An Interview with a Student-Protestor in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

 
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In the last week, student-led demonstrations in Hong Kong erupted to Tiananmen Square levels of open-dissent. In an effort dubbed “Occupy Central”, Hong Kong’s citizenry took to the streets to peacefully protest what they regard as an erosion of their rights and identity by the Beijing government. Their primary grievances concern an August 31st announcement by the National People’s Party that candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive are to be vetted by Beijing. Such a decision effectively rescinds a 2007 promise for universal suffrage by 2017.

Hong Kong’s history is independent from that of China. Similarly, Hong Kongers identify as a different people from those on the Chinese mainland. Their fathers and grandfathers came to Hong Kong to escape the political chaos and widespread lawlessness that beset China during the Opium Wars. For 155 years, Hong Kong was a British colony, and under the implemented colonial system, the people of Hong Kong were governed by a more modernized and well-structured political and legal system compared to China at the time. It was in this time that the idea and identity of Hong Kongers developed to be independent from mainland Chinese.

Then in 1997, Hong Kong returned to the control of the People’s Republic of China and “One Country, Two Systems” governance was enacted. Hong Kong was to retain its established system with a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years after reunification. However, Hong Kongers perceive the agreement to be meaningless if Beijing is to manipulate the electoral process for Chief Executive. The victor would inevitably be a puppet of Beijing.

“It feels to many Hong Kong people that they are trapped, ruled by this system. It is about a sense of complete despair, of seeing no direction open.”

The people of Hong Kong see the Chinese government obstructing their way of life. They don’t want a political system officiated by individuals “chosen for their loyalty to the PRC, irrespective of their ability or personal ethics.” Prices in Hong Kong are being driven up by mainland investors, which has led to young people being unable to afford neither marriage nor children, rent has skyrocketed, and owning homes of their own has become too expensive.

Hong Kongers have decried lawmakers on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to be ineffective because the Council is “half made up of functional constituencies who are either kowtowing to Beijing or to big business.” In the public schools, it’s said that children are fed a “propagandist version of history.”

“Hong Kongers feel they are being used a deliberate tool of assimilation: to ‘mainlandize’ their home and remove it of its identity.”

Enraged at the infringement of their rights and the role Hong Kong plays in Chinese politics, action initiated on September 22nd with the Hong Kong Federation of Students leading class boycotts. Protests escalated quickly within days, and the protestors use of umbrellas to protect themselves against the police’s deployment of pepper spray has quickly earned the event the title, “The Umbrella Revolution.”

Cypher League has been blessed for the opportunity to speak with Pavement, a student-activist who takes his name from having spent these recent nights sleeping on the streets.

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Pavement, thanks for agreeing to speak with Cypher League. The demonstrators in Hong Kong are doing something truly courageous, and it’s crucial to spread awareness of their plight. You’re a student, born & raised in Hong Kong, and you’ve been a part of the protests since the beginning. I understand you have to keep your identity concealed, but is there any more background on yourself that’s crucial to the story?

Any person in Hong Kong who sees social problems would naturally keep a close watch on electoral reform, as it has the possibility to address these issues. Obviously, many Hong Kong citizens are disappointed, feeling betrayed by their own government. I was first involved in this demonstration on September 27th, on which I was to join my friends at Tim Mei Avenue [location of Central Government Office and Legislative Council].

On August 31, China went back on their promise of universal suffrage in 2017, announcing that the Hong Kong Chief Executive would be a candidate vetted by Beijing and not a freely elected official. In response, students from Hong Kong University occupied through-fares in downtown HK in a bid to disrupt the City’s infrastructure & economy, demanding universal suffrage. Since then, the protests have become violent with cops pepper spraying protestors, but the demonstrator’s ranks have swollen. Is this a correct perception of the current situation?

In fact, the first reaction from the student was a class boycott for one week, announced on 22nd of September. It was led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Lectures about civil disobedience and civil rights were given in Tamar Park, located near the Central Government Offices. A number of protests followed, leading up to launch of the Occupying Central campaign. Currently the protestors are occupying Admiralty, Central and Mong Kwok. Escalated actions were hinted recently by the HKFS [Hong Kong Federation of Students], which is yet to be revealed.

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What are you fighting for?

For me, I am protesting for the re-launch of electoral reform [universal suffrage in 2017] and removal of the PRC’s nomination committee, which is currently formed by 1200 “Hong Kong elites.” Many of us would not accept 1200 people deciding our fate, even worse when most of them are pro-China. The existence of this committee largely limited the diversity of Chief Executive candidates, making it easier for the PRC government to cherry-pick and manipulate future Chief Executives.

The current leader was elected solely by the Chinese mainland. Even though the mainland party reneged on a promise to allow complete Hong Kong democracy in the next election in 2017, isn’t the ability to punch a vote and play an active role in selecting your next leader still a step up?

As I mentioned, the nomination committee is still the biggest problem. The PRC government had been cleared that they will only accept candidates that are “China loving and Hong Kong loving”, which translates to “Party loving” to many of us. The democrats and liberals would have the slimmest chance to be a Chief Executive candidate at all. Many predicted that under such conditions, our votes would not represent anything, as we would be picking one puppet from three. Therefore, for true universal suffrage, we must re-launch electoral reform as well, in order to change this.

In the last few years, social media has played a crucial role in large scale protests, how have protestors been utilizing technology in Hong Kong?

I would say that recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have made good use of technology. In the past protestors might not be able to receive live updates of the situation, therefore their actions were limited. Now, with smart phones and mobile internet, protestors can adopt a “guerilla” approach to demonstrations, moving away from danger and re-grouping when appropriate at a new location. Communication is done swiftly and to a large audience. Pages on Facebook have also been essential for those who participate, keeping up with what supplies are needed, the locations of police blockades and verifying wide-spread rumors. This would not have been possible until recent years, enabling high agility actions and more public involvement.

