With peace and love: civil disobedience in Hong Kong

Western media outlets have described Hong Kong’s accelerated wave of unrest as predominantly led by students. It has a much wider base than that. Months of steady canvassing and campaigning on the streets, and a promotion of emotive symbolism over violence, have garnered enormous sympathy for the Occupy movement.

Lily Ho
29 September 2014
Occupy Central protesters

Occupy Central protesters. Demotix/Robert Godden. All rights reserved.It had been planned for months: a civil disobedience movement that would take over the Central District in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace had been confirmed to commence on 1 October, coinciding with the Chinese National Week, a celebration of the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The movement was reinforced by a student boycott that started last week. But this weekend, as both movement and boycott gained momentum, the Occupy leaders accelerated their campaign.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in the central districts of Causeway Bay, Wanchai, Admiralty, Central and on the other side of the river, in Kowloon. These protesters, often still school and university students, adhered to a carefully planned out strategy throughout the weekend. A civil disobedience movement, rather than a riot, was the aim. However, as the movement gained critical mass in the central districts, the City Government called in the riot police. The situation escalated as police dispersed the crowd with tear gas and pepper spray. According to an official police statement, 87 canisters of tear gas were thrown at the protesting crowd, and roughly 33 men and 13 women had to be admitted to hospital. The crowds returned to resume their peaceful protest.

A smaller but substantial number of protesters maintained their occupation throughout Monday morning, and gradually protesters returned to the central districts.  As evening fell, the mass exodus of daily commuters exiting the city was matched by an incoming flood of protesters as they prepared for another night.

Not only was the tear gas ineffective in dispersing the crowd, it had also enraged the international community as well as the ‘silent middle’ of Hong Kong residents. On Monday, labour unions called on their members to strike, and several schools saw their students gather in the courtyards.  The umbrella, used to shield off tear gas, became the new icon of the protests.

Symbolism, as opposed to violence, has proven to be an effective strategy in gaining sympathy and creating a broader support base for the Occupy Central movement. Flowers were presented to riot police and attached to police cars, yellow ribbons were knotted to fences and uploaded as profile photos on social media, and protesters held hands and waved their mobile phones to light up the night in a demonstration of peaceful unity. And of course, the Asian-style protests were incomplete without karaoke-singing in Kowloon. Police warnings that tear gas would be used if crowds would not leave were reciprocated today with ‘citizen warnings’, which stated that police officers were in violation of international law and were unable to rely on the defence of superior orders, in reference to principles of international law rooted in the Charters of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals, and the constitutional document of the International Criminal Court. Banners demanded that the police officers go on strike themselves.

Western media outlets have described this movement as predominantly led by students. It has a much wider base than that. The Occupy Central movement has taken months to plan and prepare. In July the movement started a canvassing campaign out on the streets to solicit citizens’ support for the pro-democracy movement and petitioning Beijing to allow universal suffrage. The scale of this mass mobilisation is unprecedented in Hong Kong’s affluent and economically obsessed ‘mind your own business’ society. Queues formed on the streets as residents waited to sign up.

Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and with China’s economic rise over the past decades, Hong Kong has lost a lot of its economic bargaining power. Increasing competition has arisen from industrial powerhouses like Shenzhen, only a fisher's village a few decades ago. The economic opening of Hong Kong to mainland business has left Hong Kong residents with the feeling that they are losing out. Soaring house prices from increasing real estate demands from the mainland make houses unaffordable for the regular Hong Kong resident. Small local retail has disappeared to make way for luxury brands and shopping malls catering to the rich Chinese mainland tourist.

And Beijing has gradually encroached over the political freedoms of the Hong Kong population, in violation of Hong Kong’s special status as an administrative region under the ‘one country, two systems’ understanding. The little democratic development that was instigated by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten, stalled after the handover, and Beijing-backed politicians in Hong Kong have repeatedly postponed promises of universal suffrage.

But as protesters vow not to cease their campaign unless Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resigns, it is Beijing that finds itself in an increasingly fragile situation. Although the memory of the Tiananmen protests of 1989 is heavily suppressed in the popular imagination, it is still fresh in the minds of China’s rulers. Earlier this year, a similar pro-democratic and pro-Taiwan movement (the ‘Sunflower’ movement) saw hundreds of thousands of youthful Taiwanese protesters take to the streets. Occupy Central bears a striking resemblance to the Sunflower movement. Both demand greater democracy, and both are a thorn in the eye of the powers that be in Beijing, who are painfully reminded of the challenge it faced in 1989.

Regardless of the outcome, Occupy Central has unveiled a glaring failure in the legitimacy of the Chinese rulers. As the Chinese Communist Party demands that Hong Kong and Taiwan be incorporated into its realm, it is adopting people who have not lived through the political turmoil and mass propaganda of the mainland. The Hong Kong and Taiwanese protesters are marking out democratic freedom as their central cause. And the Party’s propaganda machinery has reached an impasse, as CCP-backed messages are no longer absorbed. The Chinese government may have been able to successfully construct a collective amnesia for its citizens within its borders, but the imaginations of Hong Kong’s future generations do not share the same memory loss, and they are dreaming of a radically different future. 

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