The news of Hong Kong Police using tear gas to disperse crowds aimed at occupying government buildings and public spaces to protest against Beijing rules on how Hong Kong residents vote for its next leaders are plastered on the first page of all the major news site today.
The Wall Street Journal, for example, has this story.
HONG KONG—In the harshest response against protesters in Hong Kong in nearly a decade, police used pepper spray and several rounds of teargas to disperse pro-democracy crowds blocking traffic on some of the city’s busiest streets.
An effort by police to keep protesters away from government buildings appeared to backfire on Sunday. As police converged on the scene and protesters spread out from its center, the conflict spread across three of Hong Kong’s most important commercial neighborhoods.
When police started lobbing tear gas at the crowd, protesters dispersed but quickly regrouped and retook some ground. They ignored police signs telling them to leave and used metal barricades to prevent officers from moving them away.
Late Sunday evening, thousands of protesters were still spread through downtown Hong Kong, and police continued to pour into the area. But the Hong Kong Federation of Students around 10:10 p.m. started urging protesters to leave, citing a fear that police would start using tactics such as firing rubber bullets.
The protests had built throughout the week as university students boycotted classes and held rallies culminating in a confrontation with police Friday night when students climbed a fence at the government complex. Police arrested dozens of students and used pepper spray to push back the crowd.
The televised clashes between students and police prompted large crowds to come out to support the students.
The protesters are demanding that the government rescind a plan for elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, which will allow residents to vote but only for candidates approved by a committee of 1,200 largely pro-Beijing members. The committee currently selects Hong Kong’s top official without a popular vote.
Early on Sunday morning the students were joined by organizers of the Occupy Central group, which had vowed to shut down the city’s central business district beginning this Wednesday to protest the election plans. Thousands of protesters streamed into the neighborhood as the day wore on, blocking traffic on main roads and surrounding police. Many protesters wore goggles and used umbrellas to block police pepper spray.
At one point, a group of police cars were surrounded by a sea of protesters.
“Hong Kong police, you have been surrounded, please leave,” protesters shouted over a sound system. Police showed red signs urging the activists to stop charging or force would be used.
After being sprayed with tear gas, 21-year-old Lee Wing, a media student at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, ran with other protesters to the Tamar park on the waterfront after the tear gas was used.
“The gas really stung my eyes,” she said. “We expected pepper spray at most. Our protective gear is for that.”
“It was totally unexpected. I’m so scared and angry,” said Tsang Wai-yin, also 21. “We have been very peaceful in expressing our demand.”
A total of 26 people involved with the protests were sent to nearby hospitals for treatment Sunday evening and afternoon, according to the government. Police said so far 78 people have been arrested in the protests.
The deployment of riot police is extremely rare in Hong Kong, known for its largely peaceful and orderly protests.
The last time local police fired tear gas against protesters was during the World Trade Organization summit held in the city in December 2005. Few locals were among the protesters, many of which were South Koreans farmers who attacked police with bamboo poles and tried to break into a meeting of trade ministers from around the world.
Other examples that involved riot police in recent years were mainly scuffles at prisons and refugee camps.
At a news conference Sunday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying urged people not to join the protests, which he termed illegal.
China struck an uncompromising position in response to the protests. A spokesman for the government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office called the protests illegal and said Beijing supported the preservation of order.
“The central government firmly opposes any illegal activities that damage the rule of law and social tranquility,” the unnamed spokesman said in remarks carried by the government’s Xinhua News Agency. Beijing, the spokesman said, is confident that the Hong Kong government would maintain the territory’s stability and protect the safety of people and property.
The spokesman said the decision on how Hong Kong’s chief executive should be elected “has a legal status and validity that can’t be shaken” and is “based on a full hearing of the views of Hong Kong society on different levels.”
Actions and class boycotts by students over the past week had largely seized the initiative from Occupy Central, which in recent months had been the main organizer of anti-Beijing protests.
While Occupy Central has until now largely failed to win broad support and has been heavily criticized by the city’s powerful business community, the student protesters have gained sympathy from an array of residents.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Occupy Central organizers said they had moved forward their broad civil-disobedience campaign.
The BBC filed this report (has more pictures) – going over generally the same things.
The Western press make it seem as if Occupy Central commands “the overwheming silent majority.” But the truth is that Hong Kong’s movement never gained wide traction (or see this live report from a blogger on the ground), as even the Wall Street Journal noted.
While Occupy Central, led by academic Benny Tai, has organised the unofficial referendums and protests – other civic groups, such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have emerged to counter Occupy Central’s agendas. In a high-profile “referendum” earlier the Occupy movement claimed to have drawn almost 800,000 votes, but a much less reported counter-Occupy referendum held immediately afterwards drew over 930,000 votes. 1
These results came about despite the fact most Hong Kong people – the regular Hong Kong residents – have been apathetic to voting, despite the fact that the counter occupy movements were for the most part grassroots movements that are unorganized and that operated without much fanfare, and despite the fact that the Occupy movement had been well organized and funded by foreign sources (see e.g. this comment, and the subsequent five or so comments).
The Central government has issued a whitepaper recently that “one country, two systems” does not mean the right of Hong Kong to subvert against the nation or the central government, or a right to semi-independence or even outright independence.
This is not really what democracy is about. As it stands today, what the occupy movement is doing is not only unpopular, but also illegal. The Occupy movement represents at best a vocal minority which is not afraid of hold the public hostage – by occupying public locations and governments, disrupting and shutting down businesses if necessary – for their own interests.
But even if Occupy were able to manage attract a much wider support from the public, Hong Kong’s handover agreement has never supported mob rule over rule by law – rule by Constitution. They can protest – but they cannot illegally occupy government buildings and take over public spaces. Such acts are not legal in Hong Kong – or for that matter, in much of the world.
Before we start getting carried away with the Hong Kong police putting down occupy protesters, let’s refresh our mind what the Western governments did just a few years ago, around the world, against their occupy protesters – which actually represent 99% of its people.
In the U.S., not only were protesters intimated and assaulted (or e.g. see this), but their organizations were infiltrated and members put under surveillance, monitored, and arrested. Similar things happened in Australia (or e.g. see this), Canada (or e.g. see this), U.K. (or see this) (U.K. has even passed a law that makes such acts explicitly legal), etc.
Last year, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) published a report that document some of these actions in a report titled “‘Take back the streets’ Repression and criminalization of protest around the world October 2013.”
Personally I don’t subscribe to any ideology on “civic protests.” I neither see civic protests as an absolute right, nor do I see them as absolute lawlessness. But I do see that the right to “protest” must be balanced against greater society’s right to peace.
Democracy has been too often about the assertion of rights by special interests. Their voices need to be heard, but they do not have a right to shove their views down the throat of others. What is the occupy HK movement really about? A brave few that is willing to face down a tyrannical authoritarian government? Or a vocal foreign-supported syndicate that just refuses to die gracefully?
- As Ray would point out in a subsequent comment, “the polling done by the occupy and anti-occupy groups are not compatible. The occupy poll was done with anonymous online voting while the anti-occupy poll was done with verifiable identity card number of legal HK resident. So it is over 930,000 verifiable votes versus something that is completely dubious.” ↩