By Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
The streets of Hong Kong are hard to recognize these days. The exhilarating energy filling the city’s main roads, crowded with hopeful protesters, is something I have not seen since I was a young student back in 1989, when we took to the streets in solidarity with the Tiananmen protesters.
But not even then had so many people taken to the streets in Hong Kong – nor had the police’s response been so brutal.
What started as a student protest around a week ago has now taken over large parts of Hong Kong, with citizens claiming nothing but to be allowed to have a say on how their city is run, and by whom.
As I stand on a footbridge in front of the Central Government’s office I can hardly believe my eyes – thousands of people are sitting on the pavement, braving the rain, holding placards reading “I want universal suffrage”.
One by one speakers take turns to give short five minute presentations, the crowds clapping and chanting pro-democracy slogans as each one ends. They sing songs about freedom.
The images of police firing tear gas against peaceful protesters is still fresh in everyone’s minds but tonight people seem hopeful, more positive. Tonight, there’s no riot police to be seen.
When demonstrations began a few days ago no one expected events would turn as dark as they did.
By the end of Friday, so many people had joined in the rallies that police declared the protests in the Civic Square illegal and began using pepper spray against those in the area, rapidly escalating tensions.
Arrests quickly followed with many, including 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong, taken away in handcuffs.
The following day, people in Hong Kong woke up in anger and protests in front of the government offices swelled again towards the evening. Hundreds joined in as the sun came down – many equipped with goggles, umbrellas and cling film to protect themselves from the potential of tear gas being used against them.
The atmosphere then was at times festive, with some demonstrators expressing their views through art and dance. But things escalated once again on Sunday when anti-riot police in full gear were sent to Harcourt Road and confronted thousands of men and women who walked right up to them in defiance.
Lines of umbrellas used as shields against the tear gas blossomed.
Venus Cheng, the vice chair of Amnesty International Hong Kong, told me she witnessed the violence escalating.
“At around 7pm, people standing on the bridge above us saw a crowd of riot police approaching. Some young people tried to stop them and they were attacked. One protestor was being beaten even after he had fallen to the ground.”
Venus tried to pull the man away but ended up being shoved at with a shield by a police officer. When she stood her ground, a second police officer sprayed pepper spray directly into her face, while another hit at her thigh with his baton.
Minutes later, the police dispensed another round of tear gas, forcing Venus to retreat with the other demonstrators to another district.
“Even though I was wearing goggles and a mask, the tear gas kept making me retch and vomit and I couldn’t keep my eyes open as I ran,” she said. The confrontation between the police and demonstrations continued until 4am on Monday morning.
Because of the strong public outcry to the severe police crackdown, authorities withdrew the riot police on Monday and again allowed access to the area around the government offices. But no one knows how long the demonstrations will go on or what the reaction of the police will be.
The situation remains tense.
“What do these protests mean?” friends from across the world have been asking me. There’s no simple answer to that question.
Echoes of the word Tiananmen have been heard over the last few days, on the radio, on TV and on the streets, but whether these protests are different and will herald any change is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, what is clear is that people are ready to speak their minds, and that is exactly what Hong Kong and mainland China needs.
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