What's Going On In Hong Kong — And Why You Should Care

456386344Photo: Courtesy of Getty.
On Sunday, September 29, a growing pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong erupted. Over 50,000 people took to the streets. Police retaliated aggressively, launching tear gas canisters, beating crowds back with batons, and arresting hundreds — but the crackdown galvanized the movement and brought international media. Protesters haven’t left the streets since.
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They have two concrete demands: the right to democratically elect the city’s chief executive; and the resignation of its current head, CY Leung. The protests broke into the news this week, but the discontent has been simmering for years.
When Hong Kong, a former British colony, rejoined China in 1997, it was on the condition that the city would retain its economic and political freedoms. The so-called “one country, two systems” agreement promised full suffrage by 2017. Last month, the Beijing government undercut that promise saying everyone could vote — but only for a small pool of candidates that Beijing chose.
A student protest of Beijing’s decision, led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong, started last week. It was soon joined by Hong Kong Occupy movement (the full name is Occupy Central with Peace and Love) — and then grew to engulf the city. We spoke with a handful of young Hong Kong women who joined the protest, to see why they took to the streets — and what’s at stake for their city’s future.
Bo Hui, 30, is a photographer; Charmaine Mok, 28, an editor; Kelly Chan, 28, works in PR. All were born and raised in Hong Kong. Tiffany Ap, 26, is a reporter who was born in Australia but grew up in HK. Conversations were conducted separately and edited together for clarity.
IMG_20140929_201604Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Chan.
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When did you join the protests?
Bo Hui: I first joined the student protest on Saturday, September 27. I brought food to the students who’d occupied the central government building over the previous night. After the events on Sunday, I have returned every day since. I joined initially in solidarity with the student protests — but the police violence [on Sunday] pushed me to be more resolute.
Charmaine Mok: I’ve been following it since the beginning, but the heavy-handedness on Saturday of the police — using batons, pushing people around — was a huge concern to me because there were students protesting peacefully. I usually go to every July 1 and October 1 demonstration — but on Sunday, when things really kicked up, with the tear gas and the pepper spray, I joined, and I’ve been out every night since.
Kelly Lan: It started to pick up steam when Joshua Wong, the protest’s student leader, was arrested and his home was searched by the police. It made people very emotional. After that, since Sunday, there have been people gathering every day.
Did you experience the police crackdown yourselves?
Tiffany Ap: I was out Sunday until about midnight. I was walking through Central Station, and I could feel my eyes burning, so I put on my mask and goggles. But, I was confused: Why would they tear-gas a metro station? But, they hadn’t. They’d just used so much tear gas outside it was literally seeping into the station.
Outside there was a line of 50 police...and about a dozen cars, pushing the crowd back. And, I thought, at this moment, this is crazy. Tear-gas canisters were falling in so many different places, you had to dodge them. I was always lucky — I could always run fast enough, but I did see people bowled over. I gave water to this guy who’d been hit really bad. It makes you nauseous. You feel like you need to puke, but you can’t.
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IMG_20140929_212108Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Chan.
The protesters themselves have been lauded for being very organized and very peaceful. What’s it like out there?
CM: It feels very much like a grassroots movement. There are always protests, but in years past, they’ve felt hijacked by special-interest groups. This time, there’s no kind of obvious political agenda, other than that we want the government to listen to us. There are no glossy, printed banners. It’s all people writing on the streets, making music, singing. It feels completely different from anything else that’s been happening over the last 10 years.
KL: This movement changed my impression of university students of Hong Kong. People talk about Generation Y as very lazy; they just like to shop, they are pampered by their parents, they are spoiled rich brats. But, I’m very proud that our young generation — they’re very well-disciplined and educated. Students are volunteering to distribute masks, they have teams to pick up plastic bottles to recycle them, other teams to collect litter and paper. There are teams with first-aid licenses out volunteering to help.
Are the protesters mostly young people?
CM: Initially it was a very young demographic, but now even my own parents — who have been very cynical about the government for a long time — they saw the violence against students Sunday night. Since that night, they’ve been out.
If you’re 17 in Hong Kong, you were born the year the British returned the city to China. What’s at stake for this generation?
TA: I’m lucky because I have two passports. If this goes down, I can go to Australia. But, for the kids who are not lucky enough to have that option, it’s very cutthroat. To get ahead, you have to have enough money to go overseas; there aren’t enough spaces in the universities for the students graduating high school. If you’re the average Hong Konger, [and] you did not super-well but okay on your exams, you just get totally screwed over.
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It’s awoken a lot of people to Hong Kong’s future. You see a lot of older people as well now. It’s like there’s a new energy, and it’s a new chapter in our city.
IMG_20140929_202206Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Chan.
From this side of the world, all we hear is that the protests are about the vote. Is that what’s driving it, or has it become something bigger?
CM: We’re fighting for Hong Kong. It’s sad, but you hear people say “The city is dying.” We’ve seen it throughout the years. Our human rights are being slowly eroded by Beijing.
It’s all smoke and mirrors: They say, yes, we’re giving you democracy — and then they find a way to make it meaningless. The fact that they’re pre-nominating candidates…It’s a slap in the face. If we allow this to go by, if we accept this, what’s going to happen after that? I think this is really a turning point. We’ve gone through a lot of challenges, and we’ve all fought against then — and I think we need to keep on fighting.
BH: We often read that Hong Kong has the most millionaires per capita in the whole world, but it also has unbelievable levels of inequality: people living at the bottom of society, forced to live in cage homes, or in sub-divided apartments with space for only a bed and nothing more.
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There is little in the way of a safety net or welfare for the elderly, and [there's] an obscene minimum wage. The government could implement policies to raise the living standards of normal people, but instead it prioritizes the interests of a small clique of property developers and business tycoons who control everything.
Alongside that is a general degradation — attacks on free speech in the press, attempts to subvert the education curriculum — it’s really caused the feeling that this city has a bleak future. Young people wouldn’t be out on the street in such numbers if they felt they had any hope for their future.
KL: I also think the protests are important globally: I have friends in Ukraine who have told me on Facebook “All of Ukraine is watching” — you know, they just had a revolution.
There is a lot of empathy and support from around the world — but it’s also a very good chance for the world to know what we’re up to. It demonstrates the quality of Hong Kong people and tells them that we are actually ready for democracy. We are educated, organized people — we are not a mob — and we’re ready for democracy.
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