By Solange Harpham

Many thanks to my friends and correspondants in HK: Michelle Lai. Howard Kwong, Elfa Wong, Tsz Kin Leung and Bally Man.

“I just came back from the protest,” a young Hong-Kongese woman of 28 writes to me, “It was very calm, but rain like really crazy. [sic] People are still there, they distributed medicine, fruit, water and anythings. Volunteers come by to collect rubbish. Hong Kong is such a lovely lovely city.”

Global media everywhere report the same thing: the protest taking place in Hong Kong’s financial district is peaceful, calm and even…polite.

Signs are everywhere apologizing for the barricades, students sit down and do their homework, photos show crowds of people milling, sitting, chatting. If there hadn’t been the tear gas, pepper spray and riot police a day ago, which awoke the world to the reality of the political upheaval Hong Kong was experiencing, one could have thought the government was deaf and blind to those banging on its door.

A fanged Xi Jingping. Photo Credit: Elfa Wong

A fanged Leung Chun Ying. Photo Credit: Elfa Wong

But the riot police can only do so much against crowds of peaceful non-rioting citizens asking for basic political rights: the right to choose their leaders and to do so without any meddling from the Communist Party of China. The conviction that they are doing the right thing keeps the students, employees, men and women of all ages on the streets.

China has until now allowed Hong Kong to live under a “One Country Two Systems” policy and had even promised through Hong Kong’s Basic Law to implement universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council – this to be implemented in 2017. Its recent change of heart on August 31st, and its decision to instead appoint a committee to choose eligible candidates sparked widespread protests and the initiative “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” to grow into the civil disobedience movement we know.

“Fewer than 7% of the HK citizens have the right to decide who takes part in the committee,” explains Bally Man, a 24 year-old banker, “In fact, the Chinese Government and the rich have the power to manipulate the committee and choose who they want to be candidates. They can effectively control the election.”

Rumours of such a betrayal had been circulating even before August and citizens had already tried to take matters into their own hands by organizing a “civil referendum” which the Chinese government had already violently condemned, and by a march on the 1st of July which gathered thousands of people. No one, however, could have imagined the extent of today’s movement and the calm resolve of its protesters.

It is this continued lack of dailogue and compromise coming from the government which, Elfa tells me, is the reason for the magnitude of the protest. “The HK government so far did not answer the requests from the protesters. And they keep on saying this demonstration and protest is illegal. We wouldn’t want to rush out on street and take the tear gas for democracy, if the system provided us a proper way to achieve democracy. [sic]  If the Chief Executive of Hong Kong had ever communicated with the people, why would we come out?”

But how will the Chinese government react? Some have voiced fears of a second Tiananmen Square, which had also been a peaceful protest organized by students in favour of more democracy and freedom of expression. Hundreds died at the hands of the Chinese police in 1989. Umbrellas may enough against rain, tear gas and pepper spray but surely not against bullets.

However, although some describe the protest as “the biggest challenge to  China’s government since Tiananmen”, others call this fear premature: for one, October 1st is China’s national day and not a day the Chinese government would want remembered as the time they shot  at unarmed students. Secondly, despite the blocking of Instagram, We-Chat and other means of communicating with the outside world, it is with renewed interest that the outside world is now watching Hong Kong. China, for all its muscle-flexing, may not want another Tiananmen Square Massacre to damage the image of a “responsible power” it has been trying to build ever since Xi Jinping has come to power. A more real danger than the possible intervention of the military, says Bally Man, is that the movement with time may “lose its focus” as the government continues to ignore them. How to protest against one who does not even admit your existence? But the “Occupy Center with Peace and Love” demonstrations do not seem to have lost their determination for now and have even managed to provoke respect and admiration from many abroad.

These events may also be a tipping point in the precautious balance of Hong Kong and Chinese relations. How will China react? Will it let the protesters go unscathed, or even backtrack on its decision, risking other protests of similar magnitude in other parts of China? Will the central government continue to ignore the protests or will it try to be more heavy-handed? The protesters, among barricades and placards of “democracy for Hong Kong” (as well as the odd Leung Chun Ying depicted with fangs), are waiting for their decision under a sea of drenched umbrellas.

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Featured Image Credit: Elfa Wong