Yvonne, University of Hong Kong students’ union president did not expect the pro-democracy agitation in the city to transform into a mass protest under the movement now famously known as “Occupy Central (OC)”.
It all had started late September as a boycott of classes in many of HK’s universities; a boycott to express the students’ disappointment at Beijing’s decision to water down the promise of direct elections to pick the city’s chief executive in 2017.
In August, Beijing passed a law ensuring a central committee would vet the candidates standing for the election to the chief executive’s office – which democracy activists fear would mean only pro-Beijing candidates will be selected to be candidate.
“The movement quickly expanded from a week-long class boycott at universities to a movement that would occupy the city,” Nathan, a cultural studies student at the Lingnan University and one of the organisers of the agitation,” told HT from HK.
The students spilled out of their universities, were joined by ordinary citizens of this bustling, financial hub off China’s coast, and began to block roads, stop traffic and camp at five important locations in the city.
Around that time, one of the main organisers of the protest, academic Benny Tai, announced that a sit-in demonstration would encircle the main government office. Some students had already began to camp there at that time.
“We had to do it. Because we believed in democracy. But at the same time, we did not realise that it would become such an agitation. Not every step was planned,” Yvonne, student of governance and law, said.
But the multiplier effect had been triggered. And, at the peak of the protests earlier this week anywhere between 1.6 lakh and 2 lakh people were out on the streets of HK, protesting, shouting pro-democracy slogans and venting their anger at Beijing’s tightening of laws that rule the city of some 7 million people.
Not that HK is any stranger to large rallies or protest meetings. For example, every year around and on June 4, the Tiananmen Square killings anniversary, citizens of HK come out in large numbers to commemorate the event – a show of people’s strength unimaginable on the Mainland. This year, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen killings, had seen nearly 2 lakh people holding a peaceful, candle-lit vigil in the heart of the city to remember the victims of the 1989 incident – many of them, like in the current protests, university students.
But the current agitation is different than other protest meetings and marches held in HK. For one, the authorities tried to suppress the agitation earlier this week by unleashing riot police who fired tear gas shells into the protesting groups and baton-charged the participants.
And if that was not enough, on Friday, allegations flew thick and fast that thugs had been unleashed on the agitators, many of whom were sexually harassed and intimidated.
According to students HT spoke to and a statement by rights group Amnesty International (AI), girls were specifically targeted and police personnel present at the scene did nothing to prevent the attacks.
“Women and girls were among those targeted, including incidents of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation, as counter-demonstrators clashed with pro-democracy protesters in the Mongkok and Causeway Bay areas of Hong Kong on Friday evening,” AI said in a statement.
The new allegation of attack on a largely peaceful demonstration comes a day after an editorial in Communist Party of China’s official newspaper People’s Daily warned about “unimaginable consequences” if the protests continued.