Rutvica Andrijasevic, Lecturer in Employment Studies at the School, overviews some provisional findings from the research she has been doing into the ongoing protest
While ‘Occupy Central’ has become the umbrella term applied to Hong Kong’s ongoing mobilisations, three less heeded groups are also playing very active roles within it. Scholarism, founded by Joshua Wong, comprised of secondary-school students, is a group which first drew attention to itself in 2011 by opposing the Communist Government’s Tiananmen massacre forgetting ‘national education’ plan. Federation of Students, Hong Kong’s biggest student organisation, is known for the pro-democratic stance it took within the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and its vice secretary, Lester Shum, is one of the movement’s noted spokespeople. Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a civil disobedience campaign, is led by Benny Tau of University of Hong Kong Law department, Chan Kin of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Sociology department and the pastor Chu Yiu of the Chai Wan Baptist Church. The latter is a well-known human rights activist especially respected for its role in helping students flee mainland China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The group’s shared demand is simple: universal suffrage for the Hong Kong chief executive election in 2017, as promised in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Hong Kongers, the demand goes, should be able to elect their own Chief Executive, rather than choosing from among Beijing-vetted candidates. The electoral struggle reflects a larger anxiety that Beijing is systematically undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, Hong Kong, one of the people I spoke to during my ethnographic work informed me, is guaranteed ‘a high degree of autonomy’ in all matters except those of foreign affairs and defence. The height of this autonomy is a matter of some contention. The prospects don’t bode well for the protesters since, by 2047, Hong Kong will revert to full Chinese sovereignty, as laid down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Basic Law is also set to be repealed on the first of July of that year, 50 years after the end of British rule. There is a real sense that this fight needs to be had now, or not at all.
This isn’t just a protest about political rights to be gotten through electoral reform. A poster with the caption ‘18 square feet = 8,000 HK$ per month’ makes the discontent all too clear: living away from home is prohibitively expensive. Social inequality in Hong Kong is the starkest of all developed economies: while in 2013 the region boasted one of the highest pro capita incomes in the world, 19.6% of the population lived below the official poverty line. Commentators have explained this phenomenon in terms of mainland investment in the region, an analysis which can only serve to further exacerbate add to the protestor’s sense of malignant external influence.
Beyond raising these important issues, the protests have also provided Hong Kong residents with what, for many, has been an unprecedented luxury: a public forum for political deliberation. This makes it all the more important for the activists to think strategically about how to maintaining the sites, about how to protect them against those who would seek their discontinuation. So the geography of the protest bears consideration. The main occupy site is at Admiralty, next to the main government building. A smaller site not far away is at Causeway Bay, in many ways this is Hong Kong’s altar to consumerism. The third site, similar in size to the one on Causeway Bay, is located in Mong Kok, Kowloon: north of Hong Kong Island and south of the Chinese mainland. These sites are strategically selected in two senses. Firstly, by occupying sections of the main roads the occupiers block traffic, thus gaining some influence over the city. Secondly, by dispersing police force across three different sites, the government’s resources become severely stretched, making it difficult to shut down any single site. From this the axiom many of my respondents shared with me: ‘If Mongkok falls, Admiralty cannot hold for much longer’.
The Mong Kok site warrants special consideration. This area has been transformed from the most densely populated area of the world to a site where, instead of an incessant flow of cars and buses, there are now barricades enclosing tents, marquees, megaphone announcements and public debate. Unlike the site of Admiralty, Mong Kok protesters aren’t so regularly exposed to attacks from police and triads. When, on the 28th of September, it was attacked by police with 87 rounds of tear gas, non-affiliated locals came out on the streets in solidarity with the protestors. Umbrellas were used here as a form of defence, hence the term ‘umbrella revolution’. And again when, on the 17th of October, the police attempted to remove the barricades once and for all, thousands of protestors swelled in, stretching the surface area of the occupation to one even larger than before.
The quantitative ebbing and flowing of protesters has been a regularly observed feature of the ongoing mobilisation. This is a fact oriented around demanding working hours and an occasionally hostile climate. The fluctuations also have a strategic component to them, however, since it simply wouldn’t be feasible to keep a constant high numeric presence at all three sites. At most given times the tents have very low occupancy rates. These very quickly fill up, however, on demand. When Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam called off talks with the students planned for the 10th of October, for example, tens of thousands very quickly came in support of the cause. In this sense the protests resembles a tidal wave that quickly swells, only to recede away, and perhaps swell, again. Social media have played a crucial tactical role here and it is precisely for this reason that a cyber-attack was made against the Occupy Central website, in conjunction with the development and implementation of a surveillance app.
The most unconventional dimension of the protests is surely the form they’ve taken. This isn’t a series of militant marches so much as it is a series of friendly sit-ins between students, families, couples, children, and the elderly. Protestors settle on the blankets, newspapers or shower curtains brought along with them, they munch on the food picked up at a nearby joint, they get regular updates on the political and practical situation and they sing along to the movement’s emergent anthems. The restrooms are supplied with face and body creams, gels, wipes, shampoo etc. for common use and on the square, snacks and water come for free. A study area, with improvised desks, allows secondary-school students to do their homework while lists of supportive institutions are provided and distributed in order to forge further alliances. For a city driven by individualism and profit, the protests have a remarkably strong collective vision holding them together.
A 2 hour talk between the students and the government was announced for the 21st of October. Commentators suggested electoral concessions would not be made, then or ever. Nevertheless, the very fact of the meeting already signalled success. The mobilisation has fundamentally transformed Hong Kong into a site for experimenting with alternative, collective and not-for-profit forms of organisation, even if only temporarily. While it remains to be seen what will happen, we can already say that the very spaces commonly reserved for those authorised to speak have been appropriated by the most commonly disenfranchised. The students have already ‘made history’, offering to the citizens of Kong Hong a glimpse of a different city, which is to say, a very different model of citizenship.