by our Hong Kong alumnus correspondent
On Sunday night in Hong Kong, the first can of teargas exploded over protesters in a district called Admiralty. Momentarily, people dispersed somewhat, as the police held up black signs that read: “WARNING: TEAR SMOKE”. The signs were double-sided, possibly for the police’s convenience. The other side of the signs had an orange background, and the words on them read: “DISPERSE OR WE FIRE”.
They were likely a reference to rubber bullets. But despite these warnings, people returned time and time again, in ever greater numbers. Soon, the protests were no longer confined in Admiralty: they had spread to other districts in Hong Kong such as Mongkok and Causeway Bay. A significant number of protesters stayed the night.
By now, the international media had turned its spotlight on Hong Kong. The police announced later that they did not fire any rubber bullets on Sunday night. Some protesters dispute this statement. The police also announced that they had used 87 canisters of teargas.
A significant undertaking by the protesters from the very beginning was that their movement should be a peaceful one. A pro-government organisation took the opportunity to post photos of the Sunday crackdown, while criticising the protesters for failing to remain peaceful. This portrayal was wholly inaccurate. Since Sunday night, the police have not used any more teargas – and the violence disappeared entirely. Since Monday, sights at the protest include: students bringing their homework and assignments to the protests sites to do work while at the sit-in, volunteers patrolling the protest sites with water and bread to distribute, while others collected rubbish and sorted them for recycling. One protester was photographed cleaning up an earlier piece of graffiti which read “dismiss the government”; the rest of the messages at the protest sites were overwhelmingly written on paper and then taped to walls or bus stops or vehicles, or written using chalk – all easily removable.
What, then, was the message of the protest? It was to ask for universal suffrage and democracy – no more and no less. In 2007, Beijing had promised to give Hong Kong universal suffrage. This year, it announced that “universal suffrage” would proceed by Beijing’s own standards, which meant that all candidates seeking the job of Hong Kong’s head of government had to be vetted by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists before the public may vote on them. Many in Hong Kong rightly did not consider this democracy.
One may derive two lessons from the events of the past few days. The first lesson is that you don’t have to be in Hong Kong to help Hong Kong – even the simple act of paying attention is invaluable. One speculating at why there was not more violence on Monday night or Tuesday night might well arrive at the answer that it was because the entire world saw the teargas against unarmed protesters on Sunday night – and will not forget it anytime soon. The second lesson is – as the brave citizens of Hong Kong that took to the streets have shown, and are still there at the time of writing – a little security and safety in one’s own home is no replacement for standing on the right side of history.