Carlos Barris / Reuters

How a pro-democracy protest has kept thousands on Hong Kong’s streets

‘Umbrella Revolution’ is not backing down, but new confrontations loom

HONG KONG — The ubiquitous bad-weather accessory that has come to symbolize Hong Kong’s growing pro-democracy protest movement came in handy on Tuesday night when a brief cloudburst rolled over the city. The rain failed to clear the tens of thousands of demonstrators cramming highways and flyovers, filling sidewalks and storefronts, gathering in pairs and large groups or merely floating among them all. Theirs, after all, is a self-styled Umbrella Revolution.

“Hong Kong, add oil,” they chanted — an exhortation to try harder in the local idiom. And calling out the city’s Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying by his initials, the protesters chanted “C.Y. step down.” But the authorities have shown no inclination to yield, and with each passing day, economic damage and political pressure — as well as the prospect of more confrontational protest tactics — increases the chances of a more aggressive government response.

“I believe in the power of the people,” said Sophie Chan, 24, a social worker who has joined the protests after business hours each day since police and protesters clashed last Sunday. She was surprised by the violence used against the young demonstrators and blamed Leung, who she said had failed the people of Hong Kong. “We want to support the students, and I don’t trust C.Y. Leung to demand democracy.”

The protests this week have drawn attention to two generations of frustrated Hong Kong residents. On the front lines, students have been staging strikes and organizing occupations of public spaces. Their actions have outpaced the responses of an older contingent of pro-democracy activists, who some younger activists say are too conservative or risk-averse. While age may indicate some differences in strategy and tactics, there’s more accord on the demand for Leung’s ouster since last weekend’s clashes.

Leung took power in 2012 after securing a majority of votes from Beijing’s 1,200-person electoral committee. But for many Hong Kong residents, he has come to symbolize the subordination of their democratic choices to Beijing’s dictates, and calls for his resignation have resonated far beyond the young activists who launched the protest campaign. 

“I came here to support the students but also because I want C.Y. to step down,” said a 79-year-old protester who identified himself only as Mr. Chan (no relation to Sophie Chan). Tuesday was his second visit to the protest site since Sunday, and he was attending Tuesday night’s rally with his children and grandchildren. “We only want what was promised to us, but the government won’t even engage with us.”

The spark for the current protests came on Aug. 31, when Beijing confirmed it would vet all candidates for chief executive in the 2017 election. The 1997 agreement to restore China’s sovereignty in Hong Kong after 156 years of British colonial rule promised democracy in the territory, and Chinese leadership’s insistence on restricting who could stand for election was denounced as a betrayal of that pledge. That prompted Occupy Central leader Benny Tai to proclaim a new “era of civil disobedience” in the form of strikes, sit-ins and a myriad of demonstrations through autumn.

But on Friday, after a week of strikes, students planned to occupy the Legislative Council grounds — a small patch of land known, fittingly, as Civic Square. Finding the location blocked by police, 150 protesters scaled the outer walls of the compound in an attempt to enter the government building. In response, and with television cameras rolling, the police deployed pepper spray, arresting 13 protesters and leaving as many as 50 protesters stranded inside the gated square.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Jason Coe, 30, an American doctoral student of comparative literature at Hong Kong University whose students were involved in the incident. “I’ve seen protests before, of course, but who would expect this, especially for Hong Kong?

It was this sense of surprise that dictated the tone and steady escalation of hostilities throughout the weekend. New protests were catalyzed, and Hong Kong’s latent tensions drove ever larger crowds into the streets.

“This has been building up over the past several years,” said Chloe Lai, a volunteer media activist who was born and raised in Hong Kong. “Beijing has alienated themselves from the general public, and they are pushing us to the streets.”

Photos: Protesters dig in

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Further clashes followed on Sunday, as protesters flooded into major thoroughfares stopping traffic and police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse them. Police action did not deter the demonstrators, and their numbers appeared to grow as anger built over the authorities’ response.

“Now that they have hurt the students, we have to be here,” said the 79-year-old Chan. “But even if they hadn’t, what we’re doing here is for our future generations. Hong Kong was built by the people, and everyone has a responsibility to save it.”

The protests have drawn together two separate but increasingly aligned pro-democracy groups: the student movement — including Scholarism, which is made up of high school students, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students — and Occupy Central.

Tai, an Occupy Central co-founder and an associate law professor at Hong Kong University, admitted that students had “beat” his movement onto the streets but announced an early start to Occupy’s civil disobedience campaign by calling for a march on Sunday morning.

According to some reports, students were upset that Occupy had stolen the show, hinting at a potential fissure between the generations of activists. Yet the mood on the streets on Monday and Tuesday suggested that the groups’ unity of purpose was greater than any differences between them.

Occupy Central’s followers skew slightly older and, in the eyes of some, are not as radical as the students — although its credentials are established by its roots in efforts by Hong Kong activists to support the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on the mainland.

“What we are seeing now is a citywide civil disobedience movement that has outgrown Occupy Central and even the student groups,” Lai said. “It is not just a sense of dissatisfaction but a feeling that everything will collapse if we don’t do this now.”

The announcement Monday by Hong Kong’s chief of police that riot police would be pulled from the streets encouraged higher numbers to turn out in the city’s central district, and the crowds have continued to grow ever since.

Tuesday evening, the area around Harcourt Road had first-aid tents and supply stations erected to sustain the protesters as organizers led them in chants and songs. Printed posters pasted over traffic signs included messages such as “Save Hong Kong. Be International” and  “Don’t destroy Hong Kong.”

Volunteers wandered through the crowd handing out water, snacks and even ponchos in case the rain returned. Others, carrying large plastic bags, picked up any refuse.

As far as the eye could see, protesters were content to simply wait, to show by the force of their presence, how important this movement was for the future of Hong Kong. But in the background, tensions lingered as protesters agonized over when — if ever — they should vacate these reclaimed public spaces as the scale of the disruption caused by the standoff grows and the danger of confrontation swells.

Early Wednesday at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Leung issued an appeal for moderation.

“It’s understandable that different people have different opinions on the ideal proposal for constitutional reform, but having universal suffrage is definitely better than not having it. It’s definitely better to have 5 million people vote to elect a chief executive than 1,200,” he told assembled guests and the media.

But for those wary of the government’s half-measures and promises, struggling — despite its consequences — might be their only option.

“A revolution doesn’t always bring immediate change, and it might even make things worse,” Charlie Lam, 24, a postgraduate student in comparative literature at Hong Kong University. He cited as an example Napoleon’s coup, which brought an end to the French revolution. “But if we persevere, if we stand true to our demands, we can ensure a better future for the people of Hong Kong.”

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