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We speak to Hong Kong’s student protesters about what they want and how it all might end

Wini Leung, a recent graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is out on the streets of Hong Kong. She tells us what life is like for the protesters and why the movement isn’t quite like any that have come before it: “Tensions here between the government and the protesters are rising. At first, it was just the students against the Chief Executive. However after the police used violence to disperse people who were and still are protesting peacefully and arrested student leaders such as Joshua Wong our cause gained popular support. I join the protests every night. I was there the night the police first used tear gas and pepper spray on the crowds. At first I was just an ordinary protester but after that, I bought protective masks, eye shields and water to help out the protesters in the Admiralty district. I’ve actually been hit by tear gas twice. Aside from helping out at the protests, I’m encouraging friends to get involved in the debate. There’s no unified view on what’s happening here, and conversation can only be a good thing. From what I’ve seen, I can proudly say the HK protesters are undoubtedly peaceful, united, helpful, caring and organised.

To give you an idea of how things are working on the ground, firstly the protesters organise self-contained first aid stations and supply stations. Supporters who have the means buy a lot of supplies donate them. All of this is co-ordinated by ordinary people. Besides this, protesters are extremely patient and peaceful in facing the armed police. We raise up our hands to show that we’re unarmed and that our intentions are good. Some beg for them to put down their weapons, to join the protest troop. For their part, I understand that it’s their duty to safeguard the city and to disperse the protesters. Their means though are excessive. The use of tear gas and such was a step too far.”

Angela Onki, who is responsible for Spanish language social media management for the movement feels that their message is getting across to the government. “Recently the Chief Executive held a press conference reassuring us that as long as we remain peaceful, the police won’t use excessive force.  The Secretary also promised to meet the HK Students’ Federation to discuss our demands. Things were tense, but recently things have become a little more relaxed. At the moment we’re just watching and waiting”

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On Wednesday October 1st, China’s National day, Seán O’Reilly spoke with UCD student Cathal Peelo. Having spent the last year studying in Hong Kong he tells us the little things that make Hong Kong (HK) unique, why its students are protesting and how it all might end.

So, how’d you get on in Hong Kong, what’s it like over there?
There’s surprisingly little visible influence of the central Chinese government. It’s a very globalised city so not a million miles away from the way things are here in Ireland. People warn you about culture shock but for me at least it wasn’t all that bad. There are noticeable differences from the mainland. I mean it’s obvious that you’re in Asia, with all the Chinese writing everywhere but the people are definitely more liberal in their outlook and there’s more of a focus on civil liberties. The city also kind of straddles a divide between east and west. For a long time it was the gateway to China, literally everything came through here because its special status allowed for western investment. You’ve also got the colonial legacy which gives HK a character that’s not like the rest of the country but then on the other hand, some aspects of Chinese culture are very tangible – Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Dragon-Boat Festival are far more widely celebrated than the likes of Christmas and Easter.

So Santy didn’t arrive?
Sadly no, Santy didn’t arrive.

And are there many differences between student life there and here?
Similar enough to here actually! A lot of the universities take in large numbers of international students. A lot of the classes are through English, you can kind of tell who the class is aimed at depending on which language it’s offered in. Overall the organisation is basically the same UCD with the university being made up of constituent colleges. They do tend to have a lot more autonomy than their counterparts here though, which ends up with there being friendly rivalries and inter-college sports and that kind of thing. They also heavily encourage people to be active in university life with things like subsidised accommodation for people who run societies.

The press is also freer, and there’s not as tight a control as there is on the mainland. I had no problems accessing Facebook and things like that, but in Beijing you’d need a VPN to get past the great firewall.  Probably the best example of this was the open commemoration of Tiananmen. Of course, while people are able to talk freely about things like that here, institutions themselves can’t and don’t support commemoration. They don’t really say anything at all even though privately individuals might feel strongly about it. A lot of people view the influence of China’s central government on Hong Kong’s internal affairs as interference.

Would something like that have contributed to the outbreak of protesting? Could you give us a bit of insight into what’s going on in the minds of the protesters?

The official title of the movement is Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which for anyone who reads Chinese is ?????????. I’ve always viewed the ‘Love and Peace’ part as an attempt to reassure Beijing of their commitment to non-violence. Putting it right there in the name makes it clear how seriously they take that.  So far the protests have been completely non-violent, and hopefully they’ll stay that way. The movement is loosely inspired by the Occupy movement in the US. Many of the people currently protesting aren’t affiliated with the Occupy Central but they certainly play an important role in organising the movement.  I mentioned a general suspicion of Beijing earlier; there was some tension ahead of an anticipated announcement by the Communist Party (CPC) about the planned electoral reform for HK in 2017. When the city was handed over by the UK, one of the conditions was that in 2017, proper universal suffrage would be introduced. The announcement offered elections, but with conditions attached. The CPC want to allow only two candidates per election and for these candidates to be selected by a committee which they themselves control. There’s no way anyone could describe this as free and fair, so naturally Hong Kongers are upset. Obviously not everyone supports the protesters, for carious different reasons but the great majority do. In cases like this the people protesting are often the most vocal so it’s difficult to gauge what kind of support the movement does have but it’s definitely not anything near 50/50.

