In Hong Kong, people have never had the vote – but that won’t stop them demanding democracy

Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the student-led pro-democracy demonstration, has turned the city’s traffic-filled roads into an ocean of goodwill.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The first day of October is a special holiday in Hong Kong: it’s National Day, the anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It is not a milestone that everyone wants to celebrate. On the eve of this year’s holiday, 80,000 protesters filled the eight-lane artery that runs through the middle of the city for over a mile. A Chinese idiom fits the sight: “people mountain, people sea” – a mass of people so huge that it had become the landscape.

This is Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the student-led pro-democracy demonstration that turned the polluted, traffic-filled roads of the city into an ocean of goodwill. Chants rippled through the crowd: “Go, Hong Kong!” “689, step down!” That “689” is the nickname for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, 689 being the number of votes he received to become chief executive, from a 1,200-member, overwhelmingly pro-Beijing election committee. He governs a city of seven million.

Hongkongers have never had the vote: not under Britain before the 1997 handover and not under China now, despite the constitution, or Basic Law, which specifies that Hong Kong’s leader should be chosen by universal suffrage. Occupy Central grew out of this problem. No one really thought the movement would take off until Beijing issued an unexpectedly draconian white paper laying out guidelines for the next election: yes, everyone would get to vote on the region’s next leader in 2017. But they would get to vote for any one of three candidates pre-approved by China.

Despite months of preparation as Occupy’s attempts to force negotiations failed, the police botched their response from the start. On 28 September they met unarmed student protesters with batons and pepper spray. The demonstrators raised their hands above their heads as they approached the police, who fired tear gas into the crowd – 87 canisters that night. The protests grew as Hongkongers joined the students in solidarity and anger. Since then the police have learned their lesson. Uniformed cops are now almost totally absent: the new tactic seems to be to sit and wait it out; but for how long?

The protest movement is becoming known as the Umbrella Revolution, named for the umbrellas that have provided protection from the sun, rain and pepper spray. Yet what is most striking about this revolution is not the brollies: it’s that everyone wants to help you protest. In the daytime you can’t walk ten metres without someone stopping to offer you a bottle of water, a cooling patch, a few crackers or a bun. Other volunteers walk through the crowds, carrying black bin bags and calling out for rubbish. One cries: “Chuck your rubbish, chuck CY!” There are volunteer safety wardens and recycling points. This is, above all, a civil protest.

For their part, the Occupy organisers say they are thinking about an exit strategy, though they also confess that they have lost control of the movement. It is possible that the protests will dwindle over the next week or so: the point has been made, and people have to return to work. For now, though, Occupy remains adamant in its demands: C Y Leung must resign and Beijing must reconsider its “universal suffrage” proposal.

No one really believes that Beijing will capitulate. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is a hardline leader who cannot afford to look weak. Nor can Hong Kong look overseas to its previous bosses, despite old promises. Premier Li Keqiang was on a visit to the UK to sign trade deals when Beijing released its electoral white paper. China has now warned the UK to stay out of “China’s internal affairs”.

Fears remain that Beijing will lose patience and begin a violent crackdown, but the most straightforward move for the government would be to remove C Y Leung and replace him with another loyal but more media-savvy face as chief executive. Then China can agree, at least ostensibly, to look into the question of universal suffrage once tensions have eased.

For the time being, the mood is mostly festive, if pragmatic. “I don’t think it will be as successful as we’d hoped,” said Sarah, a 25-year-old labourer. “But at least the world and the Chinese government will know what we want. We’ve made some noise to alert people to what we are fighting for.”

As a thunderstorm broke on the eve of National Day, the protesters’ umbrellas were raised once again. When the lightning passed, the sky lit up instead with thousands of mobile phones, raised high to the sounds of a protest song. They looked like a hundred thousand fireflies in a people mountain, people sea.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World