As battle-field images of tear gas, running students, umbrellas used as shields against water guns and armored policemen spread through the globe thanks to CNN, BBC, and Aljazeera, I feel compelled to share with you some images of what I’ve seen these days as I walked the streets occupied by students in Hong Kong.
The first thing to hit me is the incredible quiet: no cars, no busses, no trams, no mini busses with their expired motors spewing carbon monoxide into the air. No SUVs, no Mercedes Benz, no Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the center of town where the top of the top, financial sector workers go to buy their Rolexes and Piagets. Just enormous highways, two to four lanes each, branching off into overpasses crisscrossing each other filled with … people walking, sitting, conversing, making posters, studying the Internet on their cell-phones, reading a novel, manning recycle collection points, offering translations services to media, free food and water, or simply sleeping to recover from the long days and nights. Lots of space. Lots of air.
The second thing that strikes me is the incredible calm and seriousness in the air. Thousands of young people collected in one location immediately conjures memories of festivals, special holidays or protests. Either way, these events are loud, with music, people dancing and drinking or with chanting of slogans, fists raised, anger. Here it is neither. Students talk or are busy doing something calmly and with intent. Nothing is for sale. Everything is free. I am walking with an origami rose pinned to my shirt that I picked up from a student with a serious face who was sitting on the pavement of the highway, leaning her back on the cement division that normally divides east-bound and west-bound traffic. If you look carefully it is full of things you can pick up along the way. In the middle of a road there were pages of stickers on a chair. When I stopped to look at them a student approached me to explain what they said. (Almost everything, from banners to stickers to signboards, is in Cantonese: this is their thing, it is not for the media and the international world.) One said: “Do not hurt anyone, just protect the ones you love”; the other said “stay calm, fight for universal suffrage”. I liked them both and was contemplating which to take, when the student opens a bright smile and says, ‘why don’t you take both?’. As I approached the government building where the police barricades protected the road and where, inside the 2-meter walls, armored trucks and army officers were walking briskly to and fro (I could see this from one of the overpasses), students were standing, with their goggles and rain coats, ready for any eventual need. Here one could feel some tension—as though one didn’t really know what might happen. But even for being the ‘riskiest’ place, it was amazingly calm.
The days leading up to the protests and even on the first day, when students occupied the streets, they did not have the full support of the population here. Part of the Hong Kong identity is about having rules and acting according to the rules. These protests were declared illegal by the government and this affected how people viewed them: going against the rules. Even amongst my colleagues in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, who are some of the most actively engaged in society—they occupy high positions in government advisory boards and in civil society organizations, some are honorary jurors, and others have important medals of honor granted by the Hong Kong government for service to society—there was some skepticism about the student movement at first. It is long to explain but has something to do with the Confucian saying that ‘the son (Hong Kong) cannot tell the father (China) what to do’. This created quite some anguish amongst them. In Hong Kong, as in China, student – teacher relations are seen as a form of family. PhDs for example, are the sons and daughters of their supervisors, and PhDs of the same supervisor call each other brother and sister. Colleagues seemed to feel the anguish of a parent whose experience tells her these protests will not get students very far, and who is scared for the safety of her children.
And indeed, the first day, there was an occupation but quite moderate—not many students showed up. What really spurred the incredible solidarity and numbers was the government’s reaction with pepper spray on Sunday evening, 28 September. Rather than dissipate, the crowd multiplied and duplicated itself in other central locations in the city. From then on, with their gentleness and determination, the students have won the hearts of the city, even the national newspapers went from skepticism to downright supportive articles on the protests.
I write this as the student leaders are preparing to meet with the Chief Secretary to discuss their most basic demand: a true universal suffrage in which citizens of Hong Kong are free to elect their own representatives, irrespective of whether China approves of them or not… at least for the next 33 years in which they are still a Special Administrative Region of China and in which they have ‘one country two systems’. Already the fact that they have obtained this meeting goes against the skeptics’ expectations…
I really do not know what outcome to expect. But I do think that the power of this protest, the solidarity, the independence, determination, and incredible organization that they have shown, has given students a different sense of who they are and their role as citizens in Hong Kong which they will carry with them for a long time.