Hunkering Down

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Hong Kong -- On the evening of Saturday, October 4, enormous crowds gathered in downtown Hong Kong at the main site of the democracy protests that have dominated the affairs of this city of 7.2 million for weeks. They filled an eight-lane thoroughfare in the center of the Admiralty business district, spilling out around the adjacent government office complex. Banners hanging from overpasses demanded democracy and denounced the deeply unpopular, Beijing-appointed chief executive, CY Leung.

A university student working as an usher—I’ll call him Teddy—interpreted the speeches for me. As the band Beyond sang the anthem of the protest movement, he held his cell phone up above his head, its bright screen lighting up the dark with thousands of others. A broad smile came across his face when the students leading the “Umbrella” movement—Alex Chow, Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old head of Scholarism, representing secondary school students—took the stage.  

That night was an extraordinary display of the movement’s character just a day after tattooed thugs, presumed linked to Hong Kong’s criminal triads, had attacked pro-democracy protesters in the Mong Kok neighborhood.  

As they had throughout the protests, the participants showed discipline, civic mindedness, humor, and grace. At the same time, anxiety was mounting. At the end of the evening, Teddy urged me not to come back the next night for fear I might get hurt if Leung followed through on his threat to clear the protests by the start of the work week.   

Nothing happened that Sunday night, or this past week. Some of life has returned to normal, with children in the neighborhoods around the protests returning to school, and protesters allowing civil servants to get to their offices. 

In the meantime, demonstrators continue to hold ground, in smaller numbers. Determined to maintain leverage for promised talks with the government, they called for a new round of civil disobedience. Pro-democracy politicians who had taken a low profile joined in, saying they would obstruct some business in the legislature. Late on Thursday, the government abruptly canceled the meeting with demonstrators. In fact, the talks were already foundering as the government has insisted that they be confined to the blueprint for Hong Kong’s political system already laid out by Beijing, and exclude the August 31 decision that candidates for elective office in 2017 must be approved by Beijing.  

Just children in 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to China, the students leading the movement feel unconstrained by the deal made back then between London and Beijing, over their parents’ heads, delivering Hong Kong to Communist rule. That agreement did not foresee that, far from becoming adapted to Beijing’s rule, the people of Hong Kong would develop a distinct identity, tightly linked to civil liberties, the rule of law, and the institutions that make Hong Kong different from the mainland. More than most democracy movements, this one is seeking to defend what people already have. To do that, they need a government accountable to the electorate.  

This is a challenge not only to Beijing, but also to those democracies that tacitly accept China’s control of Hong Kong and the inevitable erosion of its way of life. “We have principles and values that we want to promote,” an unnamed senior Obama administration official told the New York Times. “But we’re not looking to inject the United States into the middle of this.” Even so, there is genuine disappointment here at the lack of support from the world’s most powerful democracy. “To stand on the side of power in such a struggle is contrary to the most basic principles of free societies,” said Margaret Ng, a former pro-democracy lawmaker and barrister.  

As of now, the authorities appear to be biding their time. They may hope the inconvenience caused by the protests will erode support for the demonstrators, or that the government will have a freer hand to act after the summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which President Obama is scheduled to attend in Beijing in November. 

With talks between the students and the authorities off for now, and with some rest for demonstrators over the past several days, the crowds are likely to return to the streets. Tensions will mount. The students and their political allies and supporters can expect to be targeted by Beijing. Indeed, such pressures have already started. At the rally last Saturday, Joshua Wong, the young hero of the movement, addressed himself to people who had gone to his home and harassed his parents. “If you want to threaten me, do,” he said, “but leave my parents alone.”

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