Eyes reddened, Hong Kong protesters tired but driven

Eyewitness: The best-dressed, best-educated crowd of protesters


Twirling a handful of yellow ribbons pressed into my hand to signify peace with Hong Kong’s protesters, and with eyes reddened by tear gas, I’m pondering one of the unwritten rules of journalism, which is not to give credence to taxi drivers.

Why? Because they are your first source of info in a dangerous situation, and can tend to be unreliable.

I want to give a shout out now to taxi drivers around Asia - you’ve never given me a bad steer, although some of your brethren have robbed me blind. And in Hong Kong, where I’ve sat in the back of their beautiful Toyota Crown saloons for 25 years and listened to their southern Chinese take on the world, you are guaranteed true wisdom.

I reckon I’m qualified to allow a comment as the city becomes a riot centre.

Thousands of students from all over Hong Kong began a weeklong boycott yesterday to protest against the Beijing government’s decision ruling out an open election of the chief executive in their territory in 2017.

This is the best-dressed, best-educated, most positive crowd of protesters you’ll ever meet.

They are tired, but totally driven, focused on Pacific Place shopping mall in Admiralty, and the shopping district of Causeway Bay, as well as in Mong Kok, another busy area across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon.

Shopping is a way of life in Hong Kong, but never mistake that consumer impulse for a shallow belief that China will somehow save this former crown colony. Hong Kong’s economy dwarfs Ireland’s, for example.

People here see their salvation overseas, not in northern China.

“I’m sure this will be over in a couple of days, it’s a bunch of students, but it’s big. Everyone is frightened of Beijing. We said this for years and years. And now this means Beijing is watching us. China is terrifying,” said a taxi driver.

He then went into an invective about whether “terrifying” was the right word. It was.

The word “terrifying” is something you hear a fair amount here, as young teenagers occupy the streets and the government responds with tear gas.

Imagine a sit-in outside Trinity College and the gardaí arriving with batons and tear gas. It wouldn’t go down well.

Some of the more cynical observers in Hong Kong see this as a move to deflate some of the air out of the property market, but they’re not really serious.

Kevin Egan, Hong Kong’s most famous criminal law barrister, said the movement on the streets was “breaking his heart” which was making China look bad.

“It’s a bit like Papua New Guinea in the late 1970s. These young kids have enough intelligence and motivation to make decision. This is a huge embarrassment in China,” said Egan.

“If I were there age, I’d be on the streets,” said Paul Liu, a senior Chinese barrister who was educated in Britain.

“My feeling is that China is in a box,” said Liu.

We want our Hong Kong to be Hong Kong, it’s simple, said Marco Tang, a physics student, his eyes still streaming from tear gas.

Many of us are still suffering from tear gas, it has a lingering painful effect, but as one wag said, it’s better than rubber bullets.

“So many young people coming out and I’m proud of them. The Chinese released the White Paper which restricted our democracy, and it said something about Hong Kong which was wrong. A small group of people,” said Liu.

“It’s simple. We want our rights back,” said his partner, Kate, who is a social worker.

Students from secondary schools and universities are taking part in the boycott, which is seen as signalling a wave of civil disobedience in the former Crown colony.

The protest is part of a broader campaign known as Occupy Central, when thousands of Hong Kongers are expected to blockade the financial hub to protest at what they see as interference by Beijing.

Under the terms of the handover of the former crown colony to China in 1997 after 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong was supposed to allow its citizens to pick its top official in the poll in three years’ time.

However, earlier this month, China said it would limit nominations for elections for chief executive in 2017 to a handful of candidates vetted by Beijing.

“The Communist Party has always been afraid of students because of our ideals, because we stick to our convictions,” said Lester Shum of the Federation of Students, which is organising the boycott. “I want to tell them: it’s going to be a long game ahead.”

Mr Shum said that by allowing the central government and tycoons of Hong Kong to manipulate the election, they were applying the same colonial approach to the territory as the British had done.

Thousands of students gathered on the campus of the Chinese University wearing white tee-shirts with yellow ribbons, which has become the trademark uniform of the democracy movement.

They were backed by university staff, including Dr Chan Kin-man, an associate professor at CUHK’s sociology department who is one of the co-founders of the Occupy movement.

Alex Chow, secretary general of the student federation, said the students were willing to pay the price for democracy, and that the boycott would “wake up society - let them know our city’s death knell is ringing.”

The focus of the boycott was expected to move to Tamar Park today, near the government headquarters, where a series of speeches were planned by dozens of academics and student leaders, as well as civic leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Zen.

The state-owned Chinese newspaper Global Times said the protests benefitted “nobody, whether it be the activists, the public, or relations with the mainland, and will accomplish nothing good for Hong Kong.”

While the Catholic Church has told its schools in the territory not to punish students who take part, the Anglican church has said schoolchildren who take part will get lower marks for conduct, and one citizens’ group has set up a hotline for people to report secondary students who miss classes.

As the students were gathering in Hong Kong, a delegation of tycoons from the territory were in Beijing to see president Xi Jinping.

Mr Xi told the delegation, which included Hong Kong’s two richest men, Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee, that “the central government’s basic principle and policy toward Hong Kong has not changed and will not change” and said Beijing “unwaveringly” supported Hong Kong’s democratic development, prosperity and stability.