Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters return to the streets

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Originally published by Washington Post on October 10, 2014

Thousands of people of all ages flocked back into the streets of Hong Kong on Friday evening as the government’s decision topull out of talks breathed new life into the pro-democracy movement.

Crowds at the protest sites in the city had been dwindling this week, but speakers said the government had miscalculated if it thought the popular desire for democracy was waning.

From a makeshift stage, students and other protest leaders were joined by volunteers, doctors, housewives, lawmakers and academics in expressing support for the movement and vowing to continue the struggle until the Hong Kong government responds to their demands for democracy.

But the loudest cheers of the night were reserved for Joshua Wong, the slight and bespectacled student leader who celebrates his 18th birthday Monday and urged supporters to bring their tents, mattresses, mats and sleeping bags, to fill up every inch of the protest site in central Hong Kong and prepare for a “long-term occupation.”

“This is our only choice if the government blocks the conversation. We are tired but we don’t want to lose,” he said in Cantonese, before leading the crowd in an English chant of “Democracy now, democracy in Hong Kong, we will never give up.”

Throughout the three-hour rally, speakers and the crowd chanted “Stay on the streets until the end,” “Fight on” and “Protect Hong Kong.”

“Hong Kong’s determination has created one historic moment after another,” Wong said, demanding that the government apologize for using tear gas at the start of the protests, and threatening to expand the protests if the authorities do not come to the negotiating table.

Above the stage, banners demanded that Hong Kong Chief ExecutiveLeung Chun-ying step down, called for democracy and justice, warned Taiwan to “beware” of China, and quoted the lyrics from a local pop song imploring people to “hold tight to freedom amid the wind and rain.”

In Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said the United States should boost support for democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing responded by saying this was sending the wrong message to demonstrators and called the statement a “deliberate attack” on China.

Speaking in Berlin, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the situation in Hong Kong was part of China’s internal affairs and warned other countries to respect China’s sovereignty, news agencies reported.

“I am sure the people of Hong Kong have the wisdom, and the government has the authority, to preserve the prosperity of the city and also social stability,” he said.

At the rally at the main protest site, speakers condemned the government’s decision to withdraw from talks with the students that had been planned for Friday, reserving particular ire for Leung and his deputy Carrie Lam, who had been supposed to lead the official delegation.

“If they had any courage, they should be here facing us,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. “I am prepared to talk to Carrie Lam, but where are you? You cannot escape from us — maybe for now, but not forever. You cannot insult us forever. This government has no legitimacy.”

Academics read out a petition accusing the Chinese government of violating the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution introduced after the handover from British rule, by failing to grant Hong Kong the right to elect its own leaders according to international democratic standards. They also accused the Hong Kong government of unwillingness to talk and to listen to its own citizens, and faulted the police for using tear gas on peaceful protesters at the start of the protests.

“We condemn the government’s lack of goodwill and its unwillingness to deal with the crisis through genuine dialogue,” said retired professor Ho Chi-kwan, reading a petition that she said had been signed by 140 academics in less than five hours Friday.

On Thursday, Lam, the territory’s chief secretary for administration, said the government did not think talks could be held in a constructive atmosphere while the protests continued, but she also demanded that the students accept the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling in August that effectively closed the door on democracy for the former British colony.

That decision stipulated that only candidates acceptable to Beijing would be allowed to stand in elections planned for 2017 to elect Leung’s replacement. Protesters want an open field of candidates, arguing that the current system produces a chief executive who behaves as if answerable only to Beijing and who does not defend the interests of the people of Hong Kong.

Just as the use of tear gas was a major recruiting factor for the protests two weeks ago, the government’s decision to back out of talks appeared to have galvanized popular anger this week.

In the crowd, there was little optimism that Beijing would back down, but rather a sense that Hong Kong had been irrevocably changed by the protests and that the current system — where Beijing rules the territory by proxy through a narrow political and business elite — was unsustainable.

“I am extremely moved by this, by how people came out to do this,” said Kenneth Wong, a 24-year-old fashion designer who planned to stay the night at the site with a friend. “It’s like a battle you can’t win. It’s really sad the government won’t take any step to try to achieve a consensus. But the government has definitely underestimated the power of the people.”

Meanwhile, the China Human Rights Defenders group said police across China had taken into custody dozens of activists, petitioners, artists and other citizens who had posted messages online or gathered to show support for the protesters. The majority of the detentions took place in Beijing.

Daniela Deane in Rome contributed to this report.

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