In the glow of Hong Kong’s most iconic symbols of capitalism, thousands of students are gathered in pursuit of democracy. Above them, the lights of HSBC, Bank of China and the Lippo Center beam down upon the peaceful assembly. At the heart of the dispute is a quest for full autonomy to choose Hong Kong’s leadership without interference from Beijing. The notion of “one country; two systems” is being severely tested.
Throughout the scene, there is a calm that belies the students’ passion for sovereignty. I have seen more disruptive behavior at a U.S. college football tailgate than I saw in the midst of the protesters. Groups of young people, some dressed in ponchos and eyewear, others carrying umbrellas as a precaution against potential tear gas or pepper spray, seem relaxed and congenial, chatting quietly in small groups or merely dozing on the ground. They even clean up after themselves so there is no trash in the streets. Despite international news reports of clashes with police, there is determination but little open hostility.
One young man I spoke to said that they want the autonomy that Hong Kong was promised at the time of the handover from Britain. While Chinese leaders ridicule the students’ efforts as futile, the protesters have crippled the city by their sheer numbers. The two sides are at an impasse because the Beijing government cannot afford to lose face by succumbing to protests. The passive resistance of the protestors could make the government look like bullies if they become too heavy handed in dispersing the crowds. On the other side, the number of protesters increases daily. A compromise offered by the Chinese Central Government offering to let Hong Kong choose its leader from among a slate of pre-approved candidates has been largely dismissed by the demonstrators who are also calling for Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying to step down.
Meanwhile, the protests have been felt if not seen all over Hong Kong Island. On the opposite side of the island, buses stood idle because their routes had been diverted by protests. A friend and I managed to find a bus that would take us close to my apartment. However, we were abruptly forced to disembark in an unfamiliar area along the way when the transportation department refused to allow the driver to proceed farther. Fortunately, but the time we reached a subway station, closure signs were being removed by employees and we reached our destinations. All this takes me back to when U.S. college students protested the Vietnam War, except the atmosphere here is far more civilised. These protesters are willing to risk their safety and their futures in order to achieve what we take for granted. I don’t know how this will end or if there will be lasting effects from the protests but I hope that the two sides can resolve their differences with the dignity that they have exhibited so far.