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Hong Kong's Massive Pro-Democracy Demonstrations Are Only Expected to Grow

Protesters are still streaming into the streets of Hong Kong in the city's largest mass demonstration in years, posing the biggest challenge to Beijing since Tiananmen.
Photo by Steven Hseih

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters continued flooding the streets of Hong Kong on Tuesday, taking over major financial and commercial districts on the eve of a highly anticipated public holiday, when the massive demonstrations are expected to swell even further.

The protesters are pushing for universal suffrage and direct elections, and want Hong Kong's legislature to reject a plan that would grant Beijing wide control over the city's 2017 election for chief executive. Under the current plan, Beijing will vet each candidate, which people say violates the 1997 handover agreement with Britain, Hong Kong's former colonial authority.


They are also demanding the resignation of current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is widely regarded as a Chinese government stooge.

Hong Kong citizens overwhelmed five key sectors, including the Central financial district, the popular shopping area of Causeway Bay, and Wan Chai, a zone known for its trashy expat bars. The Admiralty area, which is the center of government activity in the city, played host to the largest demonstration. In the densely populated district of Mong Kok across the harbor, the sit-in has taken on a party-like atmosphere.

Thousands of demonstrators turned out in downtown Hong Kong on September 29.

Protesters hold a sit-in on a bridge next to Hong Kong's police headquarters in Wan Chai. (Photo by Steven Hsieh)

After Sunday's heavy-handed police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, in which the police fired 87 volleys of tear gas, and the sheer scale of the mass mobilization that followed, a sense of history was palpable among the crowds. A brief downpour on Tuesday provided an occasion for protesters to employ their umbrellas conventionally — they have otherwise been used to block pepper spray and tear gas, and have become a symbol of the democracy movement, which has been dubbed the "Umbrella Revolution."

"In 57 years in Hong Kong, I have never seen anything like this," Andrew Leung, a lifetime resident of the city, told VICE News. He retired from his electrical engineering job four months ago only to recently find himself coughing amid clouds of tear gas, surrounded by protesters a fourth his age. "Of course, we must prepare for the worst — that the People Liberation Army might take action. We cannot say this will not happen."


Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students told VICE News that demonstrators plan to continue inhabiting the five districts on China's National Day, a holiday observing the creation of the People's Republic by the Communist Party. He said that the protesters would escalate their tactics if their demands are not met by Wednesday, but did not provide details.

Shum, whose arrest on Saturday and brief detention helped spur the demonstrations, lauded the spontaneity of the civil disobedience and the extent of the public's engagement.

"It's an organic action. People are out here for themselves, not for me, not for Alex Chow, not for Joshua [Wong], not for Benny Tai," he said, referring to other individuals who have been labeled leaders of the movement.

Indeed, Hong Kong's rallies have so far offered an encouraging illustration of bottoms-up leadership. While formal groups such as Occupy Central with Love and Peace and the Hong Kong Federation of Students laid the groundwork for the protests, the movement has blossomed on the energy of the masses.

Fliers depicting Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Protesters regard Leung as a Chinese government stooge, and want his resignation. (Photo by Steven Hsieh)

Each occupied district feels like its own small community, maintained by volunteers and generous donations. Medical professionals are staffing first-aid tents stocked with gauze, anti-septic wipes, and saline. Volunteers collect and distribute food, while others manage garbage and recycling. High school students stand along walkways, spraying overheated passersby with a cool mist.


Some of the volunteers, like Cedric Chiu, a dentist who took charge of a first aid tent near Wan Chai, remain politically neutral and joined out of a sense of duty after Sunday's crackdown. Others are adamant about their beliefs. Simon Cheung, an engineering consultant, joined a group of motor scooter enthusiasts who are using their vehicles to transport supplies through crowds and alleys.

"If we want true democracy, we need to fight for it," he told VICE News. "If we just stand around, we can't say anything if we lose."

Edward Chungyim Yiu, an urban studies professor of at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is part of a group of academics delivering public lectures through megaphones to surprisingly great fanfare.

"As educators, we must come out and tell the whole world that our students are fighting, not just for their own benefit, but for the long-term benefit of Hong Kong," Yiu told VICE News.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and maintains some autonomy under the "one country, two systems" principle. But protesters fear that Beijing's election plan could indicate the eventual erosion of this framework.

"We are tired of the government," Ricky Yau, a 29-year-old nurse looking over first aid supplies at the edge of Admiralty, told VICE News. "The Hong Kong people will lose their power, their vote, and their lifestyle. We have to fight for our freedom."

The demonstrations have posed the most significant challenge to the Chinese government's authority since the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, which ended with violent military repression. Observers hope a similar situation can be averted in Hong Kong, where media coverage will be almost impossible to curtail.

Follow Steven Hsieh on Twitter: @stevenjhsieh