicinity once not pitted eye-to-eye on a front line. It’s a few moments of well-deserved comfort, seeing that clashes erupt with increasing regularity.

Calvin Chung, 25, was busy raising a tent, even though he professed to not knowing how. “I’m a little bit afraid of violence during the night, but I get my courage from the people. You see,” he gestured around him.“I’m not alone.”

Video by Helen Regan

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TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Braced for More Clashes as Protesters Threaten to Recapture Site

A pro-democracy protester cries in front of a line of policemen on a blocked road, after police removed barricades at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong October 17, 2014. Tyrone Siu—Reuters

Battle lines are hardening in an increasingly divided city

Online calls have been issued for barriers to be rebuilt at one of Hong Kong’s main democracy protest sites.

Hundreds of Hong Kong police officers in riot gear raided the site at Mong Kok early Friday morning, clearing barricades and tents, but failing to shift protesters, many of whom refuse to leave the area they have inhabited for the past 18 days.

They continue to block southbound traffic on Nathan Road—the densely populated Kowloon peninsula’s main artery.

Users of a massively popular local Internet forum, the Hong Kong Golden forum, defiantly called for barriers to be rebuilt in Mong Kok on Friday night.

Known as “golden jai” (golden boys), the forum users comprise the more radical arm of the city’s democracy movement, and were believed to be responsible for an attempt to reoccupy a major thoroughfare in the government and financial district on Hong Kong Island on Tuesday.

The ensuing melee on Lung Wo Road became one of the most vicious set pieces of the three-week long protests, with 45 people arrested, and a prominent political activist savagely assaulted by police officers unaware that a television news crew was filming every blow.

Allegations of police brutality and images of wounded protesters have in recent days reignited public support for the movement, which is demanding that the powerful head of the city’s government, known as the Chief Executive, be directly elected from a list of candidates freely put forward by the city’s 3.5 million voters.

The central government in Beijing is insisting that Hong Kong’s leader must be chosen from a small field of candidates screened by a pro-establishment electoral committee.

In a bid to break the deadlock, embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Thursday he was willing to push ahead with “dialog” with the protesters alongside the restoration of “order in Hong Kong, according to the laws of Hong Kong, as quickly as we can.”

The government scrapped talks with student leaders just a week ago, claiming that dialog was “impossible.”

Its reluctant resumption of negotiations with the same cocksure youths—clad in jeans and t-shirts scrawled with political slogans—is a reflection of the growing impact of the three-week-long protest, which is now the most significant political movement in China since the 1989 Tiananmen occupation in Beijing.

Alex Chow Yong-kang, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, welcomed the government’s announcement of renewed talks, but told the South China Morning Post that “if [Leung] is offering to talk but at the same time ordering police to clear the scene violently, the people will know how sincere he is.”

The Chief Executive has drawn scorn for his insistence that open nomination of candidates for the 2017 election is not on the table.

“This shows that the Chief Executive doesn’t actually want to discuss anything,” said Kee Ma, a 60-year-old retired pharmacist camping out at the main protest site in Admiralty.

Other protesters are still upset about the heavy-handed police action in the last few days.

“The Chief Executive needs to apologize for police brutality,” said Mars Leung, 20, who, like many at the Admiralty camp, quit his job in order to participate in the protests full-time. “These statements just make people more angry.”

TIME Culture

Tear Gas and the Betrayal of Hong Kong

Protestors Continue To Resist As Police Attempt To Clear Protest Sites
On October 16, 2014 in Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters continue to call for open elections and the resignation of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Alexander Koerner—Getty Images

Protesters in our city used to have a trusting relationship with the police, but these latest protests reveal a growing chasm

On Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, we stood among the estimated 80,000 Hong Kong protestors in the Admiralty neighborhood that hosts the government headquarters when tear gas began raining down on us. The effects were immediate: a searing and near-paralyzing burn of our skin, eyes, nasal passages, and lungs that intensified with each attack, which totaled 87 rounds and an unknown number of canisters in nine different locations that night. Discomfort lasted for days afterward.

We are American expatriates who have lived in Hong Kong for years studying policy challenges facing transitional societies, but don’t normally consider ourselves activists. We were out there because we have seen a disturbing erosion in the political freedoms and rights promised to our city since the 1997 handover to China, when it was agreed that Hong Kong would operate under “one country, two systems” for 50 years until 2047. Concern bubbled to the surface in 2003, when the Hong Kong government proposed security legislation that gave it the power to quash “subversion” defined broadly to including legitimate dissidence and free speech. A 2012 effort to introduce national education reform promoting controversial “Chinese patriotism lessons” heightened concern. Both proposals were shelved after massive public protests, which were legal. Now, despite allowing everyone to vote for the Chief Executive in 2017, Beijing has established an ideological litmus test (candidates must “love the country”) and raised the requirements for becoming a candidate such that it effectively allows the Chinese Communist Party to choose the winner. In addition, fears were further raised by the language and timing of a June 2014 “white paper” that made it clear Hong Kong enjoys its autonomy entirely at the Chinese Communist Party’s discretion, sparking this movement that has gone beyond legal protests into occupying roads and other forms of civil disobedience.

Moreover, we were in the streets to acknowledge the growing discontent among Hong Kong residents over a widening economic disparity and the government’s role in creating it. In a city of millionaires and billionaires, where many well-off Mainland visitors happily spend their wealth, one-fifth of Hong Kong’s population currently lives below the poverty line (equivalent to $461 a month). Small business owners and entrepreneurs are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the escalating rent. The uneven distribution of wealth has only been exacerbated by Beijing’s strategy of allowing a few friendly tycoons’ businesses to grow exponentially, thereby consolidating power in a manageable number of “leaders” and stabilizing the political environment.

