A crowd of students who have boycotted classes in Hong Kong. All photos by Jeff Cheng
Things are kicking off in Hong Kong. All week, students have been boycotting classes to campaign for democracy, and in an education-obsessed city where good grades and mortarboards are the definition of a successful youth, that's a big deal.
They’re pissed because they’ve been promised universal suffrage ever since the city was handed over from the UK to China in 1997, and more recently by current Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung. Last month, Beijing dropped the bombshell that while everyone would be able to vote in the next 2017 elections, there would only be two or three chief executive candidates up for election and they would all need a national committee’s stamp of approval, basically guaranteeing that the next leader of Hong Kong would be strongly linked to the mainland.
“I wasn’t surprised at all, but I was disappointed when I heard [about Beijing’s decision to restrict election rights],” said 24-year-old Alex Chow, the secretary general of Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and one of the protests' leaders. “As usual they’re quite conservative.”
Alex Chow speaking to a crowd of students
HKFS has drawn some impressive crowds this week. On Monday, around 13,000 students sweated it out at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to hear Chow ask, “How can a few people decide Hong Kong’s future? Why not the 7 million people of Hong Kong?”
Support swelled again for the impromptu marches that hit the streets on Wednesday afternoon, and again on Thursday night when 4,000 Hong Kongers paraded through town to set up camp outside the chief executive’s house—the highest number to get involved in a civil disobedience act since the '97 handover. Abuse got personal as the crowd hoisted up a giant cardboard cutout of CY Leung’s grinning face (with fangs added) and chanted, “CY Leung, resign!” “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping, shut up!”
Protesters marching to CY Leung's house
Throughout the week, these demonstrations had been peaceful. Besides performing relative routine crowd control, the police had a pretty easy job. The Hong Kong students also showed a great deal of restraint in not getting out of control and provoking the authorities to crack down on them.
“We need to show we are responsible, we’re not just a bunch of troublemaking kids,” said Jonathon Lam, a Hong Kong physics student involved in the protests.
A protester holds up a sign demanding universal suffrage
After a week of boycotts and still no word from their government, though, frustrations were mounting. On Friday night, a handful of students scaled the gates to Civic Square, a previously public area that the government closed in July. About 150 others followed, forcing their ways past the police or scaling the nine-foot-high metal gates to "reclaim" the square. The cops surrounded them, then 3,000 students surrounded the police, then hundreds of riot police surrounded the students. It stayed like that for a long time. People pissed on the road; water and candy bars were passed around.
Protesters hold umbrellas in an effort to protect themselves from pepper spray
Throngs of people pushed and police whipped out signs reading, “Stop charging or we use force.” Huge canisters of pepper spray were aimed at students’ faces, and the cops used shields to force the students back. There were moments of total chaos, even as students threw their hands in the air to indicate their peaceful intentions. A few were injured in the commotion, and others collapsed from heat stroke or hunger.
Protesters clash with cops
By Saturday morning everyone was flagging and supplies were running low. This afternoon the remaining students were arrested or forcibly removed. Chow was among those arrested.
HKFS plans to return to the area for sit-ins tonight in order to demand the release of arrested protesters and for Leung to break his silence on universal suffrage. Some see these protests as a prelude for Occupy Central, a pro-democracy movement expected to kick off next week.
Organizers have explicitly announced they will protest in peace. But given last night’s events and the Chinese government’s track record, it's not clear whether the police will use violence to break up future demonstrations.
“All we want is the chance for universal suffrage,” muttered a teary 16 year-old girl rubbing pepper spray from her eyes. “Everything else is bullshit. Why do we get treated like thugs just for asking?”
So what next, another Tiananmen? It would be terrible PR for China if something on that scale were to happen, which makes it unlikely. But with the Hong Kong police recently acquiring 4,000 inert grenades and CY Leung continuing to toe the party line for Beijing, it appears that the situation here will get worse before it gets better.