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HK hasn’t experienced such civil unrest since the 1967 Leftist Riots. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to have been, more or less, contentedness under British rule. What changed in HK that led to discontent?

Due to the British rule and Western influences, many people in Hong Kong identify themselves differently from other Chinese in mainland. In recent years, Chinese tourists and investors had brought negative influences to our city, obstructing the life of many citizens. After the economic bloom in China, many Chinese investors take interest in buying luxury [homes], apartments in Hong Kong, driving the price of housing up to an unaffordable level. On the other hand, public housing is extremely limited, much worse when Chinese people who moved into Hong Kong are also competing for it. Despite all the social problems we are facing, the government is doing very little in addressing them, not to mention being overly pro-China. The discontent is real and formidable and is finally transformed into motivation to join the movement.

What does success look like for the protestors? Xi Jinping seems to be playing the waiting game, hoping for the non-dissenting Hong Kong locals to get fed up with protestors gunking up the island’s infrastructural works and for dissenters to inevitably pack up and go home. If so, do you think there are any further (peaceful) measures protestors should be taking?

It would be hard to generalize all protestors’ goals, but from observation, they are mostly similar to what the HKFS has in mind: civil nomination, disapproval of the decision made by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on August 31st, the resignation of CY Leung, Carrie Lam, Rimsky Yuen and Raymond Tam, and opening Tim Mei Avenue and the Civic Plaza to the public. Personally, I care only about the first two. Again, to achieve these goals, it depends on the negotiation with the government, which–sadly–is fruitless at the moment.

Successful or not, I think this demonstration has been a clear sign of the abilities of Hong Kong citizens to unite and remain peaceful under extreme circumstances. This would also be good education for those who remained indifferent and ignorant. To me, success is rather intangible but is certain to be anticipated in the coming years.

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Initially—before umbrellas got involved—this campaign of peaceful dissent was dubbed “Occupy Central,” doubtlessly after America’s own Occupy protests. On the one hand, I find it telling that Western protest rhetoric has been exported to China. However, I also find it somewhat ironic, considering those protests were, by and large, complete failures, arguably due to a lack of clear and determined objectives.

Occupy Central with Love and Peace is a civil disobedient based campaign, fighting for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. It is led by Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at HKU. The idea is to peacefully occupy areas in Central, the business center of Hong Kong. I would say that the current demonstration is far beyond Occupy Central’s reach and is a more collective effort of Hong Kong citizens. In many ways, it is very similar to Occupy Wall Street.

What are Occupy Central’s objectives, and is there complete solidarity in these objectives?

Lack of clear and determined objectives is also a problem faced by Hong Kong protesters. The demonstration harbors a wide range of citizens, with a diversity of reasons for joining in. Not everyone necessarily agree on the HKFS’ four goals, I know that some are here to protest against excessive force used by the police on September 28th.

Are there separatist groups with ulterior motives? For instance, a small band of extremists who want to re-colonize as part of Britain stormed a PLA garrison. They were reported to be students at HKU, too.

There is no lack of extremists, just yesterday (October 3rd) a sounder of anti-Occupy Central people arrived at Mong Kwok to irate protesters, who had been resisting abuse for days. These anti-Occupy Central members injured a number of protesters, as well as insulted them for hours. Many speculate that this to spark violence in the protest zones to disrupt and end this occupy campaign.

Yesterday, there were reports of an anti-occupy mob throwing bottles at protestors. Rumored to be paid thugs from Beijing, what threat do they pose to your efforts?

This morning the Chief Executive mentioned his predictions on the demonstration, in which he mentioned that the protest would eventually end as people who are anti-occupy would take actions. Incidentally, in the same afternoon, mask-wearing thugs arrived at Mong Kwok and Causeway Bay, hurting and frightening peaceful protesters. They were seen insulting protesters and even sexually harassing them, luckily many were caught in videos and photos. Also in the conflict, a protester was assaulted and seen bleeding from the head, whom was later sent to the hospital and was questioned by the police. Many suspects local triad involvement, and their aim being to spark violence in protest zones. This could give a reason for the police to step in and clear off all protest zones, meaning a huge damage to the campaign. Fortunately, the majority of protesters resisted the thugs and had gathered much evidences.

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Western nations are often accused of interfering in internal affairs of other nations, disguised behind ideologies such as ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, in order to shift the future of the country to their benefit. (for example, illegally installing a government in Ukraine). If so, do you see a danger of that happening in Hong Kong? (This, we believe, is one of the largest threats that the PRC sees in Hong Kong.)

note: because Pavement felt himself insufficient in IR to answer this question, he attained direct quotes from Radio Television Hong Kong. They also wished to remain unnamed.

"The demonstration has nothing to do with the US. They cannot be directly involved in it, although might be supportive. I think the efforts come from the Hong Kong people, alone. Same as what happened in Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring. To me, democracy is a dirty word, in fact what the Hong Kong people want is true freedom, which the government had failed to provide us with. I also believe that it’s inherent in people to desire freedom." – from a RTHK reporter
"The students are not motivated by shadowy foreign forces. This is a line Bejing uses. That is not to say no foreign force would take advantage of it, but frankly I am more worried that these shadowy foreign powers would rather Hong Kong students shut up and go away. I think this is desperation. People are just feeling there’s no way out right now, with a pro-China government that does not represent them." – from an Ex-RTHK employee

All photos in the article courtesy of Ricemove. 

 
Ben Toren