Today Hong Kong enters its second week of demonstrations against limitations imposed by Beijing on the city’s right to fully elect its own chief executive – the leader who sits at the head of the region’s government.
What began on 22 September as a boycott of school classes by two groups representing Hong Kong’s university students has led to a full-blown occupation of many of the city’s main streets.
At the beginning, it wasn’t clear how long the movement could continue. But when the Hong Kong police fired tear gas at a predominantly peaceful (and entirely unarmed) crowd on the first day of the occupation last Sunday, the protest was jolted to a new level. A week ago, an estimated 100,000 Hong Kongers took to the streets in response; not only campaigning for their right to vote but also voicing opposition to the government’s use of force. Over 3km of the city’s main thoroughfares were taken over by a sea of protestors. Supply tents stocked with food, water and protective gear to combat potential future attacks of tear gas or pepper spray were set up in multiple locations. Medical students built and stocked numerous first-aid tents, local restaurants delivered freshly cooked food and there were even a couple of outdoor classrooms to help school and university students with their homework. In contrast to the scenes of riot police and violence the night before, last Monday began what has frequently been referred to as the world’s most polite protest.
I’ve visited the main site of the protest on each day since the first student rally. As a foreigner, there’s always a person who will ask if I need help with translation to understand various placards or speeches. If I’m hot, someone will offer a fan, a bottle of water or a cooling towel. And if I’m searching for a way out, there will be hands to guide me over the handmade steps and platforms that have been erected to ease movement through the site. There are even signs pinned to roadblocks apologising for any inconvenience caused.
The future of the occupation is unclear. Violence against the demonstrators from groups that oppose them occurred on Friday night, protestor numbers are slowly dwindling and Hong Kongers’ patience towards the disruption of both transport and business in the city is being tested. Neither Hong Kong’s officials nor the Chinese government look set to make concessions and the movement is lacking in clear leadership.
One thing is for sure, though. In the past the young people of Hong Kong have been unfairly depicted as an apathetic generation – often appearing more attached to their mobile phones than the world around them – while living in a prosperous and extremely safe city. But Hong Kong’s students have gained new respect for their polite, peaceful and persistent protest against legislation that they see as wrong.
While many may be worried about the negative impact that these protests will have on Hong Kong’s economy and image, I think the opposite should be true. Hong Kong has now shown that it is home to an organised, capable, determined and polite generation. In my opinion, businesses should be fighting to capitalise on what this future labour force could achieve.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.