We arrived at the Hong Kong Occupy protests during the peaceful yet tense hours of midday, where police were putting up plastic barriers and telling the public that, if they left the area, they would not be allowed to return. In hours, those same plastic barriers would be overturned to be used as stepladders to vault over the concrete and the police would be in near-full retreat from Admiralty.
My home is normally Beijing, where I file for The Diplomat, so I very much looked forward to buying a good newspaper, which is not an option on the mainland. It read, “OCCUPY CENTRAL WILL START NOW.”
By noon, police were cordoning off Admiralty with red and white plastic barriers, but the protest was almost entirely defensive, young people with microphones shouting out their statements with bottles of water in hand. The oppressive heat was already having an effect on even the most dedicated protesters. Whatever the result of the eventual protest, its beginnings were innocent and protective – bags demarcating organic waste and plastic, kind youngsters offering bottles of water and cling film to protect from pepper spray, chants expressing appreciation for the police. Outside, the Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers went about their Sunday communal routine of laying about and enjoying cards and food.
Several media outlets have claimed that once Occupy co-opted the protests, the students left. This is entirely untrue, but it is true that the students were joined by others, including Christians and the ever-present Falun Gong – there was even a pro-mainland get-together not far from the demonstrations in Admiralty to celebrate 65 years of Chinese-ness. But slowly, those not serious about the protest filtered out and Admiralty was successfully occupied. Then the tear gas came.
The defensive placation by the protesters had changed. They were in charge now. Police vans were abandoned and the protesters vandalized them, plastic barriers were used to climb the concrete ones, and tens of thousands of people were in driving the police from the street.
As the night wore on, the surrounding streets became occupied by separate bands of protesters. Wanchai station, a full subway stop from the heart of the protest, saw young kids on the ground groaning and kicking their feet with the pain of pepper spray. Lockhart Road’s prostitutes were still selling their wares to lonely foreigners as phalanxes of police pushed through the crowds of protesters.
Claims have been made by credible sources that Occupy merely hijacked the student protest, but interviews onsite seem to disagree with this. Many of the people I spoke with had been there for a full two days in the heat and hell of Hong Kong’s humidity and police force. While Occupy may have “hijacked,” their goals are by no means at odds with the students.
The feeling on the ground at the protest was hopeful, as it always is with large protests and strikes. The protesters themselves were helpful, polite and peaceful. But today, the protest hangover kicks in; the protesters will no doubt be feeling their stamina wane and people trying to get to work may lose all sympathy. Central has been occupied, and now begins the Attrition of Central.