Hong Kong’s Occupy Central is an intriguing study in civil disobedience.
At this writing now into its third day (the fourth, by the time you read this), the protest action has seen the occupation of the central business district of Hong Kong by several thousand people, mostly young students who are boycotting classes.
The protest was launched to pressure the central Chinese government to allow general suffrage and open nominations of candidates in Hong Kong’s next election, scheduled in 2017. Under the present system, the candidates are preselected by Beijing.
I have been following the reports on Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which include almost hourly updates throughout the day (and night)—and the emerging picture is a protest marked by amazing restraint on the part of the protesters, and, to some extent, by the police. On the first night of the protest action the police did fire tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds, and arrested some of the leaders and demonstrators, who were released after a brief detention. The crowds retreated from the tear gas, but stayed on.
All over the world, and especially in the Philippines, a rally with young people would be marked by tense and angry confrontations that often erupt in violence. In Hong Kong, the main tumult seems to comprise crowds chanting the name of Hong Kong’s governor-general, followed by “Resign!” The South China Morning Post did report that some of the policemen were complaining about being on the receiving end of foul language from some of the protesters.
Except for the pepper spray and tear gas, no assaults or violent incidents have been reported. On the second night there was a car that reportedly sped into the crowd, but the incident did not result in injuries. There was also a report of an elderly woman who started hitting protesters with a stick, but she explained later that she was retaliating because they used foul language on her.
The protesters have been able to police themselves, even to make vital decisions by a show-of-hands vote—for example, whether to reduce (or not) the barricades along Nathan Road, one of the main streets. They decided against it.
The protesters seem to be doing a lot of group singing, although the news reports don’t say what the songs are. At one point, a group of classical music students calling themselves “Strings of Justice” showed up with violins, violas, cello and cajon to play for the crowds, including a song, “Do You Hear The People Sing,” from “Les Misérables.” No revolutionary songs, as you’d expect in such protest actions.
Most incredible were reports that there was no littering of the streets, with the protesters properly disposing of their garbage.
For high-tech Hong Kong, this civil disobedience movement would not be complete without parallel actions on social media—and that’s where there seems to be more confrontations between those who support and those who oppose the mass action. Those supporting Occupy Central mainly talk about the future of democracy in Hong Kong, while those who oppose say the protesters are not being grateful for years of prosperity and peace in the former British colony.
There has also been a reported conspiracy angle, with social media users “attacking” pro-Beijing bloggers and accusing them of being paid by the Chinese government, or of being agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
I do wonder at times about the forces behind the protests. You cannot have a completely spontaneous protest movement of this size, and of this civil deportment, without conscious organizing, and direction. Some leaders of the protest action have been visible, notably a 17-year-old student, Joshua Wong, who heads a group called Scholarism. He was among those arrested and briefly detained.
The calls for democratic reforms have been around for a few years now, emanating from a number of opposition parties and civil society organizations in Hong Kong, but again, there does not seem to be a central coordinating body for all these. Twitter sites with names like Occupy Central and #hkclassboycott have been clearly functioning as communications hubs, with calls like “Retreat. Stay safe.” But again, it is not clear who is calling the shots.
I do worry as I write this, on Sept. 30, the eve of China’s National Day. For sure it is something that the rally organizers had in mind. Already, the government has called off the fireworks scheduled to celebrate the occasion.
Will there be another kind of fireworks? Will there be a “mini Tiananmen,” as one Hong Kong legislator has direly warned? He was referring to youthful prodemocracy activists in Beijing more than 25 years ago, who held their ground for several days before the government cracked down one night, leading to the deaths of a still undetermined number of protesters.
I am fearful, too, that Occupy Central might be similar to the Arab Spring, the prodemocracy movements in several Middle Eastern countries that saw huge crowds thronging the streets, with social media playing an important role. Long-ruling despots were brought down in Egypt and Libya, but what followed has been widespread instability, even a breakdown of the fragile democracies that came about and a rise of extremist Islamist groups filling the political vacuum.
Political movements need strong organized groups, with a clear vision that can be sustained in the long run, fueled by more than ideals and good will.
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Errata for the last column: I wrote about the late botanist Leonard Co mentioning that he would have turned 61 on Sept. 29. His birthday was actually Dec. 29. I also mentioned Vigan as one of the Philippine towns named after a tree, and erroneously placed it in Ilocos Norte when it should be Ilocos Sur.
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