Hong Kong police, bailiffs, and construction workers set about on Dec. 11 the work of dismantling the sprawling tent city set up on major roads around Hong Kong’s government headquarters, which have been occupied by student protesters, supporters, and a constellation of pro-democracy groups for the last 10 weeks.
Thousands of police were called for the operation, along with scores of construction workers hired to remove the barriers, tents, tables and paraphernalia of the occupation. Spokesmen for the police reiterated in speeches prior that force would be used as appropriate. There was an air of finality around the pronouncements.
Protesters, too, seemed to sense that the end was near. Speeches by student leaders over the last few days have included apologies for failing to achieve the goals of the protest, reflections on what went wrong, and vows that the struggle isn’t over. They began dismantling the main stage, complete with a professional sound equipment set-up, which had been the site for so many enthusiastic rallies and sing-ins.
Others acted quickly to preserve as much as they could of the artwork that sprung up spontaneously around the site since October—including the careful removal of thousands of post-it notes that constituted the Lennon Wall.
Despite the protests having manifestly failed to reach their aims of genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong, no one is in doubt that the Umbrella Movement has changed the city indelibly.
The ramifications of the protest for the youth are as yet unclear, observers say–but there is no doubt that the Umbrella Movement has changed the character of protests in Hong Kong for good.
The longterm consequence “is difficult to predict, but a large number of youngsters have participated in this occupation, and have been beaten by police,” said Ho-Fung Hong, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who wrote a book about Chinese protest movements.
Typically during rallies around June 4 and July 1, protesters are well-behaved. They stay within picket lines and do what they’re told by police. “No one breaks the police line,” Hong said. “But after this experience of occupation, the image of the police is badly damaged, and for these young people, in the long run in protests, I don’t think they’re going to consider that obeying the police is a necessity anymore.”
An Accidental Beginning
“Occupy central,” as the planned campaign of mass civil disobedience in Hong Kong was called, wasn’t supposed to go down like this.
The group calling itself Occupy Central With Love and Peace, composed of two law professors and a pastor, had a very simple plan in mind: a couple of hundred people would swarm Central, the financial center of Hong Kong, and wait to be arrested.
The plan certainly did not include what spontaneously came to characterize it in early October: miles of roadway (1.8 to be precise, according to the official number) around government headquarters clogged with teenagers and young adults, who give away fruit, played on their phones, and lounged about as a procession of speakers appeared to talk about the importance of democracy and the differences between mainland China and Hong Kong.
The peculiar form that the protest took was shaped from the beginning by a series of missteps by the Hong Kong government, who managed to turn what was a gathering of high-schoolers gathered in a park on a class strike into a sprawling movement that occupied a 12-lane highway running through the center of Hong Kong island.
Officially known as Harcourt and Connaught Roads, the roadway was christened Umbrella Square by protesters, who used it for mass rallies and later a sophisticated encampment.
The student groups, including Scholarism, composed of highschoolers, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which unites politically active college and university students, started with a class boycott in the area known as Tamar Park, a series of lawns and benches that offer government workers a quiet reprieve.
After they were ejected from Tamar Park, however (to make way for a pro-government group to celebrate the People’s Republic of China’s National Day on Oct. 1), they moved to a paved area outside government headquarters.
On Sept. 26, that escalated to a takeover of “Civic Square,” a forecourt to government offices that used to be open to the public. Joshua Wong, the charismatic leader of Scholarism, called for it to be taken back by the people.
He was arrested and spent over 40 hours in custody—which made the protesters angrier. They took over the sky bridges connecting the metro system with government headquarters, and as protests escalated on Sept. 28, a Sunday, police began firing tear gas.
That changed everything.
“As soon as I saw the news about the tear gas, I came out. Why did they attack those students with tear gas?” said N.L. Chung, 44, a secretary at a high school, in an interview at Admiralty last month.
She was a typical case of an individual instantly politicized by police action.
Many reported a surge of emotion at seeing the images of young protesters, unarmed, hit with pepper spray and shot with tear gas canisters.
“All of us are apolitical—we couldn’t care what happens either way. But it’s our civic duty to protect the vulnerable,” said Ed Lau, one of the protesters who took charge of defending the “eastern front” of the occupied zone.
Charlez Kwan, 23, a part time athletic coach, was there on Sept. 27 and 28. “I was very angry. What did the students have? Umbrellas. Plastic wrap. I was very furious.”
He added: “The police were so dumb. They could have established a line and slowly pushed people out, but they shot the tear gas into the crowd and then just stood around.”
Stanley Ha, 29, an office clerk, had a similar remark. “I thought the police were just too rough on the students. My friend and I saw it and we were very angry.”
Tens of thousands—maybe more—had reactions like that, and the occupation began.
Those who didn’t know a great deal about the struggle for democracy were slowly educated. Even those who did not stay on the site were reached by flyers, door knocking students, and subject to daily news reports about the occupation.
Vows to Continue
The removal of tents and chasing away of students will end the occupation of the main protest site, and with it, effectively, the Umbrella Movement.
Organizers freely admit that their goals are distant. “In terms of civil awareness of politics we’ve made great progress,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, in an interview with journalists at the site that an observer tweeted out. “In terms of concrete achievement, of course it’s nothing.”
— Rishi Iyengar (@iyengarrishi) December 11, 2014
But the protesters and observers say that the resistance to Hong Kong authorities will continue. “You are only clearing a camp… you can’t clear the idea!!!” said a note in colored chalk on the roadway.
— Rosalind Chin (@RozChin) December 10, 2014
A banner hung from the roadside barricades announced: “It’s just the beginning.”
At 9:47 a.m., just as construction workers and police readied to begin dismantling the site, protesters tossed into the air hundreds of small yellow slips of paper. On the left was an umbrella, the symbol of the movement. On the right, in thick capital letters, the words: “We will be back.”
another farewell message from occupy: it’s just the beginning! pic.twitter.com/xduWRYSYcv
— Stephen 唐肆啼 Thompson (@sifan64) December 10, 2014