Hong Kong protesters: Students see a 'chance to set people free'

Mass protests against Beijing's decision to limit choice in the 2017 election for Hong Kong chief executive show no sign of easing. Young people, who are driving the protests, are passing out supplies at makeshift logistic centers.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014. Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the center of the global financial hub on Monday, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.

As the steamy night set in Monday, crowds of tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators outside Hong Kong government headquarters swelled by the minute, fed by a steady stream of students pouring from nearby subway exits.

But the fourth straight day of unrest – the bluntest challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party since the Tiananmen protests in 1989 – was peaceful. There was no sign of the riot police who had fired tear gas at protesters over the weekend.

The Hong Kong government appeared to be reflecting on its next move in the stand-off, aware that the use of gas on the students had angered ordinary citizens and swelled the ranks of protesters. But the central government in Beijing has made it clear that it has no intention of giving in to demands by students and other protesters in the “Occupy Central” movement who are calling for greater democratization. 

The mood was relaxed but defiant at a makeshift logistics center outside the Admiralty subway station, where students in black t-shirts sporting yellow ribbons handed out bottles of water, face masks, cookies, and chocolate to fellow demonstrators. Other volunteers gathered piles of black plastic trash bags full of garbage.

“I came here to express my views, and as long as the government does not respond to us we will stay here,” says a young man who gave his name only as Lionel, standing at the edge of the crowd that completely blocked one of the main thoroughfares in central Hong Kong for several hundred yards.

“Everyone has dropped everything to fight for one thing all together,” says Jenny Chan, a nursing student, as she distributed water. “I actually want freedom, and this is a chance to set Hong Kong people free.”

'Young, and idealistic, and determined'

The Hong Kong protests have forced Beijing into a difficult political balancing act. Hong Kong, handed back to China by the British in 1997, enjoys a degree of autonomy that gives the territory the rule of law and a free press, among other benefits unknown on the mainland. The handover deal, and the Constitution, specify that the chief executive should eventually be chosen by universal suffrage.

The Chinese government’s proposal for the chief executive elections in 2017 offers universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens for the first time; but it would allow only three candidates for the post, all of whom would need prior approval from a committee that Beijing controls.

“Occupy Central,” a group of reformists led by middle-aged academics and intellectuals, had been demanding without success for months that the government allow truly competitive elections, open to the ‘pan-democrat’ politicians who oppose Beijing. The movement was forced to bring forward its campaign to occupy Central – Hong Kong’s central business and administrative district – by several days when students stormed the plaza outside city hall on Friday.

The Chinese government and the Hong Kong authorities have branded the demonstrations, now in their fourth day, as illegal. But there is clearly nothing the police can do, as the protesters’ numbers swell, to break them up without the use of force, which would be politically disastrous.

“The students are young and idealistic and determined,” says Michael Davis, a law professor at Hong Kong University who has been following the Occupy Central movement closely. “They are not as persuaded as older democracy activists would be about the need to compromise their principles.”

They do know, or at least some of them know, that China’s ruling Communist Party is unlikely to give in to a public display of opposition; it has never done so before. “There may be only a slim chance that we can make the Chinese government change its mind,” says Lionel. “But if you don’t shoot you’ll never know whether you can get the ball in the basket.” 

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