Occupy Central

After saying farewell to the Philippines, Kelsi and I ventured to Hong Kong. On our first evening in the city, we visited the Occupy Central protests, the large scale peaceful pro-democracy protests that have been taking place in Hong Kong since September 2014. Occupy Central is one of the most impressive and sustained democracy protests in my lifetime and I felt fortunate to visit it in person.

One of the barricades on the highway that marks the beginning of Occupy territory

A quick note on the name -- Central is an area in the heart of downtown Hong Kong. Before I visited the city, "Central" seemed like a weird name, but it makes sense having been there. Central is a district with a subway stop of the same name. It is like saying "Occupy Back Bay" or "Occupy Government Center" if it were Boston.

Further, the "occupy" name has nothing to do with the Occupy Wall Street protests. The name is a literal reference to the peaceful occupation of Central (particularly a main highway artery) and a handful of other areas in Hong Kong where protesters have setup camp.

A small section of the rows and rows of tents we saw at Central

As with any large scale movement or protest, there are many factors contributing to Occupy Central. In this post, I'll offer a brief synopsis. When the UK government turned Hong Kong over to Chinese administration in 1997, there were many requirements in the formal agreement about how Hong Kong was to be governed. One of those requirements was that by 2017, the citizens of Hong Kong would be able to elect their own chief executive. (The head of the Hong Kong government was always appointed by the British crown under UK rule and is currently appointed by Beijing under Chinese rule.) This year, China finally released information about how the election of the executive would be conducted. Hong Kong citizens would be able to vote for the executive, but only from a list of candidates approved by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing. Many people found this stipulation to be anti-democratic and against what was outlined in the UK/China agreement, leading to the Occupy Central protest. Students and citizens congregated on several high traffic highways and roads in protest at the end of September. They are still there today.

This view of the protest at Central is only a fraction of small city that has sprung up on the highway. We could not find a vantage point that was high enough to capture the entire demonstration.

It is impossible to overstate how important a traffic artery the highway occupied by the protesters in Hong Kong is to the city and its daily function. The protesters are camping out on what is probably one of the busiest sections of highway in the world. Traffic throughout the city has been greatly impacted and have necessitated substantial re-routing of the city's traffic patterns. For this reason, the city has a strong incentive to clear the space.

Try to clear the space they did. In the first days of the protests, police marched against the protesters, firing tear gas into the crowds. To shield themselves from the tear gas, the occupiers held umbrellas in front of them, a nonviolent gesture of protection and protest. The government has long ordered the police back from the occupiers, but the umbrella has remained as a symbol of the movement.

One of the many art projects we saw at Occupy Central

The protest was well over a month running and highly organized when we visited. Rows and rows of tents were all numbered and health and supply tents were sprinkled throughout the camp. Signs were placed periodically listing needed supplies and other signs stated that monetary donations were not to be accepted. Other signs respectfully asked to be careful to not take up close photos of people's faces, a request we have respected and which explains why you don't see people up close in our photos. A popup library had table after table with lights, wifi, and power strips for protesters (many of whom are university students) to study. There were also signs advertising free tutoring in various subjects for protesters.

The camp was extremely clean, especially for one on a expressway. While the protests have been going on for weeks and weeks, people rotate though the camp and generally do not live there. They return home to shower and change clothes, or only come in the evenings after work/class. We saw extensive trash collection systems and people sweeping the street. 

A trash/recycling collection area

At the center of the camp there is a makeshift stage for speakers to broadcast their message to the gathered crowd. Even on the random weeknight we were visiting, there were speakers (some speaking in Cantonese, others English) pontificating to a crowd of many hundreds. While we walked past, a person that appeared to be a pro-government heckler was shouting at the stage. Occupy has prided itself on being 100% non-violent, and handled the interruption more like having a crazy uncle over for holiday dinner that wouldn't shut up rather than having a planted enemy in their midst. The man was tolerated and engaged by some people who were able to draw him out of the crowd so that he was no longer disturbing listeners.

After walking through Occupy Central, my most enduring feeling was a deep sense of awe at both the bravery and commitment of the protesters. So much of history is made by students, and these have chosen to stand up to one of the most strong willed and authoritarian regimes on the planet. For over two months. At the beginning of the protests, no one knew how Beijing would react, making the initial decision to protest especially dangerous. Now it appears that Beijing, ever obsessed with stability, has chosen a strategy of waiting out the protesters.

Sadly, neither Kelsi nor I are optimistic about Occupy Central's prospects over time. The news cycle moves on, traffic re-routes, and China's government is exceedingly patient. Supporters of the movement don't have any other powerful strategy options that we can foresee.  It was a struggle that we identified with strongly. This November 4th brought us both some sharp disappointment about a political movement we have supported and invested in back in the USA: Mayday, a bi-partisan initiative that supported eight Congressional candidates committed to serious campaign finance reform in an effort to win back a Congress dependent on the people alone, not today's system of corrupt dependence on an elite few of wealthy donors. We only won two of the eight seats (Ruben Gallego, D-AZ and Walter Jones, R-NC). But sometimes its worth being on the losing side to say you tried, and to be one of history's risk-takers that eventually forces change - albeit slower and not as substantially as one would hope.  (Not that we're done supporting Mayday - there are more elections to come.) Democracy is too important to let slip through one's fingers, and the Occupy Central protesters deserve our respect and support. Here's to hoping that 2015 hold unforeseen successes in the strengthening of democracy - on both sides of the Pacific. 

A road sign renamed by an occupier at Central