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Umbrella Revolution: Hong Kong’s Biggest Protests in Decades Challenge China on Political Freedom

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Hong Kong is facing its biggest political unrest in decades as tens of thousands of protesters defy a police crackdown to demand greater freedom from China. The new round of protests began last week when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China’s rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China’s plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group “Occupy Central,” the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to hide from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media. We are joined from Hong Kong by journalist Tom Gundy, who has been covering the protests.

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Video squareStorySep 02, 2014Hong Kong “Occupy Central” Protests Call for Political Freedom After China Rejects Open Elections
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

From Pacifica, this is Democracy Now!

I was there when they started the first tear gas. We were harmless people. You see here we’re using umbrellas to come and protect themselves.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Hong Kong, which faces its biggest political unrest in decades. Tens of thousands of protesters are in the streets defying a police crackdown on their pro-democracy movement. This new round of protests began last week, when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China’s rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China’s plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. The mood turned festive on Monday, with the scene of a massive street party taking over key parts of the Central business district. The government claims it’s pulled back riot police and has urged protesters to leave. But on Monday, Hong Kong’s second top local official, Carrie Lam, rejected heeding the protesters’ demands.

CARRIE LAM: I have to stress that it remains our most important objective to achieve universal suffrage in the selection of the chief executive in 2017, and we will work according to that objective. It would not be entirely realistic to expect us to reverse the whole decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group “Occupy Central,” the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to protect themselves from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. Since then, Hong Kong has operated under different economic and political systems than mainland China as part of a policy known as “one country, two systems.” The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media.

For more, we go to Hong Kong, where we’re joined by Tom Grundy. A journalist and blogger, he was tear-gassed over the weekend while covering the protests.

Tom, why don’t you lay out the scene for us? Describe what happened, how people gathered this weekend, and what has happened since.

TOM GRUNDY: Well, on Sunday morning, it seemed that the movement had lost some momentum. Students were gathered around a closed-off area around government headquarters, but as the day progressed, people were watching scenes at home of them being pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, and I think that motivated others to come onto the streets. And there were repeated clouds of tear gas filling the area down at Admiralty, the government building area. By the next day, it seemed that the police presence had almost disappeared, and then you began to see waves of protesters coming into three different areas of the city—Admiralty, the government area; Causeway Bay; and another shopping thoroughfare in Kowloon.

And in the absence of any police now, there’s somewhat of a more jovial and festive atmosphere. Things are very peaceful. There was even a DJ in Kowloon last night and barbecues. Some buses have been caught up in these occupation zones, which have been barricaded by some of the protesters. The drivers have had to obviously abandon them. And they’ve been decorated with placards by some of the protesters. At the moment, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of demonstrators gathered in these three key areas. Instead of goggles and face masks, now they’re generally donning black T-shirts, a mournful black, with yellow ribbons for universal suffrage.

AARON MATÉ: And, Tom, can you explain what set off these protests? There are supposed to be elections in 2017. China then recently changed the rules to say that it must approve the candidates. And do these protests have the support of the broader public, or is that still in flux?

TOM GRUNDY: Well, the joint agreement, the handover agreements between Britain and China, were put down about 30 years ago this month. And since then, there’s been a debate about universal suffrage, which China promised would be implemented in Hong Kong under “one country, two systems.” But it seems that Beijing has constantly redefined or moved the goal posts, as Martin Lee, one of the democracy icons here in Hong Kong, said. So, I think there is a lot of frustration, and the Occupy movement here, Occupy Central, Central being the Central business district, has been discussed for more than a year and a half. It seemed to be all but fizzling out this time last week, and there have been multiple pro-democracy protests over the years, but it seems that things began to come to a head with the student strikes over last week, people witnessing how they were treated. And now, that Occupy Central plan was brought forward to Sunday. It was originally going to be quite a modest sit-in in the Central business district starting tomorrow. So that began on Sunday.

The students and the Occupy movement seemed to merge under this umbrella movement, Umbrella Revolution. And as we go into two public holidays now—it leaves just Friday before the weekend—it seems that the momentum will just continue. Every night, more and more protesters have come onto the streets. Hong Kongers are late to rise, late to bed, so the rhythm seems to be very similar every day, in that as people finish work and school, they pour out onto the streets. And it still seems that it’s being led by young people, but I imagine with it being National Day tomorrow, a public holiday, and another one Thursday, you’ll begin to see even more Hong Kongers expressing dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, can you give us a little history lesson, for those who are not so focused on Hong Kong and its relationship to China, the “one country, two systems” philosophy? Go back to Britain and what happened with the transfer, and then what exactly those people in Hong Kong who are protesting are calling for today.

TOM GRUNDY: Yes, in 1984, it was negotiated between Britain and China that the territory would be handed over to Beijing, and it would be a special administrative region. So, the way of life, they said, of Hong Kongers would be maintained. It has its own monetary, immigration policies. There is no censorship. It is quite separate to the mainland in many ways.

