By Amrita Roy:
On the 28th of September 2014, most Indians were bombarded with extensive coverage of a 5-hour build up to Narendra Modi’s speech at the Madison Square. Most people were probably not even aware of what was brewing up in Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading financial centres just some 2000 odd miles away from New Delhi. 50,000 people, mostly university and high school students, gathered at the Central business district to protest against the ruling of August 31st, 2014 by the government of the People’s Republic of China which revoked Hong Kong’s right to elect its Chief Executive (equivalent of Prime Minister or President, depending on a nation’s political system) from its own candidates in 2017.
The History of Hong Kong: Building up to the Protests
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997. At the end of the 99 year lease, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China. While colonial rule brought many racial and social injustices along with it, it also gifted Hong Kong liberal laws, media freedom and a global outlook. On 1st July 1997, Hong Kong was established as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. The Sino-British Joint Declaration affirmed that Hong Kong’s capitalist system and freedom would remain unchanged for 50 years from the date of the handover.
Hong Kong has always been a fierce advocate for freedom and human rights. In Mainland China, one does not witness large ceremonies to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square (though it is mostly out of fear of violent retaliation from the government). Yet every year, Hong Kong holds a huge Tiananmen vigil in remembrance of the atrocities unleashed by the Chinese government on peaceful protesters on June 4, 1989. This event is testament to Hong Kong’s undying efforts to achieve freedom and full democracy. Various activist groups have been continuously striving since 1997 for “One Man One Vote” which Hong Kong locals more affectionately refer to as universal suffrage. The citizens of Hong Kong want to elect their own Chief Executive from their own candidates without any screening or interference from the Chinese government. After years of dialogue only recently did the Chinese central government give in to this electoral reform and declared that in 2017, Hong Kong citizens will be able to put up their own candidates in the elections and select their Chief Executive.
On August 31st 2014, they reneged from their words. The excuse given by the Chinese legislature was that full democracy would lead to a “chaotic society” in Hong Kong. The new version of election would now have 2 — 3 candidates who would be screened by the Chinese central government for loyalty and then Hong Kong citizens would be allowed to vote and select one of the pre-screened candidates (who would in all likelihood be pro-Beijing tycoons). The ruling on August 31st also stated that the central government does not wish to change this stance anytime in the near future. This is the incident that triggered the protests. After a good one month of networking and gathering the masses, the Occupy Central movement was launched on September 28th.
Protests Unusually Characteristic of Hong Kong
Hong Kong is granted many civil liberties that are unheard of in Mainland China. The protesters do not wish to separate Hong Kong from China, nor do they want to overthrow the government. All they are asking for is the right to vote; the right to directly elect their leader. Is it asking for much in the 21st century? I was there at the protests myself with many of my friends (local and international) on September 29th. There was solidarity amongst all the protesters regardless of whether they were Hong Kong citizens or whether they were Indian, Pakistani, British, Dutch, Korean, American, Malaysian or from any other nation. It was peaceful and organized for the most part with people sitting on streets and singing along. Many small live concerts sprang up as some protesters brought their guitars, violins and saxophones along. Financial traders in Hong Kong set up a barbecue and fed the protesters warm food for hours. People passed along shirt fresheners in the crowds. Everybody stayed away from the grass lawn of a war memorial that was close by; not one person stood or sat there. Huge signs apologizing for any inconvenience caused were set up at every barricade that was blocking roads or MTR train stations. The protesters even cleaned up and the rubbish was recycled. When confronted with the police, all protesters even raised their arms as a signal for peace (yet that didn’t stop the police from using tear gas or rubber bullets to disperse the crowds). But the protests continued with umbrellas propped up for protection. The police had to give in to the sheer determination of the students on the streets; they retreated. The mood of the protests shifted from being just a protest for the right to vote to a celebration of freedom and human rights.
I am not an advocate for civil disobedience and most of the protesters on the streets aren’t either. This has disrupted the daily life of almost all residents. The very efficient public transportation system has taken a hit. Several of my friends working in Hong Kong have had to walk home for days now. The bright skies of Hong Kong were enveloped in tear gas. Students have been injured and many put in jail. Yet what does one do after the government backtracks on its words after some fifteen years of dialogue? Hong Kong is a very fast paced city where people over work and students over study. As an international undergraduate university student for the past one year in Hong Kong, I have admired all my local friends for their resolve and have also realized how painfully lazy I am. Libraries are completely packed for all 24 hours of the day. Hong Kong has one of the fewest public holidays anywhere in the world. And classes are only cancelled in the life threatening situation of a Signal 8 Typhoon. And yet for the next week, all professors at all the major universities have sent out emails stating they will not be conducting lessons or will be recording all the classes in solidarity with the struggle of the students. Some of them even plan to join us! If this event was not serious enough, none of these concessions would have been made in a city like Hong Kong.
I shall go back to protest again on the streets with my friends on October 1st. And like me, many international students and workers will also be there to support Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and human rights till the very end. But we cannot win this fight alone. The Chinese government is already blocking social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other local social media platforms. It has also sent a letter to all foreign diplomats in Hong Kong to “steer clear of the protests.” The word needs to get out and more people need to know about the political situation of Hong Kong. As the world’s largest democratic nation of 1.2 billion people with growing social media popularity, India can be a huge bolster to the Occupy Central movement, and so can every person in any place in the world. Simply sharing information about the protests among your friend circles can be of great help. The Umbrella Revolution has been largely galvanized by students in Hong Kong.
On October 1st many university students from all over the world are gathering together for a movement where we all would wear yellow to show our support; this something that can be very easily promoted in school and college campuses to raise awareness and show international support for this movement. Wear yellow, or just bring along an umbrella and click a picture and put it on social media for awareness and become a member in this fight against oppression. There are only so many accounts the Chinese government can block. Some of the more cynical people tell me that protests have very rarely brought about significant change (and that we stand no chance opposed to the Chinese government). Yet there is hope. We will continue to protest civilly; and if we succeed then this movement can provide great hope for students and people fighting against oppressive regimes all across the planet. For democracy, for freedom and for human rights!