The Hong Kong protests as peaceful, gentle and determined

Civic Action08 Oct 2014Valentina Mazzucato

The summer of 2014 marked an outburst of the conflict between ‘Beijing’ and Hong Kong about the democratic rights enjoyed by the autonomous region of China. The White Paper issued on 10 June, as well as the results of the unofficial referendum held on 30 June, have led to a series of protests in Hong Kong. In this blog Valentina Mazzucato reflects on her personal experiences during her stay in the metropolitan city. 

When I chose Hong Kong as my sabbatical destination for five months, the last thing I expected was to be caught up in a historical moment like this. As battlefield images of tear gas, running students, umbrellas used as shields against water cannon and armoured policemen are spread around the globe thanks to CNN, the BBC and Aljazeera, I feel compelled to share some images of what I have seen in these past days.The first thing to hit me was the incredible quiet: no cars, no buses, no trams, no minibuses with their clapped-out engines spewing carbon monoxide into the air. No SUVs, no Mercedes Benz’s, no Ferraris or Lamborghinis in the centre where the crème de la crème of financial sector workers go to buy their Rolexes and Piagets. Enormous highways, two to four lanes each, branching off into overpasses crisscrossing each other, filled with people walking, sitting, talking, making posters, studying the Internet on their cell-phones, reading a novel, manning recycle collection points, offering translation services to the 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 struck me was the incredible calm and seriousness in the air. Thousands of young people gathered in one place immediately conjures up images of festivals, special holidays or protests. Either way, these events are loud, with music, people dancing, drinking or chanting slogans, raised fists and anger. Here there are none of those things. Students talk or are busy doing something calmly and with intent. Nothing is on sale. Everything is free. I was walking around with an origami rose pinned to my shirt that I picked up from a student with a serious face who was sitting on the highway, leaning her back against the cement barrier that normally divides east-bound and west-bound traffic. If you looked carefully, the road was full of things to 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 ‘Don’t hurt anyone, just protect the ones you love’; another said ‘Stay calm, fight for universal suffrage’. I liked them both and was contemplating which to take, when the student smiled brightly and said ‘Why don’t you take both?’. I approached the government building where police barricades protected the road and where, inside the two-metre thick walls, there were armoured trucks and army officers walking briskly to and fro. I could see this from one of the overpasses. I saw students standing there, with their goggles and rain coats, ready for any eventuality. Here you could feel some tension—as though you didn’t know what might happen. But even here, in the ‘riskiest’ place, it was amazingly calm.

On 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. Part of the Hong Kong mentality is about having rules and complying with them. The protests were declared illegal by the government and this affected people’s perception of them: they saw them as 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, there was some scepticism about the student movement at first. It has something to do with the Confucian saying that ‘the son (Hong Kong) cannot tell the father (China) what to do’. This created some anguish amongst them. In Hong Kong, as in China, student – teacher relations are seen as a form of family ties. 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, on the first day, there was an occupation but it was 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. Rather than dissipate, the crowd multiplied and was duplicated in other central locations in the city. From then on, with their gentleness and determination, the students won the hearts of the city. Even the national newspapers turned from scepticism to vocal articles supporting the protests.

I write this as the student leaders are preparing to meet with the Chief Secretary to discuss their most basic demand: 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, during which they are still a Special Administrative Region of China and in which they have ‘one country, two systems’. The fact that they have managed to arrange this meeting already goes against the sceptics’ 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 the protestors 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.