Tea Leaf Nation
Who are the Umbrella Movement protesters remaining on the streets of Hong Kong?
"I’m ready to stay for as long as the protests last," said the 20-year-old pro-democracy protester Dicky Chu, expressing a commitment common among the hundreds of resolute protesters who are driving Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement well into its second month.
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Chu volunteers with the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the key groups spearheading the six-week-old massive sit-ins in the city, and he is one of the few hundreds of long-term occupiers who sleep on the streets and take care of daily operations on the ground. "I don’t know what to expect from occupying long-term," Chu said, "but we can’t just leave before the government responds to our demands for democracy."
"I have turned down five production project offers in order to be here," said 34-year-old assistant film director Nikki Lau. "I decided to spend a year on the streets right at the beginning of the protests. I’m not going anywhere until the government convinces me that it is sincere about resolving the political crisis."
Since sovereignty of the former British colony transferred back to mainland China in 1997, many Hong Kong residents fear what they see as Beijing’s gradual encroachment upon their relative political freedom. After Beijing issued an edict in late August stipulating that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive position must first be vetted by a nominating committee stacked with pro-Beijing interests, pro-democracy groups staged a mass protest that continues to cripple key districts in the Asian financial center.
After the Oct. 21 talks between Hong Kong authorities and protest representatives failed to reach any consensus, police have not attempted to clear sites or escalate the conflicts. Authorities are likely trying to avoid a repeat of Sept. 28, when Hong Kong police deployed tear gas against protesters, triggering an outpouring of support and international media coverage.
This switch from aggressive clearance to defensive maintenance might also be partly due to the resilience demonstrated by protesters — described by locals as "indefinite resurrection" — when police or thugs with alleged ties to pro-Beijing groups tried to remove them. On several occasions when the police cleared the streets in Mong Kok, one of the three protest zones, nonviolent demonstrators reclaimed the streets almost immediately. Previous frontline clashes also exposed police abuse and mishandling, which intensified public anger and boosted the bargaining power of the protesters.
The government’s lack of response since Oct. 21 fuels the protesters’ anxiety. They are acutely aware of the delay tactic deployed by the authorities to weaken public support but are determined to hold their ground. "Hong Kong people have tried all possible ways to fight for democracy over the last few decades, and we are resorting to civil disobedience now because none of these have worked." said Alvin Wong, a high school student who started a political reform concern chapter at his school as part of the citywide students’ strike in mid-September. "If we leave now, it would have a demoralizing effect on the entire movement because essentially it is saying that nonviolent resistance doesn’t work."
Most protesters seem to share Wong’s view, saying that they would only leave if the government gives what some have called a "reasonable response" to their demand for an unrestricted electoral system. An informal survey conducted by Reuters in late October found that nearly 9 out of 10 protesters are prepared to stay on the streets for more than a year. The preliminary data of a survey conducted at the protest sites by Alex Tang, a doctoral candidate in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that 79.5 percent of 755 protesters would only leave if the new electoral system includes civil nomination — meaning that candidates can be nominated by any citizen rather than only by than Beijing’s stipulated method, the 1200-member nomination committee — while 48.4 percent insisted that the Hong Kong government resubmit the current political reform plan to Beijing. Only 6.2 percent of respondents agreed that they would end the protests unconditionally.
But even many of those who insist on staying doubt that the Hong Kong and Beijing governments will allow more public participation in the chief executive nomination process. "I don’t think Beijing will change its mind over the political reform plan even if we continue occupying," said Alex Kwok, a 48-year-old lifeguard union leader well known among protesters for his active involvement as a crowd control volunteer. "But I’m staying, because there’s no alternative plan."
Some have quit their job in order to participate long term, while many of those with regular jobs visit the protest sites after work and during the weekend. Though Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, co-organizers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, resumed their teaching work at their respective universities on Oct. 31, Tai has asked protesters to adjust their lifestyle accordingly in order to sustain long-term occupation. The two organizers have stated that they will turn themselves into the police "at an appropriate time," as a gesture to emphasize their support for rule of law in Hong Kong.
Though prepared for long-term occupation, many protesters worry about waning public support if the deadlock and anti-occupy smearing continue. Hoping to move on to the next stage of the movement, protest leaders are carefully weighing different options to reach a breakthrough. Pro-democracy lawmakers are considering promoting by-elections and a de-facto referendum to gather public opinion on political reform. Student leaders have announced a plan to protest at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Beijing from Nov. 5-11, to convey the protesters’ demands directly to top officials. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are attending the summit.
But Ming Sing, political science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said that the students would most likely be denied entry to the mainland. Hong Kong citizens need to apply for a special travel permit issued by mainland authorities in order to travel into China, and Beijing can revoke the permit at any time. "Putting Beijing in an embarrassing position will not help the movement," said Sing. "However, perhaps the student leaders want to use Beijing’s rejection to justify a switch of tactics from ‘occupying main roads’ to ‘occupying the community’ — that is, public outreach to galvanize more support for democracy. " Sing, like many local opinion leaders, believes educating locals about the importance of democratic rights will be more effective than staying on the streets indefinitely.
The specter of imminent crackdown is never far from the protesters’ thoughts. "It is unlikely Beijing would react during the APEC summit," said international relations scholar Simon Shen Xu-hui. "But the protests cannot continue indefinitely either. If the authorities were to clamp down on the protesters, they might do it after APEC."
Eugene Lai, a 28-year-old psychiatric nurse who returned from the United States to Hong Kong in late September for the protests, shares similar concerns. "I think a violent crackdown is possible after APEC because occupiers are undecided on the next step," Lai said. "Public opinion might eventually turn against them and police would be less concerned about losing the public relations war." Lai, who goes to the protest sites almost every day, added that the recent large-scale police rehearsal of site clearance and introduction of pepper fog machines might indicate that authorities are prepared to forcibly remove protesters within the next few weeks.
For now, occupiers are enjoying a moment of peace. The "occupy villages" continue to draw thousands of protesters every day, inspire artists, and spark discussions over the political future of Hong Kong. Protesters exchange ideas and share their democratic aspirations with one another. Occasionally, encouraging stories emerge of protesters winning the understanding of disapproving onlookers. Uncertainty is inevitable, but a faint hope, perhaps paradoxically, prevails in this battle of the mind.
Despite the pessimism over the government’s next move, protesters are far from losing hope. Their continued resistance takes a variety of forms: in their slogans such as "reclaim our future" and "stand up against injustice;" in the large volume of artwork produced throughout the protests; in vibrant online discussions over local politics; and in the strong sense of community developed at the occupy sites that symbolizes their vision of an empowered civil society. A common local expression sums up their attitude: "It is not because we believe there is hope that we persist, but because we persist that there is hope."