Occupy movement marks first anniversary

Occupy movement marks first anniversary
PHOTO: The Straits Times

With yellow umbrellas, slogan T-shirts and a dogged determination to "tell the government we will never give up", about 1,000 Hong Kongers returned to the main Occupy protest site in Admiralty one year after the movement erupted.

There was almost a carnival-like air as they thronged the pavement next to the government compound in Harcourt Road yesterday.

It was here that the police first unleashed pepper spray and tear gas last Sept 28 against brolly-wielding protesters, marking a pivotal point in the civil disobedience movement and giving it its most recognisable symbol - the yellow umbrella.

Thousands later erected tents on the road, staying there for 79 days.

Yesterday, people cheered as they listened to speeches by pro-democracy politicians and activists, had their T-shirts and umbrellas screen-printed with slogans such as "I am Hongkonger", and waved placards saying "Persist till the end!" Others attended religious services conducted by Catholic priests and Christian pastors at the same site.

At 5.58pm, which was when police fired volleys of tear gas into the sea of protesters last year - the first time the chemical was used against Hong Kongers since the 1960s during unrest led by pro-communist militia - the crowd fell silent to mark the moment.

But even as those present commemorated the historic campaign that shook Hong Kong, unsettled Beijing and made headlines around the world, there was also a sense of melancholy.

The movement failed to achieve its goal of forcing Beijing to liberalise rules for Hong Kong's election of its leader. It today is also riven with divisions over how to proceed.

Says accounts executive Chris Lam, 49: "People are frustrated because the movement didn't have a single achievement. And I don't have much hope, to be honest, that there will be change soon."

But, she adds, it is important that people still turn out for events such as yesterday's. "We need to show that we are going to persist. If there are few of us, the government will be happy and I don't want that."

On whether Occupy was counter- productive - Beijing's stance against Hong Kong has discernably hardened in the past year, teacher Robert Ho, 48, responds: "Democracy is not a free lunch - we have to struggle for it, even if it takes a long time."

In June, the legislature voted against the Beijing-endorsed electoral reform Bill, which essentially limits candidates to only those the central government approves of.

This means that the next chief executive election, in 2017, will continue to be selected by a committee of mainly pro-Beijing Hong Kongers.

For now, say Occupy organisers and activists, there are no plans for more civil disobedience campaigns given public fatigue.

But, said Occupy co-founder Benny Tai yesterday, there is a limit to Hong Kongers' patience. "If the central government continues to deny us genuine democracy, the people of Hong Kong will step out again."

This was echoed by Ms Lam, who remained sanguine about yesterday's low turnout. "I believe Hong Kongers will show up at critical moments. There is no urgency now, since the reform Bill has been voted down and there is no immediate issue that will draw people out."

Watched over by a large contingent of police officers, yesterday's event passed peacefully.

There were some moments of tension when radical party People Power threatened to temporarily occupy part of Harcourt Road. The protesters also exchanged boos with scores of anti-Occupy protesters who had marched from Central to Admiralty, passing through the event site.

The latter accused the Occupy movement of creating societal divisions and called on Hong Kongers to boot out pan-democratic legislators at next year's legislative council elections.

All quiet at ground zero in Mong Kok

The road glistens with freshly laid asphalt, the lamp posts scrubbed of adhesive marks. So far, so genteel.

The only thing that might strike the casual observer as odd is the "no climbing" signs tacked on the walls of Mong Kok's train station exits. After all, who would clamber up except, perhaps, spectators wanting a bird's eye view of the biggest protest in Hong Kong?

During the 79-day Occupy movement last autumn, the urbanscape of Mong Kok saw the most frenetic action.

If Admiralty on Hong Kong Island - where the sit-in was first triggered and where its leaders gathered to confer - was the brains of the protest movement, Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side, was its pulsating, erratic heart. The third sit-in site, at the tourist hub of Causeway Bay, was perhaps its charming face, with intricately decorated tents.

It was at Mong Kok where the most violent clashes erupted, between protesters and police; between protesters and anti-protest supporters, some said to have been hired by triads active in the district.

Mong Kok also had the most colourful protest scene, boasting, among other things, a Christian chapel, where believers gathered to discuss the scriptures, and a Taoist shrine to Guan Yu, a warrior deified for his righteousness and courage.

One year on, it is - almost - business as usual. Heavy traffic has reconquered Nathan Road. The gold, diamonds and jade in multiple jewellery stores, many from the same chains, sing out their siren song to passers-by. Tourists from mainland China continue to ply the pavements, their accents and suitcases marking them out.

Together, they represent the myriad issues that contributed to the Occupy protesters' anger: Powerful business interests; a feeling among the youth that they don't have the same opportunities as previous generations, with high rentals blocking their way; and an inchoate desperation that their city is no longer their own.

Yet, some things have changed in the past 365 days.

For one thing, there are now fewer tourists from mainland China.

Mr Oscar Chan, 28, who owns part of a pharmacy next to the Mong Kok train station, struggles to keep his voice down as he says: "The whole world knew that we quarrelled with China, that Hong Kong is chaotic."

He claims that business now is worse than in 2003, when Sars struck the city.

Guangzhou tourist Li Yongshi, 26, shopping with her family, says that some of her friends now avoid Hong Kong. "They're scared of being scolded."

Mr So Chiu, 65, who sells Hong Kong-made embroidered slippers in a sliver of a shop in Nathan Road, says that his business is down, too, but attributes it to the souring Chinese economy.

Over at Admiralty, Hong Kong's political hub that is home to the government's headquarters, the legislative council and a People's Liberation Army garrison, there is also little evidence remaining of the massive demonstration a year ago.

On Sept 28 last year, a Sunday, tens of thousands of people were trying to join up with others protesting in front of the government complex. Irate at the police barricades blocking them, they swarmed across Harcourt Road, forcing vehicles to beat a retreat.

The police use of pepper spray and later tear gas propelled yet more to pour onto the streets across the city in a show of solidarity.

But for much of the past year, it was more or less quiet. A clutch of abandoned chairs in front of the government complex are all that remains of the "Tamar Village" - diehard protesters who stayed on for months after Occupy disbanded.

With the movement having failed to achieve its goals of forcing Beijing to give way on allowing Hong Kongers more say on electing their Chief Executive, Occupy is now just a fading memory for the bulk of Hong Kong society, cynical about what can be done to change the political landscape.

University students Wincy Wu, 21, and Geoffrey Tang, 21, shopping at Causeway Bay, were lost for words when asked about what it meant to them and for Hong Kong.

Says Ms Wu eventually: "We don't really discuss it now, it's too ridiculous. When it comes up in a conversation, our friends will say, 'Don't talk about it,' because the discussion will eventually just reach the same dead end - which is that, really, there is nothing we can do about it."

xueying@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 29, 2015.
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