World

Why the Youth Have Been Protesting in Hong Kong for Years

A protestor explains how Hong Kong is trying to protect its freedoms every passing weekend.

Hong Kong: On October 6, Tony reached the last intersection of Causeway Bay in Hong Kong at exactly 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Two days ago, on October 4, Carrie Lam, the Chief executive of Hong Kong had invoked Emergency law and announced a ban on face masks. This was going to be the 17th weekend in a row since June this year to coordinate a protest. The schedule for the next ten days was brainstormed over Telegram channels and on this day, everyone had started gathering with masks and umbrellas.

“I have been doing this for seven years and we have come far,” says Tony.

He is 24, medium built, long hair tightly pulled into a man bun. He is wearing a T-shirt, pants and sneakers – all black – just like the thousands of protestors who had gathered at Causeway Bay, the retail heart of Hong Kong, on this day. Surrounded by skyscrapers and malls with some of the highest rent rates in the world, the area is one of the most crowded in the city. It has also been a key protest site in the past few years.

Pro-democracy graffiti on Hong Kong streets. Photo: Neha Dixit

Till 1997, Hong Kong, a global city and an international financial hub, was a British colony. It was handed over to China on some conditions, including the ‘one country two systems’ and the adoption of Hong Kong’s ‘mini Constitution’ called the Basic Law. The Hong Kong Basic Law ensured that the city will retain its capitalist economic system and currency, the Hong Kong Dollar, the legal system, the legislative system and people’s rights and freedom as a special administrative region (SAR) of China for 50 years. This arrangement allowed Hong Kong to function as its own entity and is set to expire in 2047.

While China’s central government in Beijing maintains control over Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and the legal interpretation of the Basic Law, since 2014, the momentum to demand universal suffrage as promised in Basic Law has led to massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. A large number of participants are students and young professionals. They often use masks and umbrellas to escape surveillance. “Protests are planned on weekends so that maximum number of people can participate,” says Tony.

Families come out with their children in large numbers on weekend protests. Photo: Neha Dixit

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Tony’s training in activism and protests started at the age of 16 in 2012. He was a high school student when he joined Scholarism, a student pressure group to protest against the ‘Moral and National Education’ school curriculum put forward by the Hong Kong government that year.

Scholarism had 200 members and garnered wide support from students. The curriculum was aimed at instilling patriotism and strengthening Chinese identity among Hong Kong’s youngsters. This is around the time when fears of mainland China’s growing influence in Hong Kong were growing. “The curriculum was clearly designed to brainwash us with Communist Party propaganda. Some parts of it even whitewashed the Tiananmen massacre and tried to present China in a favourable light.”

The Tiananmen massacre took place on June 4, 1989, in Beijing. Thousands of students had occupied the central parts of mainland China’s capital for almost a month. They were demanding reforms around freedom of speech, freedom of the press, democracy and more accountability. The government declared martial law and sent troops to vacate the area. In the process, several thousand protestors and bystanders were killed and a large number were also wounded.

Tony had heard stories about the massacre from his parents, who are both schoolteachers. “Three students from Peking University, who they had worked with closely in 1987 when they came to the University of Hong Kong for an exchange program were killed,” he says. “With the new National education curriculum, I was feeling stifled the same way that my parents’ friends would have felt.”

On August 30, 2012, Tony was one of the 50 protestors from Scholarism to occupy the Hong Kong government headquarters for a month. “We stayed in tents in the public park near the government offices. There was rain, fatigue. We didn’t even shower for weeks on end,” he recounts.

In the next few days, the movement successfully gathered thousands protesting against the proposed curriculum and led to the government backing down. On September 8, the then Chief Executive of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, announced the temporary withdrawal of the ‘Moral and National Education Course.’  The course has not been reintroduced till date and the protests by the young students were seen as a success.

This was also the time when Xi Jinping, the current President of the People’s Republic of China assumed office in March 2013. The tremors of the significant increase in censorship and mass surveillance under his office were also felt regularly in Hong Kong.

Most students like Tony, who were part of the movement against the ‘Moral and National Education’, continued to remain active in the social and democracy movement in Hong Kong.

“Once you become conscious of something, it is very difficult to ignore it. Freedom of speech, uninhibited access to the internet and many other things. We were not ready to give them up,” says Tony.

