Is the Umbrella Revolution over? An update on Hong Kong’s 51-day ‘occupation’ parallel to APEC


It all started one day, almost two months ago, when listening to the radio. Hong Kong, a very far away region from my side of the hemisphere, had been literally taken by young students, acording to a Peruvian correspondent in China. What did they want? Apparently, democracy. I asked myself what Rafael, a friend from Hong Kong I met last year, would be doing in his home country.

What the city of Mong Kok looks like currently (South China Morning Post)

What the city of Mong Kok looks like currently (South China Morning Post)

Fifty one days have passed since that day, September 27th, and the ‘occupation’ of Hong Kong’s main cities is now a landscape of new communities with its own means of communication and supplies, filled with young protesters defying three High Court injuctions requiring them to leave the streets. Recently, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum gathered world leaders and representatives from not-so-strong economies, like Peru’s President. Of course, it was expected for the agenda to include only economic issues and completly ignore the so-called Umbrella Revolution. Not that the protesters really cared, according to The Wall Street Journal, although a group of pro-democracy leaders did announce planning a trip to Beijing during the APEC forum.

What has happened so far? Tons of students got detained, hundreds got injured from clashes with the police, corruption behind the protesters attacks was unveiled, the dialogue between the government and protest leaders failed, but most importantly, a long-standing pro-democracy movement has proved to be possible in Chinese soil. And it has probably reshaped the laison between political discontent and economic loss in Asia. I bet that idea never even crossed the minds of protesters’ parents. Asking myself about Rafael led to get in touch with him and to (virtually) meet several of his friends supporting the movement. They were kind enough to share some of their time, while going to school, work and protesting, to help me understand why the Umbrella Revolution —although not yet a real revolution— is historically important.

Thanks to Skype and Facebook, a story with their testimony was made possible. I originally posted this story in Spanish on October 20th, after almost two weeks of interviews. Currently, there’s a lot of critique in the Web about what this movement has left for Hong Kong and China, and the conclusions seem to point out the lack of strategy for its success, even though they praise its endurance.

I’ll keep one of my interviewees lines in response to that: “The movement needs to scalate to China. Now we have the occupation, but what is the next action? So far it seems the occupation is the most we can do,  so it will take time and failures to make people understand this.” (Pa Sha, 26-year old translator) Occupy Central hasn’t accomplished anything it set out for (yet): nothing guarantees democratic elections for 2017. But failing at it might the very first step to achieve victory. Here’s the translation of the exclusive testimony from three protesters who have contributed to taking that step.

Umbrella Revolution: The Chinese government’s nightmare that starts becoming real

October 20th, 2014 – Posted in Número Zero
Last Friday, nine thousand people took over one of the main cities of Hong Kong, claiming democracy. They managed to make the police back down for the first time. Armed with umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, three young people from Hong Kong bring us an exclusive testimony of why the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ terrifies the only world power ruled by communism.
The night when Hong Kong's police had to retreat from Mong Kong (by @dugarry_chan).

The night when Hong Kong police had to retreat from Mong Kong (by @dugarry_chan).

On October 17th, while many of us in Peru started our day thinking on how to make that Friday the beginning of a great weekend, nearly nine thousand people were gathering in one of Hong Kong’s main cities, Mong Kok, to continue with a 20-day journey of pro-democracy protests baptized as Umbrella Revolution.

— I am in the protest now.

— Where, in Admiralty?

— No, in Mong Kong. The police are trying to free the area, but the people resist to leave.

— Are they spraying you with pepper gas again?

— Yes.

Mobile internet and Skype bring the report of Dugarry Chan, a 25-year old university student, before my eyes. He sends me pictures. In a few minutes, he sends me the picture of Paola Bronstein, an American photographer of Getty images, being detained by the Hong Kong police. “It’s all very tense. The people are yelling: “Give us back the city,” says my new friend.

Paula Bronstein, Getty Images photographer (by @dugarry_chan)

Paula Bronstein, Getty Images photographer (by @dugarry_chan)

The first precedent for this kind of occupation begins with Occupy Central with Love and Peace, in 2013, civil movement led by Benny Tai Yiu-Ting, a Law professor at Hong Kong University. But this year is when the “occupation” protests begin. Last Friday, the clash between the police officers and the nine thousand people gathering in Mong Kok were the most violent since thousands of students took the streets after the arrests of September 27th. More than 30 people were detained and dozens were injured, 18 police officers among them. Since September 28th, though the number of protesters has decreased, the ones standing haven’t lost strength. On the contrary, October 17th was the first time the police had to retreat from Mong Kok.