Our friends and family have been split about whether these protests are the right approach. Those who oppose the protest tend to view the relationship between China and Hong Kong as one of parent and child, do not see real threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, and focus on the short-term view that Beijing will never give Hong Kong genuine universal suffrage when other parts of China don’t have it. But we reject the parent-child analogy of politics, and hold a longer view that is corroborated by history: citizen protests, even ones that fail, are often necessary for societies to take incremental steps towards more equal and accountable states. We all share a baseline concern for the instability and economic distress brought about by protests, but we differ in choosing to weather the storm or to try to oppose the government directly.

We chose the more direct approach, which is how we ended up with the surreal experience of getting tear-gassed for the first time. Hong Kong protesters have long played by the rules—seeking advanced approval for polite, organized marches. And the police have long enjoyed not only a sterling international reputation for their restraint when controlling crowds, but also a tight-knit and trusting relationship with the people. So we in Hong Kong have relegated tear gas in our collective consciousness to Hollywood or war zones, not thinking it would be possible in one of the safest and most orderly cities in the world.

Until it was. While we got away with minimal injuries, we saw plenty of people who were doubled over in pain on the street crying as others washed out their eyes, or gasping for air. The protestors’ attempts to shield themselves with umbrellas have given rise to the nickname of this protest as the “Umbrella Movement.” Beyond its health effects, the tear gas helped us recognize the chasm that had been growing between the Hong Kong government and its people.

Beneath the shimmering skyscrapers, Hong Kong has prided itself on the rule of law and self-restraint when it comes to using the overwhelming force it possesses. This illusion was destroyed when the police crossed the line into violence: resorting to pepper spray, batons, and tear gas against peaceful protesters. It was further aggravated by an element of unchecked thuggery – organized bands, many with suspected triad connections, attacked protesters in the city’s Mong Kok area on Oct. 3 and 4. The police largely stood by while this happened, in contrast to their earlier willingness to use force against peaceful protestors. Hong Kong residents realized that they had mistaken the orderliness and proceduralism of the Hong Kong government for benevolence.

The way in which the police carried out tear gas attacks on Sept. 28 is even more worrisome. In both Admiralty and Central districts, we saw police hurl gas canisters haphazardly, often into unsuspecting crowds, letting the toxins disperse in the air, attacking without regard to subject or intent. In an ensuing press conference, the police officially justified their decision in the name of public safety, saying they launched the tear gas to prevent stampedes and restore order. From what we have seen in our studies, however, gassing usually causes chaotic stampedes and injury. The only reason there were not massive injuries was the surprising levelheadedness of the protesters. With each attack, the protesters walked calmly away; the uninjured ones then returned under the instruction of organizers once the gas had dissipated. The police have reiterated their justifications. The public response was telling: citizen participation in the protest surged after the tear gas and reports of thuggery.

Tear gas and other forms of violence are, of course, used by police to quell protests all over the world, and some commentators have been correct to point out that the police response could have been much more brutal elsewhere. However, these protests have typically been more peaceful and orderly than elsewhere—we witnessed protesters cleaning the streets in between rounds of tear gas, and when we saw some people throwing water bottles at the riot police, other protesters quickly admonished them. This rarity that has caught the attention of the international community, and the violence happened in a place where the police don’t typically react this way. So the situation felt like a betrayal. The time the decision was made to launch the first canister of tear gas was the moment the trust between state and citizen, and especially between the Hong Kong police and people, was lamentably lost. Whether that trust can be regained is entirely up to the government.

The actions of the administration during this protest do not bode well for the civility of future Hong Kong protests. And indeed, after a brief lull, the situation has escalated perhaps inevitably: in the early morning of Oct. 15 police took action to clear protesters from a road with batons and pepper spray, but also attacked human rights observers wearing identification. And, a video has surfaced of police allegedly beating a handcuffed protestor whom they suspected of throwing water at them. The Hong Kong protesters have shown enormous self-discipline in adhering to the principle of non-violence thus far, but that may not last forever.

It’s highly likely the Umbrella Movement protestors took note of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in March to April of this year when students rose to combat a rushed trade agreement with China, fearing that economic dependence would eventually become a political crutch as well. There, too, students went from largely legal protests to occupying the legislature for several weeks. There, too, the police responded with violence (water cannons and batons). There, too, the students remained organized, peaceful, self-governing, and highly considerate. (For example, they designated smoking quotas so as to not discomfort non-smokers and they cleaned the legislative building when they finally left.) To end the protests, the government promised to initiate a review of the trade agreement and to implement greater legislative transparency, which are still being negotiated. We can only hope—though we acknowledge it is sadly unlikely—that Hong Kong’s protests get resolved in a similar way.

Taiwan is, of course, a democratic system that is more accountable to the population, while the Hong Kong government is under no such constraint. Indeed, that is the existential issue behind the protests, and certainly not one that can be resolved with tear gas.

Bon Cheng, M.D., is a senior health policy analyst at the Hong Kong-based Panopticon Foundation, a nonprofit institute that supports the study of societies transitioning to new forms of economic, political, and social organization.

Yvonne Chiu, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong and the director of the Panopticon Foundation.

Bon Cheng and Yvonne Chiu wrote this piece for Zocalo Public Square, a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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