Large number of protestors wear masks to defy government ban. Photo: Neha Dixit

Just two years later, in September 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the highest organ of state power and the national legislature of the People’s Republic of China, proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The decision was seen as restrictive and a way for the Communist Party of China to pre-screen the candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. “What kind of fake system was this. It was like, ‘You can vote, but we will tell you who to vote for’,” says Tony.

This time, the mass protests lasted for almost three months, from September 22 to December 15, 2014. Students from various groups led a strike and soon enough, several groups started to occupy several major city intersections in Hong Kong. “I was here at the same spot four years ago as part of the sit-in protests at Causeway Bay,” says Tony, as he points to a traffic light on the other side of the road. Posters saying ‘I need real universal suffrage’ had been put up across all universities and major market areas in the city.

Tony says the police’s tactics provoked more anger among common citizens. “They used tear gas and physical attacks, which made common citizens all the more angry,” he recalls. His parents, who until then disapproved Tony’s fulltime involvement in activism, also joined in. “They were upset that many children like me, who were participating in peaceful civil disobedience, were at the receiving end of police violence. Just like Tiananmen Square,” he says. It is estimated that 100,000 protestors participated in the sit-ins at any given time. The campaign was termed as the Occupy movement, now also interchangeably known as the Umbrella movement.

A large number of protestors started using umbrellas as a tool of passive resistance to the Hong Kong police’s use of pepper spray and tear gas to disperse crowds during this 79-day occupation to demand transparent elections.

After two and a half months, in December police started arresting and clearing several protest sites. Causeway Bay, where Tony stood today, was the last spot to be evacuated on December 15, 2014.

The protests ended without any political concessions from the government. The then-Hong Kong Chief executive Leung and other mainland Chinese officials criticised the campaign as “unpatriotic”. These reactions were seen as a huge assault on academic freedoms and civil liberties of common citizens of Hong Kong.

“They fanned the fire further. The demand for universal suffrage became stronger since then,” says Tony.

Overbridge with anti government posters. Photo: Neha Dixit

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The events of the past four years have been viewed as repeated assaults on Hong Kong’s freedom. In 2015, five staff members of the Causeway Bay bookstore which sold political books that were banned in mainland China went missing. A year later, Lam Wing-kee, one of the owners, returned to Hong Kong and described how he and his associates were kept under detention in mainland China. Similarly, disqualification of candidates for the legislature and violence against journalists added to the growing dissent in Hong Kong society.

On June 12, this year, the new Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a controversial extradition Bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to China to be tried under the mainland’s opaque judicial system. This was being introduced in the light of the growing pro-democracy movement. The Bill was seen as an attempt to erode Hong Kong’s legal system and its built-in safeguards. This fear was attributed to China’s newfound ability, through this Bill, to arrest voices of political dissent in Hong Kong.

This triggered another round of protests. Under pressure, the Bill was withdrawn on September 4. Yet, protests have continued, spanning more than four months now.

Tony says that the clarion call for the protestors over the past four months has been the famous Hong Kong-American martial arts star, Bruce Lee’s saying, ‘Be water, my friend.’ He says, “The movement is fluid and moves in unexpected waves. Protestors move swiftly from one place to another, unlike in 2014, when the sit-in was the main protest tactic.” They move from one area to another, occupying several key intersections, police headquarters, government buildings, marking their presence everywhere.

Anti-China graffiti can be found all over Hong Kong. Photo: Neha Dixit

“We have first aid teams travelling with us. We take our helmets, laser lights, spare t-shirts, water and snacks along for swift action,” he says.

Most demonstrators are tech-savvy and use online forums and encrypted Telegram channels to coordinate their tactics, canvass views and forge consensus. “Social media, including Telegram, is a big part of our movement but we use it for activism in the offline world, where people show up instead of retweeting,” says Tony.

Tony says that this time, the small organising groups are also using the lessons learnt in 2014. “The idea is to get more citizens involved instead of alienating them. So we make sure that ordinary people don’t get inconvenienced.”

The tactic has been successful and has seen protestor numbers swell up to millions regularly.

The previous protests were also centralised around organised groups like Scholarism, Occupy Central with Love and Peace and their leaders Joshua Wong, Benny Tai and others. These groups and leaders directed the protestors. However, the current protests are leaderless.

