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Tear Gas, Arrests Mark Beginning of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Protests

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China Power

Tear Gas, Arrests Mark Beginning of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Protests

The Diplomat’s Tyler Roney reports from the ground in Hong Kong.

Tear Gas, Arrests Mark Beginning of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Protests
Credit: Tyler Roney for The Diplomat

“The government is really ridiculous — we have no weapons and they still attack us,” says 19-year-old student Jimmy Tang. At noon on Sunday, Tamar Park brimmed with protesters, many of whom had braved pepper spray and arrests the night previous. By 9pm, the streets surrounding Tamar all the way to Wanchai station on Lockhart Road were thronged with protesters — with phalanxes of police charging down the street.

On September 5, after the National People’s Congress decision concerning universal suffrage in 2017, the Hong Kong edition of China Daily pronounced Occupy Central with Peace and Love at a dead end; others agreed, including Chan ki-man, one of Occupy’s founders whose faith began to flounder.It now appears reports of Occupy Central’s death have been greatly exaggerated, to coin a phrase.

On Saturday students managed to hop the barricades around Civic Square, a site once known as a symbol of peaceful protest but off limits since the July protests. Around 50 students made it in and were cordoned off by police; the students, low on supplies, traded plastic bottles for pepper spray. At 1:00 am Sunday morning, Occupy, bolstered by the student protest, officially began with an announcement on the OCPLHK website. There were 74 arrests overnight — ahead of the Wednesday schedule.

The Sunday protests, early on, could not have been more tame. Stalls were set up handing out masks and goggles to deal with the expected onslaught from police as concerned participants offered water and fruit. That was the beginning of Occupy Central, but within a few hours (by 5 pm) it would morph into a protest shutting down the streets. Gridlock and protests expand to surrounding areas with the main force breaking through police cordons. At 8 pm, after the protesters had taken most of Admiralty, a Hong Kong protester named Marco who had been on the front lines for two days said, “Students are still inside there… we want to go through to save them, because they’ve been there for the whole day.” On the ground, police had retreated to cordons inside buildings.

The tear gas came at around 5 pm, but the protests continued to grow and events soon became aggressive. Police cars and vans were abandoned on the streets and protesters vandalized them with anarchy symbols and let the air out of their tires so that they could not be reclaimed.

Beijing shrugged off the original student protests and arrests with the usual overly casual indifference and vague threats. When presented with the accusations from the pro-Beijing papers and the Chinese state media, older protester Allan Chang — decked out in a yellow raincoat, surgical mask, and goggles — threw his hands in the air and said, “I don’t even know what to say about that.” Protester Martin Leung simply said, “We all hope we will get the final victory”.

Early on in the day, the protesters were very much on the defensive, sitting or standing and chanting in front of police with protest leaders giving advice on how to deal with what was coming later in the day. At around noon, a first aid worker named Lee said that she was receiving mainly heat stroke victims and that she hoped it would stay that way. That, unfortunately, was too much to hope for after the tear gas and pepper spray started flying in the afternoon and well into the night. The original police barricades were turned into stairs and the street was flooded and successfully occupied.

In an oddly timed dichotomy, not far from the main Occupy area was an unrelated meeting of perhaps three dozen people. Among big red tents and folding chairs, the groups sang traditional Chinese songs, waved mainland flags, and played flutes to celebrate “Support the Decision of the National People’s Congress According to the Law.” The feeling there was very much a pro-Beijing environment. My interview attempts were met by people rushing in and telling perspective interviewees not to speak to me and that I’d “put them in a bad light.”

Beijing will have to respond to Occupy Central, and it will not be a response the protesters will like; if, indeed, the protesters have frightened or annoyed the local government, Beijing is too far away to worry, but close enough to cause more damage.

At the protest’s start, bags were put up for organic rubbish and plastic bottles, plastic ties were put on barricades to prevent use, and the medical tents were ready to receive the oncoming injured — hardly the stuff of a violent coup. But, as the night wore on, the calls of “police, thank you for keeping us safe” tapered, and voices screaming “disgrace” took over. Much speculation has preceded this moment, and many are wondering how long the protesters can hold out against the wishes of the local government and the power of Beijing. Occupy began today, and it could end tomorrow. And while the act of protesting in a large group for a common ideal is something the people of Beijing can only hope to dream of, it’s still something Beijing can take away from Hong Kong.