Why We’re Here: Hong Kong’s Faces of Dissent

Oct 01, 2014 at 2:58 PM ET

Beijing celebrated the 65th anniversary of communist China with fireworks, inflatable slides and a formal, red carpet extravaganza on Wednesday, but the scene in Hong Kong was a stark contrast, as a sea of protesters in black T-shirts once again flooded the streets. Their goal: Institute universal suffrage, which the central government in Beijing promised to deliver after the city returned to Chinese rule, but reneged on in August.

Over the past few days, students, office workers and expats from Hong Kong have piled into Admiralty, one of the city’s financial centers. So far, the protesters have been orderly, but some are bracing themselves for the worst. The local government in Hong Kong and their partners on the mainland seem to be trying to wait things out, hoping that the protests will dissolve. We spoke to people on the ground to understand their motivations. They all had one thing in common: a desire for democracy. Many were afraid to give their full names and ages, fearing retribution against their families on the mainland, but few indicated they had any intention of leaving.

How long have you been here?

I haven’t slept for the past three days. I only slept for three hours. It’s crazy. Hey, but what can I do? I have to protect the area because this is where the police are likely to break in to disperse the crowds.

Have your friends from the mainland asked you what’s going on here?

No one yet.

What do you hope to accomplish here?

We want CY Leung to come out and talk to the people and apologize for the use of tear gas and pepper spray.

How are you involved in the protests?

I am in charge of distributing the supplies such as water, food and towels. At this station, there are 15 of us helping out. Right now, some people went home to get some sleep and slower.

Are you optimistic about Hong Kong’s future?

I’m very pessimistic. They city is slowing dying. The feeling I get is that the government can’t tolerate any different views and voices. They want us to say the same thing and agree on everything. They gave us an imperfect proposal on political reform, which was approved by Beijing and they just expect us to deal with it. It’s impossible.

If the situation is that bleak, why are you here?

I love the city too much. I just want to do what I can do at the moment. I don’t know the result. But right now, if I can help in the smallest way, I will surely do it.

What happened on Sunday?

I was distributing supplies when I heard a booming sound. That’s when I realized the police had fired tear gas at students.

Why did you stay?

There is no true democracy in the city. For example, any proposals by the legislators elected from the public have to pass two voting processes before they can be written in law. On the other hand, legislators from Hong Kong’s rich business circle or the pro-Beijing ones only need to pass one voting process. This is unfair. Another reason why I joined is we don’t want a sycophantic chief executive, loyal to Beijing. We feel the government’s affinity with Beijing is suspiciously strong.

But Leung and the central government say they won’t back down. Do you think they ever will?

I am always thinking: Why does the government tell us we are destined to fail? One of the reasons is to stop us from participating in the fight because they are scared of us. That left me wondering if the government is fearful of what we are going to achieve here or simply scaring us. I think it is the former. The more they tell us that we can’t get what we want, the more motivated we are.

Are you afraid of a military crackdown?

Of course. Now we are having a standoff with the government. But the movement has grown so big, out of any individual’s control. It’s truly a people’s movement. But if they move in military troops to quell the protest, they have to remember the world is watching.

Does this movement remind you of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing?

There are some similarities. First of all, all the students are really lovers of peace and their country. We are only sitting in, and we are not promoting violence.

Do people on the mainland seem aware of the protests here?

We know the Chinese central government too well. Even if we don’t cause a disturbance, they will still say we are supported by Western forces to disrupt the social order. They want to demonize or distort our peaceful assembly because they are worried that the protest will spill over to the mainland.

Could similar protests flare up on the mainland?

There is a chance in the far future. At the moment, many mainlanders sympathize with us, but few really dare to stand up.

Why are you here?

I fled from Guangdong to Hong Kong in 1980 or 1981. Life was so hard in China at the time, and we had several relatives already settled in Hong Kong, so five of our family members—including my parents, my younger brother, my sister and I—decided to leave. Once I got here, life completely changed. Everything was so different. It’s hard to describe the excitement I felt at that time after suffering from starvation and political upheavals in mainland China. I dined on Hong Kong noodles for a month because I had never had something like that before.

But when I read the news that the police used pepper spray and tear gas on students, I was so outraged. How could the government turn their back on their own people? This is not the Hong Kong I fled to when I was just in my 20s. I love the city really, and this is why I came out to join the protesters.

What happened to your older brother in mainland China? Does he know about the protests?

I talked to him over the phone several days ago, and was scolded by him.