Mong Konk at 11 pm on October 17th, 2014. (by @dugarry_chan)

Mong Konk at 11 pm on October 17th, 2014 (by @dugarry_chan)

What makes that thousands of young people gather for three weeks of “occupation,” paralyzing the financial heart of Hong Kong and other points of this region? Hundreds of media have already explained it: the government of China decided that the candidates to the 2017 elections in Hong Kong will be nominated by the Chinese president and not by the citizens, violating the Basic Law of Hong Kong.

Therefore, the protesters demand universal suffrage and, like in any other democracy, to nominate their candidates for governors. In addition, they demand the resignation of Leung Chung-Ying, Chief Executive of the former Britain colony. Since last week, this politician has been involved in a financial scandal with an Australian company whom he was director for the Asia-Pacific area, accused of receiving US$6 million that were not declared to the Australian tax authority.

“The Basic Law of Hong Kong, which you can see as our Constitution, has established that Hong Kong is part of a country, but it has two systems. It also says Hong Kong government is pretty autonomous at an administrative level. Nevertheless, since 1997, when the British hands over the colony to China, until now, the Chief Executive has not been elected by the people. In most of the public policies, we do not have opinion,” explains Dugarry, who is also a worker in the garment industry.

“They are paying to attack us”

“Maybe the police are not paying them directly, but the government, or pro-government corporate sectors, are actually doing it. The media has already shown unidentified people paying the attackers after their actions. There’s nothing that regulates that in our law. Besides, the police are protecting them.” This is how Pa Sha, a 26-year old translator and graduate student, explains what has been happening since October 10th: strangers attempting to dismantle the pro-democracy barricades in the occupied areas.

Pa Sha and Dugarry believe that the attacks to the pro-democracy protesters and the barricades have been planned. Since our first conversation, on October 9th, Pa Sha shows an impeccable clarity on his ideas: Occupy Central might one of the most important threats to the stability of the Chinese dictatorship, but it won’t have the necessary strength to bring down the regime if people in Beijing don’t join.

“China is a dictatorship. What China cares is not only Hong Kong, but also the rule over the rest of mainland China, since the faraway areas, like Tibet and Xinjiang, have become much more turbulent over the recent years, the Chinese dictatorship could not afford to look ‘weak’ in dealing with Hong Kong matters. The success of the movement is now being seen as an example for rest of China to rise up against the dictatorship. That’s why the government will not give in,” says Pa Sha.

I continue asking him questions on Skype, on a Sunday night:

— How is the relationship between people in China and Hong Kong?

— We usually get along well. Of course, there are cultural differences, which mainly come from the lack of education. There are people who come from China that don’t have much education, and they can cause hygiene problems. They even come to buy powdered milk to Hong Kong. Why? Because the food quality control in China is so bad that practically no one there trusts the government or the food. They are forcing them to go overseas or to Hong Kong to get basic goods. It’s completely ridiculous.

But Carlson, a 27-year old medical doctor, doesn’t have much hope for the so-called Umbrella Revolution to reach China. “There is scattered news of protests in China, but the information we know is very limited. I think Hong Kong people are pretty independent. We fight for democracy with our own faith. And the cultural value of Hong Kong is very different from China. I don’t believe the same mode of protest can be repeated successfully in China,” he points out.

A new way of living

Carlson, just as Dugarry and Pa Sha, attend to different areas of the occupation (Admiralty, Mong Konk and Causeway Bay) after work. Therefore, the big waves of protesters seen on television are mostly high school and university students. And they are getting used to a new way of living. “We indeed utilized the occupied area to build up a little community, with study area, charging stations, supplies station, shower room, etc. I talked with a protester who has slept in for seven days, and she feels that she is getting used to this new life,” says Carlson.

If you grow up surrounded by protests, it just makes the ‘occupation’ look natural to the youngest people in Hong Kong, even though it is a new way of political manifestation. “It was inevitable,” says Pa Sha, “we don’t want democracy just for voting, but to change the whole situation in Hong Kong”.

For Dugarry, the reasons to join the movement are very clear: “I expect a deep government reform, universal suffrage for electing our new Chief Executive and the abolition of the functional districts (chosen by the Hong Kong elite) in the legislature.” In this administrative region of 7.1 million inhabitants, not everyone support the pro-democracy protesters, but that doesn’t seem to affect them.

“The protest does add a little bit of stress to my life, but I think I can persist for months at least, if not longer, in the current state. I believe most protesters have the same feeling”, writes Carlson through Facebook chat. The Hong Kong government, that profoundly denied to establish dialogue with the students, will have a televised meeting with them tomorrow, October 21st.

Carlson, with an apparent good mood, gives me heads up on what might come next: “We are thinking to innovate ways of civil disobedience. Flash mob, tax boycott, lodging thousands of police reports abusing protesters, etc. Do enlighten us if you can think of any interesting idea. We need ideas!”

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