Last week the protests kicked off with class boycotts by students from the major universities, this spread to secondary students and even some primary students. It’s not unusual to see photos of younger protesters sitting doing their homework under streetlights. One of the protesters biggest demands was that the Chief Executive, who is installed by the central government change his stance support the Occupy movement’s goals of truly free and fair elections. Several months ago, Taiwanese protesters stormed their government buildings. As a result of this Civic Square, which had previously been a major site for protests in Hong Kong was closed to the public and security stepped up. As the class boycott neared its scheduled end, a group of students had the idea of taking Civic Square. The police threatened these protesters with escalation unless they left, which the protesters refused to do so force was employed to try to dissuade them from staying. Initially this was mostly a denial of movement, protesters were actually surrounded and forced to stay in the square while being denied access to toilets food or water. All of this was widely reported within HK and gave the movement wider support. Eventually, crowd control techniques were introduced and the police started using mace and tear gas which caused an explosion of support among the general population which drew in more students. Even though this could be said to be mostly reactionary, it’s a very real manifestation of the huge amount of trust people have lost for their police force. Whereas before it was known for its impartiality, this disproportionate reaction has outraged huge swathes of Hong Kong’s population. This lead to the movement being given the nickname of the Umbrella Revolution in the west because the students have been supplied with umbrellas and goggles to defend them from the chemicals the police are throwing at them. There’s some really frightening footage of an older gentleman standing with his back turned to a barrier manned by police wearing riot gear. One of the officers grabs him by the shoulder, turns him around to face himself and then blasts him directly in the face with pepper spray from a canister which is designed to disperse its contents over an entire crowd.

Because of sights like this, the protesters currently number about 50,000 and they’re enjoying massive popular support. Protests are also spreading to different locations around the city. Initially the BBC were one of the only major international posts following what was happening, but in the last day or two they’ve been joined by The Guardian and others. David Cameron made a statement on the situation which is a very positive development because it means the UK aren’t reneging on the promises they made as part of the handover in 1997.

How do you see things panning out?
The main thing is that this isn’t going to be a repeat of Tiananmen. Military intervention is really unlikely because it serves no-ones interests. There are Peoples’ Liberation Army soldiers stationed in HK, but for them to actually mobilise would be unimaginable to me – HK is a very different situation to say Tibet or Xinjiang. The nature of the protests has shown that Hong Kongers are serious about democratic reform. The CPC are unlikely to back down and give in to proper universal suffrage, but Hong Kongers have sent a strong message that if HK is to remain governable, that is what the future must hold.

Just to clarify, if it Hong Kong Chinese or Hong Kongers?

It’d be Hong Kongers or Hong Kong people (to directly translate from ???). Yes they’re Chinese but the city retains a unique sense of itself that really sets it apart from the rest of China. For most Honk Kong people, their identity is more strongly informed by the fact that they’re from the territory than that it belongs to the mainland.

Is there anything you’d like to add before we finish?
Mainly that I’m immensely proud and respectful of my friends and their colleagues for their bravery and the strength of their commitment to peace. By staying grounded they give themselves a legitimacy that they could never have if they were to resort to violence. Overall, the protesters aren’t reactionary. No-one’s trying to provoke a response from the other side; they just want their voices to be heard loud and clear. People are willing to put themselves at risk for something that to us is a given. The protesters have the moral high ground and there are reminders of that everywhere,  signs acting as reminders of the peacefulness of the movement, apologies to those not involved for the inconvenience they might be caused and the support that everyone gives to each other. It’s really moving. Yes, the situation’s not perfect and yes not everything has gone as planned but the Peace and Love that the movement is all about is there and it’s a real testament o their earnestness that the movement has kept that so close to its heart.

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Also on October 1st, over one hundred people gathered outside the GPO on O’Connell Street. Mostly Hong Kong expats living, working and studying in Dublin, these activists were collecting signatures and informing passers-by of exactly what’s been happening in their home city. According to Jackie Ho, one of the demonstrations organisers, “The response has been very good. There seems to be support from all sides at a national level, not least because this is a story that the Irish people can relate to. We’ve had great interest from the press with articles up online journalists from the papers and radio stations here with us at the moment. Ho, who recently returned to Ireland after having travelled home for the summer has been closely following how events have been unfolding. Aside from being an activist himself, both of his parents and his sister had been involved in protests on the streets of Hong King and are planning to stay out overnight in the Mong Kok district. “It’s really inspiring to see all of these people come together with one goal and one mind knowing what they might achieve.” Ho added.

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