Since 1997, when the handover happened, people have felt that there has been a slow erosion of civil liberties. And although approval of Beijing was perhaps at an all-time high in 2008 during the Olympics, it has slowly declined to an all-time low now, and particularly under the current leadership here in Hong Kong of CY Leung. It has come to a climax, I suppose, with these annual democracy protests, where people are asking Beijing to fulfill its promise within the “one country, two systems” agreement of “one person, one vote.” At the end of August, the National People’s Congress in Beijing said that, in fact, the selection—an election committee of just over a thousand people would be selecting two or three candidates from which everyone could choose from. And Occupy Central said that as a protest of last resort, they would stage the sit-in you’re now seeing now all over the city.

I think some people find Occupy Central quite controversial in its obviously illegal civil disobedience methods. They don’t have permission. You have to usually get prior permission to protest in Hong Kong. But certainly, many are sympathetic to the students and how they were treated by the police. And when surveys are done in Hong Kong, most people basically believe in having, you know, some degree of democracy here, as was promised in its 50 years of a autonomy agreement with Beijing. It’s unclear, when that expires in 2047, whether Hong Kong will look more like the mainland or the mainland will look more like Hong Kong, but there is a freedom of protest in Hong Kong, and they’re certainly expressing it now.

AARON MATÉ: Tom, Hong Kong has a poverty rate of 20 percent, but also a surging number of millionaires and billionaires. How does inequality fit into these protests?

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, Hong Kong has actually the widest rich-poor gap in the developed world. The Economist had it tops on their crony capitalism index. Corporations actually get votes here. It’s the freest economy in the world, the capital of capitalism, if you will. But that poverty gap is visible on the streets every day. You have the highest concentration of millionaires and Mercedes Benz, you know, in Asia, but at the same time you have elderly people picking up boxes in the streets to recycle and people living in cage homes or subdivided flats, which are tiny boxes which they pay quite a premium for, actually.

There has been some criticism that the Occupy and pro-democracy movement over the years have failed to identify with these social issues and link them to democracy. Some people feel, perhaps, that the Occupy movement is a little high-headed with its constitutional reform kind of language. But I think it is true that if people are properly represented, then they may get, you know, obviously more of a say in some of the lack of social welfare, for instance, in Hong Kong and that ever-increasing poverty gap.

AMY GOODMAN: Fearing we’ll lose the satellite, let me just ask you about the crackdown on social media and the overall police response.

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, police came under quite a lot of criticism for how they acted with pepper spray at close range, with tear gas on Sunday. The police themselves have been asked by the commissioner to remain unified. They’ve disappeared seemingly completely from the streets today and yesterday. They were in full riot gear on Sunday. But, you know, Hong Kong is a city of protests. There are over a thousand a year. It is how people express themselves politically, because they don’t have a voice at the ballot box. So it was very unusual. The police are renowned for being very professional in Hong Kong, and we haven’t seen clouds of tear gas like this on the streets since some unrest during the 2005 WTO protests. So, you know, I think it really shocked Hong Kongers. Everyone was changing, I suppose, their images on social media to yellow ribbons, showing solidarity with the protesters. And as you see now, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands sitting down in the streets in these three key areas all over Hong Kong. And more seemed to be arriving just as I was leaving the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule, Tom, or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong, that they’re calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong that the protesters are calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: Some people feel that what has happened is somewhat of a modification in itself. People are not anti-China. People are Chinese. It is part of China. But what the protesters are calling for is for Hong Kong’s leader, CY Leung, to step down. He’s deeply unpopular. Approval ratings are at an all-time low now. And they want the constitutional reform package to be revised, so that people have more of a say in who they get to vote for. At the moment, for instance, the functional constituencies system, which is quite complicated, gives corporations thousands of votes which would normally go to people. For instance, the metro system, the MTR, gets tens of thousands of votes, and it’s actually partly owned by the government, so you have an absurd system whereby the government is voting for itself. And the chamber, the Legislative Council here, is dominated by pro-Beijing figures. I think China fears that if more pro-democracy politicians are allowed into the Legislative Council, they will somehow declare independence or something like that, but I think that’s unfounded. China is also concerned about its own situations in places like Tibet and Xinjiang and, you know, how these protests might spread.

They are very much in the greatest tradition of civil disobedience. The organizers have been citing Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. And it really is a textbook example in how people are helping each other. There are boxes and boxes of supplies. People could probably hang around for days. People are giving out free meals, sharing food, actually putting signs onto closed businesses and abandoned cars, which are caught between barricades, apologizing for the inconvenience. They are possibly the politest protesters in the world, and I am not sure where else you would see such scenes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think these protests could possibly spread, for example, to Beijing?

TOM GRUNDY: It’s hard to tell. People often utter Tiananmen Square 1989 in the same breath as what is happening here. I don’t think there will be similar scenes in Hong Kong, but perhaps China is concerned about similar scenes emerging in the mainland. And that’s why you’ve have seen the greatest yet social media censorship efforts by Beijing and its complete blackout. But I was told today that young people in the mainland, they’re certainly aware of what’s going on.

As to what will happen next, there are a couple of public holidays. I imagine this will just continue until the government makes more of a concession or CY Leung steps down. I think it’s not beyond feasibility, in that in 2003 you had almost a million people on the streets here, and they managed to oust the first leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa. So, we could see a repeat of that. These protests are certainly broader. So, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, we want to thank you for being with us, Hong Kong-based journalist. He was tear-gassed, like so many other protesters were, over the weekend while covering these protests in Hong Kong. He tweets at @TomGrundy.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll look at the new vice president of Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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