What an interesting time to be living in Hong Kong! The world press is covering the story of the Occupy Central demonstrations. I wanted to take this opportunity to share what this political situation is like from the perspective of a new Canadian expat.
It feels a bit surreal to look at the media coverage and realize what is happening on this tiny island. The demonstrations – and I stress, these are peaceful demonstrations, not riots or protests – are confined to particular areas that are not near where we live or where Paul works. Paul has gone in, out and around the island the last two days without seeing anything or being affected in any way.
The demonstrations are located in Central, an uncreative but aptly named area of Hong Kong Island near the government buildings in a busy thoroughfare. Demonstrations are also springing up east of where we live in Causeway Bay and across the harbour in Kowloon, north of where Paul works. These demonstrations have been a long time in the making. On July 1, almost 100,000 people marched in Central to protest the same thing: the fact that Beijing wants to control who people can vote for in the 2017 elections. The “Occupy Central” leaders said there would be further demonstrations at an unspecified time. Things have been percolating. Anti-Occupy Central groups have sprung up with their own demonstrations, claiming potential harm to business, HK’s reputation, and disruption of normal life should Occupy go forward.
The movement really picked up momentum last week when students boycotted classes and started demonstrating. They were demanding a meeting with the HK Chief Executive (the head guy here). Initially the feeling about the student demonstrations was “who cares”, but it really picked up steam, particularly because he would not grant them an audience. By last weekend, it had become a full-blown movement with crowds growing daily. Personally, I think a lot of this could have been avoided if he had just met with them. I guess I’m naïve to think that any leader would actually meet with demonstrators, but I really don’t get why he couldn’t just talk to them, calm them down, open up some dialogue, anything. But he has been pretty much MIA and now a faction of “pan democrats” as they are called here is demanding his resignation.
What’s really fascinating is how courteous these demonstrators are. They are cleaning up their garbage and recycling it. They are not burning, looting or overturning police cars. They are eating bananas and drinking water supplied by volunteers. They are faithfully observing “do not walk on the grass” signs. And they are using umbrellas as shields, hence the dubbing of the movement as the “Umbrella Revolution”.
Unfortunately, the police got a little crazy on Sunday night and brought out the tear gas. That really angered people and so more people joined the demonstrations. Each night, the crowds have gotten larger and now, Wednesday and Thursday are national holidays here so I expect the crowds will be really big in the days to come.
So far, the disruption to normal life has been minimal. A lot of bus routes have been cancelled, an MTR stop became a non-stop, schools in the area have all been closed, traffic is diverted and some shops are closing early. But I haven’t heard of any major hardships.
Paul and I are fine. We live in a relatively isolated area at the top of Tai Tam Reservoir about a 15-minute drive from Central. Neither of us have had any trouble getting around this week. The city is not shut down by any means. We will not enter the fray but are truly inspired by the courage and determination of the people who are participating.
I think that people in democratic countries take their democracy so much for granted. It is really being driven home how important it is to pay attention to what’s going on and protect the freedoms we have. And voting … we just don’t get how privileged we are to be able to do that.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t expect a happy ending to this story. So far, Beijing has taken the hardest, most conservative line they can in response to the people’s demands for freedom in elections. The leadership here in HK is weak and is considered a puppet to Beijing. It would be great to think there will be a positive outcome, and so we need to keep thinking those thoughts.