October 9, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

For the past two weeks, unprecedented pro-democracy street demonstrations have rocked Hong Kong, with protesters calling on China to stay out of the harbor’s internal politics. TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey documented the democratic movement, witnessing the protesters’ incredible resilience and organization. “The interconnectedness of the thousands of demonstrators has created a reform movement that is organic, seemingly without well-defined leadership, and behaving like a single organism,” he tells TIME. “It has organized itself spontaneously to provide every level of social needs. It embodies, with a highly developed sense of integrity, the core values of communalism and common cause. It is deeply non-violent, which makes it even stronger. Any nation which possesses people of such quality, capability and talent, would do well to embrace them and empower them, not crush them.”

They have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed by police, pushed and punched by their opponents, drenched by torrential rain. Still, they stay. Since Sept. 22, in a historic act of civil disobedience, pro-democracy demonstrators—the overwhelming majority of them students—have occupied key financial and retail districts in one of the world’s great cities: Hong Kong. When their camps were attacked by thugs who the protesters say were backed by the state, more than 100,000 people rallied for peace. When the authorities set an Oct. 6 deadline for them to clear out, they held fast. Says 17-year-old Jennifer Wong, who is in high school: “I choose to stand up.”

The Western, a treasured genre on life support in the new Hollywood, shows up in full regalia or in metaphorical disguise in four Cannes entries

The protesters are standing up for a say in government, starting with the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive (CE). Until now, the CE has been chosen by a 1,200-member electoral college made up largely of Hong Kong’s political and business elite. In 2017 the public will be allowed to vote for the CE, but the leadership in China, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, has imposed conditions. Candidates must be vetted for “patriotism,” and only two or three can run. Officials say the new system represents progress; critics say it’s rigged to stifle dissent.

Young people are particularly concerned. Hong Kong is a rich city, but its wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Big business, particularly the city’s real estate sector, has inordinate influence over government policy. High property prices prevent many people from owning homes. Wages are stagnant. “We don’t see good prospects for our future,” says Katie Lo, 21, a university student.

That future would be brighter with democracy, Hong Kong’s youth believe, because it—at least in theory—would make the government more responsive to public needs. “People say
to me, ‘If you want to change the world, go to university, then work as a government administrator or a businessman,’” says Joshua Wong, a protest leader who turns 18 this month.

The classic Washington political drama—will he go or will he stay?—is now swirling around Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It could be weeks or months before we know the answer. Good, his critics might retort. He may end up waiting as long to learn his fate as some of those veterans have waited for appointments with one of his 300,000 employees. The critics have a point. Despite the high grades the VA gets for tending to the ailments of the nation's vets, it has always had problems seeing them quickly enough when they need help—or are seeking disability benefits. Such wait-list problems have persisted for years, even as the VA's budget has tripled, to $150 billion annually, since 9/11. The VA debate over fudged appointment waiting times—possibly leading to vet deaths—reached a critical point over the weekend. There was a call from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank on Sunday that Shinseki should go ("His maddeningly passive response to the scandal suggests that the best way Shinseki can serve now is to step aside.") That was echoed by the independent Army Times' newspaper, which said in an editorial that "allowing the status quo at VA to remain intact is unacceptable." Even Duffel Blog, a military version of the Onion, got into the act. "VA: Please Hold," it headlined a post. "You Should Hang Up And Just Watch Cat Videos Instead." Once a political predicament has curdled into farce, the sharks begin circling. The scent of blood in the water spiked Friday when Shinseki accepted the premature retirement of Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health care. But Shinseki has his defenders. "The President is madder than hell" over the mess at the VA, White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. Shinseki, he added, "will continue to work these issues until they're fixed." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also have endorsed Shinseki's continuing tenure. Dr. Sam Foote, a key VA whistleblower, said Sunday that Shinseki should remain on the job. “I think our best bet at this point is to keep the secretary onboard," he told Fox News, "but I think the President needs to keep him on a pretty short leash." Following two of the nation's longest wars, the VA has become a political tool, because veterans are a potent political force. Like politicians embracing the status quo on Social Security, there is scant downside to nodding in agreement with whatever veterans say. There was a lot of heat at last week's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing where Shinseki and Petzel testified, but little illumination, from them or anyone else. It's worth noting that beyond the American Legion, which has called for Shinseki's replacement, most veterans groups support, or haven't take a position on, Shinseki's future. But the anger among some veterans is palpable. Shinseki, in his low monotone, seems unperturbed by the problems happening on his watch. Such stoicism—probably a combination of his 38 years in uniform and his Japanese heritage—doesn't play well in today's political arena. It seems as if you're not breathing fire, you don't care. Army Times, in its editorial calling for Shinseki's ouster, noted that he's not a chest-thumping, bellowing commander. "Going back to his four-star days as Army chief of staff, Shinseki has long been recognized as a behind-the-scenes leader, one who uses his influence outside the public eye," its editorial said. "Unfortunately, that’s simply the wrong style for what VA needs now." Apparently, style over substance is now a job requirement at the VA. It's worth recalling that it was more than a decade ago, that Shinseki, then the Army chief, told another Senate panel—the armed services committee—that it would likely take "several hundred thousand soldiers" to pacify Iraq post-invasion. His best military assessment angered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who thought far fewer troops would be needed. Shinseki's public pronouncement left him a lame-duck member of the Joint Chiefs as the nation waged two wars, even as history ended up siding with him. Yet Shinseki's estimate delighted the commentariat. It seems his low-key, just-the-facts, style worked better pre-war than post-war.
James Nachtwey for TIME

“No, to affect the world, you go to the streets.” Many citizens are tired of the disruptions to
their lives and want to reclaim those streets—a growing sentiment that officials may exploit to pressure the students in coming talks. Protesters are getting weary too. On the night of Oct. 7, only about 2,000 were at the main rally point, compared with the tens of thousands before. Still, Hong Kong has undergone a political awakening. Says Emily Lau, 62, a legislator and the head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party: “Once people have been shown their power, they know how to use it again.”

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

Emily Rauhala is Beijing Correspondent for TIME. With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Hannah Beech and Nash Jenkins.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Write to Emily Rauhala at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com.

You May Also Like