He doesn’t understand why I wanted to join the protest. He said life has become so much better compared with three decades ago, and I should be appreciative of what I have.

How did you respond?

You know, he is quite stubborn, he is used to living in mainland China now.

How long have you been at the protests?

This is my first day. I have to work during the weekdays.

What do you expect to happen?

I am not sure if there will be military crackdown, but I am hopeful [there won’t be]. We successfully rejected the government’s national education proposal two years ago. Universal suffrage could also be possible for us if we demand what we are promised.

What brought you here?

We want true democracy.

Are you afraid of a military crackdown?

I don’t think the Hong Kong police will fire gunshots at their own people. If they do, that will only inspire more people to come out and support our movement.

Do you have friends on the mainland? What do you say?

Their impression is that Hong Kong is chaotic right now. Tear gas and violence is everywhere. That’s all they read. But you can clearly see this is just a peaceful assembly. Anyone in the world should fight for their universal rights including mainland China.

The Chinese state media is saying these protests are backed by extremists who want to separate Hong Kong from the mainland. Is this true?

We don’t want Hong Kong’s independence from China. We are a part of China. We want peace and prosperity for the city. What we want is to elect our chief executive by one person, one vote.

Do you participate in the annual vigil for the victims of the crackdown on Tiananman Square?

Yes, every year. It’s a part of our history. Because of what they did, we are able to enjoy what have today. We are very grateful for the students who sacrificed themselves for us. What we are doing now is also for the generations to come.


When did you first come out to protest?

Today is the second day. I joined last night and camped out here in Gloucester Road [one of the main roads occupied by the protesters].

And you came here with friends?

About 10, all of the same age. We attended high school together. One of my friends, Nelson Chu has been here for several nights already.

So what brought you guys here?

All of us were outraged by police’s use of tear gas on Sunday. The moment when they fired tear gas at the students, we knew the police had lost.

Do you know about the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananman Square?

Every student in Hong Kong knew about the 1989 crackdown because it’s in our textbook.

Why are you wearing a green ribbon when most people here are wearing yellow ones?

Green is a mixture of yellow and blue. As you know, the students are wearing the yellow one, a sign of support, and people who sympathize with the police force are wearing the blue one. We, however, are quite neutral. We support the students’ cause, but at the same time, we also sympathize with the police force. They are just following orders from the government. That’s why we’re wearing the green one.

Are a lot of people now wearing green ribbons?

It only started yesterday. I can’t say how many, but personally, I am going to be peaceful throughout the whole process.

What do you hope to achieve?

To have the universal suffrage without Beijing screening the [electoral] candidates.

Many protesters want Cy Leung, Hong Kong’s top official, to step down. Do you want the same?

No. If we elect another successor within the current electorate system, and he is forced to resign, it won’t change the fact that we still don’t have universal suffrage. We want one person, one vote.

What are the chances of the central government ever permitting this change?

Very slim, but we are doing our best to fight for it.

If you don’t think the government will back down, why join the protests?

We wanted our messages to be passed on to the next and next generation. At least we fought, even though we failed.

What’s your impression of the protests thus far?

It’s so peaceful. It’s a reflection of the Hong Kong people, who are inherently peace-lovers. One thing that really surprised me is the protesters are so young because most of them are still students. They talk about students, but you only get a sense once you are here. I talk to some elder local residents here. Although, some of them did not come, they all support the protesters. But essentially, we came because we love Hong Kong. We think it’s an amazing place, and I identify myself as one of them as well. They have every right to be here. My knowledge on politics is not brilliant, and they might lose the battle in the end, but I do hope they can get something out of it.

Given that the protesters are so young, does that say anything about the city’s future?

It’s very inspiring. It’s just a very nice and peace-loving people. This gives hope for the city’s future. The biggest mistake the government did was to tear gas the protesters. It shouldn’t have happened. What do they have? Umbrellas.

You live on the mainland. But when did you hear about the protests?

I was on Twitter, and I saw the images of the protesters and reports.

Isn’t Twitter blocked in China?

I used an overseas VPN to bypass the Great Firewall.

You’re just observing the protests, but what do you think of them?

They’re surprisingly peaceful. I am quite proud of Hong Kong people.

Do you think they’ll have an impact on the mainland?

A few people on the mainland know what’s going on here because the censorship moved so fast to delete information and the images of the protests. To be honest, I think Hong Kong is alone. They helped us a lot during the 1989 Beijing student protest by arranging medical aids and sheltering fleeing students. We really want to do something, but our efforts are limited.