“Did you ever think you would see anything like this in Hong Kong? I never thought I would see anything like this in Hong Kong,” a resident marvelled as we rounded the corner of the flyover and saw for the first time just how many people had flowed into the roads around the government offices at Admiralty.
Hong Kong is no stranger to large-scale protests pushing back against Beijing: huge numbers took to the streets over controversial security laws in 2003 and plans for compulsory “patriotic education” two years ago – on both occasions prompting backdowns, though few expect a similar outcome this time.
Nor was Sunday night exactly chaotic, despite the bursts of teargas from police and the impromptu protests that sprang up at fresh locations. There were first-aid stations, litter-collection points and frequent bursts of applause: for people delivering water, or police helping an unconscious protester. The crowds swarmed around small numbers of officers repeatedly, trying to stop them moving in, but held their hands in the air to indicate they intended no malice. Upturned umbrellas blossomed across sections of the crowds to ward off pepper spray and more teargas.
In many ways it was a very Hong Kong protest, down to the protesters who politely explained that they would not be present the next day as they needed to go to work.
But the resident saw something unique in the exuberance and spontaneity of the peaceful crowd – preempting plans to launch the civil-disobedience movement on Wednesday, a national holiday – combined with the tough tactics of the police. It is the first time officers have fired teargas in Hong Kong for almost a decade.
Whether Sunday’s events will do anything to shift the views of the many people here who think of Occupy Central as inconvenient or ill-judged remains to be seen. Many protesters acknowledged that large sections of the region’s population remain politically conservative and more focused on maintaining economic stability than fighting for rights.
“You never see Hong Kong people grouping together; they always want to work and earn money,” said Melissa Lam, a 27-year-old sales assistant.
She had never protested before, but the police reaction to the students made her feel she had to act.
“I was watching TV while I ate dinner and when I saw what the police did I almost cried. My family said: You don’t have to go there – you can’t do anything in front of China; you can’t change anything ... But I think I had to come. There’s no excuse. If you don’t stand up today there’s no tomorrow,” she said.
In theory the protests are about whether the universal suffrage promised to Hong Kong will be delivered or not. Beijing says that one person, one vote for the next chief executive, marks a step forward; its critics say the restrictions on candidates are so tight as to make that meaningless.
In reality, most here seem to see the protests as being about whether the region can retain its independently minded identity: about defending its rights and culture, rather than advancing them.
“We want to protect the democracy of Hong Kong,” said Templi Wong, 17.
Fifty-year-old businessman Lawrence Ku added: “Hong Kong’s freedoms have been getting less and less since the handover. We just want to have the freedom like before.”
Ku said he also feared that an influx of mainland migrants meant that soon “Hong Kong won’t be Hong Kong”, reflecting a widespread and growing sentiment.
The protesters are determined to maintain the rights and liberties unimaginable to their counterparts on the mainland. There was alarm that 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong was held for more than 40 hours without charge – but a high court judge ordered his unconditional release on Sunday, telling police that the Scholarism leader had been held for an “unreasonably” long time. He urged the police to treat two other student leaders fairly; Lester Shum and Alex Chow were reportedly released not long afterwards.
Officers unfurled signs warning that they would fire teargas before doing so. Officials stressed that riot officers, though equipped with rubber bullets, had not used them.
But the sight of police wearing helmets and respirators was unfamiliar and chilling in itself to many, even before the canisters were deployed.
Hong Kong has often shown its spirit most forcefully when it feels under pressure from Beijing: now it is doing so again. Yet this time it faces an increasingly assertive leadership on the mainland which, thanks to China’s economic growth, no longer needs to be as careful of the financial centre as it once was. The real battle is not over the 2017 election as much as the region’s long term expectations and aspirations.
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