After a week of peaceful marches led by student groups protesting China’s plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 election, by Sunday outraged Hong Kongers have occupied and shut down streets in Central and Mongkok in one of the largest showing of civic unrest recently seen in Hong Kong.
Since China’s central government announced on August 31st that candidates for the chief executive’s general election will be chosen solely by Beijing, many students have gone on strike to protest. On Friday things took a dramatic turn, as peaceful protesters occupying Hong Kong city government’s forecourt were met by pepper sprays and heavily armed police officers carrying guns loaded with rubber bullets.
Aiming to extend the momentum generated by the student-led protests, organizers of Occupy Central, a Hong Kong pro-democracy campaign fighting for universal suffrage in 2017, decided to launch their own mass civil disobedience campaign early Sunday, which was earlier than the originally planned Oct. 1st.
“We want to support the students who have been holding up here for quite a while,” said Benny Tai, an organizer of Occupy Central.Several protesters, including the prominent student activist, Joshua Wong, were arrested on Sunday, but were released after a few hours.
On Monday, demonstrations spread to other parts of Hong Kong, including shopping districts and residential areas. While riot police withdrew on Monday after clashing with protesters overnight, the Hong Kong government continued to urge protesters to disperse peacefully. However, several protesters continued to camp out around the government complex. About 3,000 people blocked a major road in Mongkok while about 1,000 others confronted police in Causeway Bay, a busy shopping district.
In a public statement, Occupy Central called on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, to step down, arguing that it is the only way to relaunch the political reform process and defuse the current crisis. China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong expressed their confidence in the Hong Kong government to successfully resolve the public’s anger.
The speed with which protests escalated in Hong Kong came as a surprise to many Hong Kongers, who until as late as last month had remained concerned about the civil disobedience campaign. Several surveys showed a small majority of Hong Kongers had reservations with Occupy Central, and was willing to accept Beijing’s decision.
However, public opinion is quickly shifting after first hand reports from the scene quickly circulated online and social media, with images of police cracking down on protesters with batons, tear gas, pepper sprays and rubber bullets. Protesters were seen using lab goggles, plastic wrap, and umbrellas to deflect the tear gas and pepper sprays. Many people have changed their profile pictures on Facebook to a yellow ribbon on a black background, a token of support for the protesters.
Despite the intensifying show of discontent, Beijing has shown no sign that it is willing to reconsider its decision regarding chief executive elections. Multiple government agencies condemned the Occupy Central Movement, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the current electoral framework possesses “unshakable legal basis and effectiveness.”
While Hong Kongers continue to join fellow protesters in the street, it could be an uphill battle as Beijing continues to uphold its stance over Hong Kong’s 2017 election. The real battle, according to Rachel Lu of US magazine Foreign Policy, “is for Hong Kong’s people’s hearts and minds,” because witnessing riot police rounding up their unarmed compatriots may only deepen their distrust for the Hong Kong authorities and their backers in Beijing.
(Feature photo of protester and riot police in Hong Kong, by Dan Garrett)