Guest Blog – Rik Glauert
Towards the end of September, as the scorching Hong Kong summer began to lose some of its sweaty bite, Hong Kong changed. Ten-lane avenues of tarmac ploughing between Hong Kong’s iconic skyscrapers accustomed to the steady beat of tyres became the stage for a battle of power and dreams.
The recent events in Hong Kong have been labelled as many things: a boycott, a protest, an uprising, a movement, even a revolution. Most prominent is a word that has obtusely squeezed itself into small talk across the city and now the world – occupy.
When Occupy Central was first muted over a year ago the term felt somewhat indolent; an imitation of anti-capitalist movements in the US and Europe. Yet to occupy (defined as to fill, to take up) has been absolutely critical in the story of Hong Kong’s peoples’ recent bid for true democracy. Space, presence and occupation are the real tools of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.
On August 31st Beijing ruled that although universal suffrage would be granted for Hong Kong’s election of the Chief Executive in 2017 choice would be limited to two or three candidates screened by a committee. In a flurry of rejoinders, protest group Occupy Central announced they would implement their plans for mass civil disobedience whilst student groups the Federation of Students and Scholarism promised class boycotts and protests.
A week of class boycotts culminated on 26 September when student protestors occupied Civic Square at the heart of Government. Here begun the power play between the public and private space. As the name suggests, Civic Square was originally intended for public use. Former Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said that Civic Square was a “reminder telling us (the Government) to be liberal, open- minded and proactively solicit public opinion at all times.” The metaphorical ramifications of erecting a 3-metre high security fence to block public access to Civic Square in July were clearly lost on those at the top.
When student leader Joshua Wong led the charge over this fence and over 100 students occupied the square, space became the language in a dialogue about the very future of Hong Kong. Students occupied the area around the Government Offices throughout that weekend and by Sunday 28 September Occupy Central organisers called their own movement to start early. Throughout the day, citizens massed in Admiralty to show support for the embattled students and add their voices to the call for real democracy. The sheer volume of people broke police lines and spilled onto Connaught Road, the main East-West artery of Hong Kong Island.
Thousands of demonstrators voted with their bodies as they occupied the streets surrounding the Government offices in Admiralty. Demonstrators stumbled onto the highway with wide eyes, bemused by being present in a space that just minutes earlier was the preserve of traffic. In response police deployed pepper spray, baton charges and finally tear gas, with the humble umbrella protesters only defence. Hong Kong’s streets took on that iconic semblance of ‘unrest’. In an area of Hong Kong where brunching and junk trips are the modus operandi for many who strut the streets, the clouds of smoke and gas-masked police in green fatigues distorted the Hong Kong that they knew.
It was the images of battered students with medical masks and cling-filmed faces splashed across the news and social media that lifted tens of thousands of people from their seats to the streets. Expressing outrage on social media and retweeting an image or updating a status was no longer enough; Hong Kong peoples’ biggest response was a real sense of physicality. Travelling from across the territory (sometimes as a family, a couple, a group of friends but also alone) people needed to be present to voice an objection. They occupied Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kong and, at one point, even TST and Wan Chai.
After this initial flourish of drama the police stood down and Hong Kong’s protests began to take on a nature that would demarcate them from other movements around the world – a dedication to peace. Small acts of kindness and compassion such as sharing food and water, offering masks and cling-film, or fanning heated crowds defined the Hong Kong peoples’ commitment to non-violence.
Signs and posters popped up that promoted non-violence or apologised for the occupation. One read ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, we fight for democracy.’ Supply centres, first aid tents and recycling stations were erected on day one before libraries, study zones, democracy classrooms, clothing exchanges and art areas were established on Hong Kong’s streets within a week. This appropriation of apparently public space for very civic means is the rallying call of Hong Kong’s protests and has garnered media attention worldwide.
This infrastructure was only surpassed by the splurges of creativity in posters, signs and installations that were also conjured by protesters. The iconic umbrella man forged by students from Baptist University, the umbrella sculpture, the Lennon Wall of encouraging post-it notes and origami umbrellas all added to a sense of permanency of the space. As occupiers were forced to return to work or lessons, the creators’ time, dedication, and skill became a proxy for their physical presence ensuring support.
The current ‘spacial’ crisis in Hong Kong expresses Hong Kongers’ desire for true democracy and to hold their government accountable, but it also creates a vision of what Hong Kong could be. In a society where making money has been the primary concern almost since Hong Kong’s inception, the occupy zones are centres where the needs of the people are put ahead of those of big businesses and the government.
With Occupy, the people have space to use areas of the city centre as they please and the implications have been felt throughout the city. The air is the clearest it has been in years – the road closures mean more people are taking public transport and using park and ride schemes that had hitherto gone unnoticed.
To occupy has taken the millennials offline. They are engaging with politics and demanding a voice in their future and being very clear about what it means to be from Hong Kong. Their occupation of prime Hong Kong property has awakened a political consciousness, a communal spirit, a sense of identity and a civic mindedness. Whatever the destiny of the Occupy movement this surely cannot be undone.