The Hong Kong people are considered the world’s most polite protesters. We queue, recycle and clean up after ourselves. Our protests have always gone without a hitch. Not any more. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this week are in disbelief.
On Friday night the police arrested and attacked many of the students present with pepper spray after a few tried to climb a fence to reclaim what many consider a public space in front of government headquarters. Then, on Sunday, when adults joined the students in their protest, not only did the pepper spray return but the police unleashed canister after canister of teargas into the densely packed crowd. It was at this point that I noticed many Hong Kong people saying: “This isn’t supposed to happen here. This isn’t the Hong Kong I know.”
Yet other people I have talked to, many from an older generation, don’t have much sympathy for the protesters. They feel it is not possible to win against the government, especially when it is backed by Beijing, and argue that the protests are not worth the trouble, that there could be repercussions. Tiananmen Square comes to mind, naturally. But Tiananmen is not the only historical context for understanding what is happening Hong Kong, let alone the best one.
The current protests are as much about democracy as they are about growing social inequality. Students see their options shrinking in front of them. An apartment has always been expensive in Hong Kong, but it has become almost impossible for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder. According to a recent survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a family of four must pay 13 times their annual income to purchase a tiny 37 sq metres (400 sq ft) flat. To top it off, Hong Kong took top honours in the recent Economist crony-capitalism index, beating Russia to first place.
Unsurprisingly, trust in the government is at an all time low. This distrust has been building up for over a decade. In 2003, the public came out in massive numbers to protest against Article 23, a national security law that the government was trying to push through, and would have impinged on our freedoms. The protests were peaceful but persistent. To the surprise of many, the protesters pressured the government to shelve the plan indefinitely.
More recently, in 2012, the public protested against the national education plan that the government was trying to push through. This scheme would be mandatory to all students, and many citizens called it brainwashing propaganda because it included textbooks that dismissed the multiparty systems and glossed over Tiananmen and the Cultural Revolution. Yet again, to the surprise of many, the protests pressured the government to overturn its decision to make the plan mandatory.
The latest proposal the government is trying to push through is the election framework for 2017. The Hong Kong Basic Law, ratified by China and the UK in 1984, stipulates that “the election of the fifth chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage”. Yet, after years of delays and broken promises, the current proposed framework mandatesthat any candidate running for chief executive has to be vetted by a small committee stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. Simply put, they want to control who can run. For many, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Let’s be realistic. None of the students I have spoken to expect “democracy” to magically solve all their problems. They also understand that many are sceptical about their chances to change the government’s mind. But history has taught them not only that change is possible but that if they don’t do it, no one else will. Armed with little more than clingfilm on their faces, face masks, safety goggles, and umbrellas as protection against pepper spray and teargas, they fight for their dream of a better future. A little hope can go a long way.