A letter from Hong Kong


Nick Helleberg

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

2 October 2014

Nick Helleberg writes to us from the streets of Hong Kong.

The major shopping streets and business areas in Hong Kong are full of demonstrators these days. I have been to Nathan Road in Mong Kok or Admiralty before, but it is hard to believe what is happening there right now. Demonstrators are blocking the streets in thousands and they are occupying some of the cities busiest areas.

Back in Europe, demonstrations of this size normally leave a mess in the city with lots of garbage and broken shop windows. But this is not Europe, this is Hong Kong, and the people demonstrating here for universal suffrage are not just some bored kids, they are serious about why they are here and what they want to change.

The atmosphere among the demonstrators is peaceful and relaxed. Everybody helps each other out. At every corner water bottles, eye masks (for protecting against tear gas) and umbrellas are handed to fellow protesters. Umbrellas have become the new sign of this protest against the election reform as a shelter against tear gas, rain and sun. The other symbol that you see everywhere on the streets, barricades, people’s chests and Facebook profile pictures is the yellow ribbon on black ground. It is the symbol of civil resistance that shows the sympathies for the demonstrations. When you wear the ribbon as I do, you tend to receive a supportive reaction from Hong Kong locals wherever you go, whether it is a cook in a local dim sum restaurant or a family at a temple.

A Hong Kong father of a three-month old son asked me about my ribbon and we got talking. He and his wife attended one of the biggest protests in Admiralty on Monday, because they heavily disagreed with the use of tear gas against the protesters, the vast majority being very young students. The use of tear gas on Sunday really upset a lot of Hong Kong citizens and the numbers of demonstrators increased massively. The father said he is happy to fight for a democratic future for his son, without a heavy influence of the Chinese Communist Party, and with universal suffrage. It appears, that many people in Hong Kong are afraid that China wants to impose tighter controls over the city. The ditches between Mainland China and Hong Kong are deep, and many people from the special administrative region do not feel they have a lot in common with people from the mainland.

What really made a resounding impression on me is how calmly and peacefully the mostly young people demonstrate here. This can be seen, for example, at a street scene in Admiralty where an open microphone was installed and everybody who wanted to share something could address the demonstrators. Nobody speaks aggressively or screams empty slogans. The people want to send a sign simply with their presence on the streets.

When I talked to some of the demonstrators I was surprised by their strong critical thinking and will.They probably feel that now is the best, and maybe the only, time to raise their voice in order to fight for real democratic elections in 2017. On Tuesday night, hours before the ceremony for the national day of China started, I asked some protesters what their goals and plans were. They said they want to stay until midnight or the next morning to show that they do not agree with the current reforms by Beijing. When asked what they wanted to do if the police tried to dissolve the protests they were unsure, but most of them wanted to stay. I was deeply impressed by their courage and strong sense of justice.

This is a sharp contrast to the situation on the mainland. Although about 630 million people are online in China, most people do not hear anything about the protests in Hong Kong. If they hear something about it, it tends to be represented as either thousands of people who celebrating the 65th birthday of the PRC, or as chaotic protests of a minority. On Monday, Instagram got blocked in the mainland as a reaction to the posts about Hong Kong shared there.

Many people in Hong Kong feel that free democratic elections are an experiment that could be worth trying for the party leaders in Beijing, following China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping’s approach of “crossing the river stone by stone”. But Beijing obviously felt different and the reaction shows that it feels threatened about the current developments. It is hard to imagine what could happen if people in Shanghai or Shenzhen, two of the most open cities in China, get to know more the protests. The party is concerned about the stability in China and Hong Kong and thus the reaction of the hardliners in Beijing is understandable.

If not now, then when?

If not us, then who?

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