Hong Kong protests: The pro-democracy demonstrators who feel time is running out

The fear they will soon be subsumed by the Chinese system has fuelled the defiance of the crowds

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So, at the twelfth hour, as protesters massed to invade key government buildings, it was the ex-colony’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who made the first concession, saying his chief secretary, Carrie Lam, would start a dialogue with the protesters “as soon as possible”.

But the man they call 689 – that’s how many votes he received to win the top job – refused to bow to the students’ demands and resign. Whether his last-minute concession will buy off the protests is unclear.

It was the culmination of a long, tense day. In most of the Planet Occupy which Hong Kong has become, all was mellow and calm. But outside Mr Leung’s large concrete box of an office at Admiralty, by the harbour’s edge, the mood was grim. A thousand demonstrators sat cross-legged in the forecourt, eyeballing 50 policemen in pale blue shirts who faced them across the high gates for hours and hours, as rigid as the Terracotta Army.

Among them was a tall young man wearing goggles, a moisturising band on his brow and a mask over his mouth, who gave his name as Bryan Kwok. “We need to be prepared in case they start using tear gas,” he explained. But the get-up was also a disguise: a trainee lawyer who is serious about keeping his job, he is taking every precaution to avoid being identified. He had been coming to the protests all week: “The more I come, the more I get involved.”


Nearby, a youth who called himself Steve said he, too, had been coming regularly, though he did not stay overnight. “Many people come and go, it’s like a relay, it’s important that people come in to relieve those who are getting tired. The first demonstration I attended was in 2010, the annual vigil on 4 June commemorating Tiananmen Square” – the only place in Chinese territory where the protest and its bloody finale are officially recalled. “But this is far bigger; this is the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. Why come? I guess I want to be a witness to history. Just to be sure I’m a part of history. We follow what’s happening with FireChat and WhatsApp, but there are always lots of unfounded stories flying around. Like on Sunday there was the rumour that the police were firing real bullets to disperse the crowd.”

John Yip, 38, and his wife, Florence Cheng, 34, both teachers of Chinese language and literature in local schools, didn’t need to listen to the rumours – they were present at the demonstration on Sunday when police fired 78 rounds of Hampshire-made tear gas in an ill-advised attempt to close down the protest in this area, which is also home to Hong Kong’s parliament, police headquarters and the People’s Liberation Army barracks.


“When the gas was fired off we ran away,” Mr Yip said. “We had been told to be very cautious, and to run back if tear gas was fired so the people at the front would not be crushed. I was quite sure Leung would use gas – before he was elected he said as much at a Legislative Council meeting, though he later denied it.

“We ran to the Arts Centre in Harbour Road where we met some friends, then, like many others, we returned to where the tear gas had been fired and we saw a very moving scene.”

The couple keep coming back, like tens of thousands of others. What do they think will happen? “I’m not optimistic,” said Mr Yip. “But nothing will change if we go home and go back to our ordinary lives.”

Hong-Kong.jpgThe proximity of protesters and police outside Mr Leung’s office makes this a hotbed of rumour. “In the morning one policeman told a demonstrator that they needed to open the barricades because an officer had suffered a heart attack,” a young man called Alex told me, “so they could bring in an ambulance.” The demonstrators smelled a rat and refused. “Later it was rumoured that the police were seen handling lots of boxes – perhaps containing tear gas.

“I don’t know how this is going to end. The [mainland] Chinese fear that if this can happen in Hong Kong, the same thing can happen in other cities inside China. That’s the reason they will not agree to anything.”

There is a feeling of urgency; that time is running out for Hong Kong and its hybrid way of life. The agreement between the British and Chinese governments in 1997 guaranteed the existence of “one country, two systems”, but only for 50 years. That means that by 2047, when many of these protesters will be barely into middle age, Hong Kong faces full integration into the mainland.

Tens of thousands of protesters occupied the streets of Hong Kong during China’s National Day (AP)

“The deadline is one reason I wanted to become a lawyer,” Mr Kwok explained. “We cannot accept fusion of our legal system with China’s. There could only be fusion when there is rule of law in China – when the law is separate from the executive. Their system encourages economic growth and stability, but those who get advantage are only the richest one per cent. In Hong Kong, due to the influence of the mainland, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is getting wider and wider.”

Hyper-capitalist Hong Kong protesting at the inequalities exported by communist China – you couldn’t make it up. But the Hong Kong protesters are not downhearted. “We hope that they [mainland Chinese] will one day get what we have,” said Mr Yip. “And that one day we will have what we want: true universal suffrage.”