Tony says that for now, this is an advantage, “This gives people the flexibility to make their own decisions on how they want to participate. This is the reason why millions are turning up every weekend. Most importantly, the old and the common person who had reservations a few years ago are now joining the protests. It is more organic.”

A number of older people are now coming out in support of the young pro-democracy protestors. Photo: Neha Dixit

Tony points out that this time, they are also working at rewarding businesses who support the movement. He says, “In 2014, many common people were upset because of the financial losses caused to them because of road blockades and shutdowns.” He says that they have created an internal list of ‘yellow ribbon’ business firms. An app helps shoppers give these firms business instead of the ‘blue ribbon’ ones. This colour demarcation first came up in Hong Kong during the Umbrella movement in 2014, when protestors started sporting yellow ribbon and also tying it in public spaces. The colour symbolises the campaign for universal suffrage and was previously used in the women’s vote campaign in the US in the 19th century. Those who disagreed with the movement started wearing blue ribbons, the colour of the police uniform, to show their support for the authorities instead.

The battle lines amongst corporate entities are becoming neater by the day, based on political affiliations. And the war is being fought accordingly.

One of the identified blue business in Hong Kong is the American chain Starbucks, which has been repeatedly vandalised by protestors in the past few months. The Hong Kong franchise of this chain is owned by Maxim Caterers. In September, this year, Annie Wu, the daughter of the Maxim Group’s founder, criticised activists as “radical protesters” at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Starbucks cafes are repeatedly vandalised by protestors. Photo: Neha Dixit

In retaliation, Chinese corporates are building international pressure to penalise voices and organisations supporting the protests. Recently, when an executive of the NBA’s Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests, there was an immediate backlash from Chinese authorities. The Rockets apologised, but the government decided to suspend NBA exhibition games in China, one of the largest markets for the association.

Similarly, on October 9, Apple removed an app that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track the police, a day after facing intense criticism from Chinese state media, plunging the technology giant deeper into the complicated politics of a country that is fundamental to its business.

This has not stopped protestors from coming up with creative ways to take the campaign forward.

In September this year, the hashtag #birdgoldingchallenge trended on Twitter to mark the fifth year of the Umbrella challenge. Protestors were called to fold Origami paper cranes and called the bird  “Freenix” – a reference to phoenix. In Japanese culture, these cranes can wish for recovery from illness and injury. The protestors filled the Times Square in Causeway Bay with hundreds of these birds while sloganeering ‘Liberate Hong Kong.’

These months have also witnessed increasing violent confrontations with the Hong Kong police and arrest of more than 1,000 people. On October 5, MTR, the city’s underground public transport, was shut down for the first time in 40 years as several stations were vandalised. On October 1, a teenager was shot in the upper left part of his body by the police. Thousands gathered in support of him the next day.

“Hong Kong is known as a global city. And here we are being subjected to the worst form of police brutality. We do not deserve it,” says Tony.

While this has been largely a movement of young people, in the past few months, older citizens have formed informal groups to act as a buffer between the police and protestors. They act as the first line of defence.

Protestors have also used bricks to combat police violence. I tell Tony that in Kashmir, which has been under lockdown by the Indian government for 79 days and has faced alleged human rights violations for several years, young protestors also use stone-pelting as a way to protest. “I don’t know much about Kashmir. But it is a sign of people losing complete trust in the authorities. It is the police brutality and the stifling ways of the Hong Kong government that are responsible for the violent methods of the protestors. It is they who should be blamed, not the other way round. If we burn, you burn with us,” he says.

He pauses and then asks, “So is Delhi also jammed with protestors for Kashmir?” I tell him that it is not consistent and massive.

He looks confused, “But we heard in 2013, how so many Indians came together for weeks to protest the rape of a student. So how come they are quiet when millions of people have been under lockdown for 75 days?”

I have no answer.

I ask Tony for his second name. He refuses. “There is no point identifying me. Every single black mask here represents me. We are anonymous and yet focused. I am and will be every young person in the protests till Hong Kong is free,” he says as he bids goodbye and disappears into the sea of umbrellas.

Along with the rain, sloganeering also starts, “Hong Kongers, resist.”

Protestors raise hands in solidarity with the slogan, ‘Hong Kongers, resist!’ Photo: Neha Dixit

Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. She covers politics, gender and social justice in South Asia.