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Euphoria and Fear in Hong Kong as National Day Dawns

  • Ivan Broadhead

Hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to occupy Hong Kong's central business district. The atmosphere was festive as night fell on the eve of the October 1 national holiday, marking the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, but it is freedom and democracy that these Chinese citizens wish to celebrate, not communist-imposed rule.

To the accompaniment of protest songs and rousing speeches calling for the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, the occupation of Hong Kong Central district continues. The scale of the demonstration means overloaded telephone and data networks across the district have crashed for long periods.

A timeline of the pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong since 1984:

December 1984: Britain and China sign a Joint Declaration in which terms of Britain's 1997 return of Hong Kong to China are outlined. The 1984 Sino-British power transfer agreement specifies that China will allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Beijing calls this “one country, two systems."
June 3-4, 1989: Chinese troops fire on protesters in and around Tiananmen Square after weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. The military action rallies more than a 1 million people in Hong Kong to call for democratic safeguards to be put in place in the territory.
April 1990: Beijing ratifies Hong Kong's Basic Law, a mini-constitution that calls for "universal suffrage” in the territory.
July 1997: After 150 years, Britain returns Hong Kong to China. Beijing names a Shanghai-born, former shipping magnate, Tung Chee-hwa, as the territory’s first post-British head of government.
February 2001: Hong Kong's number two official, Chief Secretary Anson Chan, opposes Chinese interference in the territory's affairs, and resigns under pressure from Beijing.
April, 2004: China rules out the possibility of universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007 and 2008. China also says Beijing must approve any changes to Hong Kong election laws, giving China virtual veto power over Hong Kong’s evolution toward democracy.
December 2007: Beijing says Hong Kong can directly elect its own leader in 2017 and its own legislators by 2020.
September 2012: Tens of thousands of students besiege a government building for 10 days, to protest a proposal that would require Chinese identity lessons in Hong Kong schools. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is forced to scrap the plan.
June 2014: Nearly 800,000 people vote in an unofficial referendum calling for open nominations in Hong Kong's 2017 election. The protest is deemed illegal by Hong Kong's government and Chinese officials.
July 2014: Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters march through Hong Kong calling for a genuinely democratic vote in 2017. Police arrest more than 500 of them after protesters stage an overnight sit-in in the main business district.
August 2014: Anti-corruption officers raid the home of a prominent media magnate who is an outspoken critic of Beijing. Jimmy Lai has supported pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong through his publications and financial contributions.
August 2014: The Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress rules out a fully democratic election for Hong Kong's leader in 2017. The Chinese impose tight rules on the nominating process.
Sept. 2014: Thousands of pro-democracy protesters stage huge rallies in Hong Kong, demanding that China allow free elections.

Helen Ng, a 21-year-old student volunteer, vows the people will remain on the streets until their demands for full democracy in this special administrative region of China are met, as agreed to by Beijing under the principle of one country-two systems.

“Please support us. We are not violent. We just want true democracy in Hong Kong; full universal suffrage. We don’t want [political] candidates selected by the central government of China,” said Ng.

Nearby, a social scientist who gives his name only as Jonathan handed out plastic sheeting to shelter protesters during one of several rain storms. Spirits not dampened, he explained there are very few umbrellas left in the shops these days, after the police tear-gassed protesters on Sunday.

“One of the excuses the police force used was that protesters were threatening them with their umbrellas. This irony became the symbol of the people; [an] umbrella revolution to show the government that we are not ridiculous, like them,” he said.

After public criticism of the incident, the government consigned the riot police to their stations. Fears persist though that Leung Chun-ying could re-mobilize the riot police and shut down the city’s Internet servers if public order appeared to be deteriorating in the eyes of a Beijing leadership concerned that Hong Kong could be the catalyst for protests elsewhere in China.

The demonstrators have a solution - at least to the plug being pulled on the Internet. Many have been communicating on their smartphones via a new application called FireChat.

One student protester explained that the app, developed by San Francisco IT firm Open Garden, allows users to send messages via Bluetooth, not WiFi, in areas where significant numbers of people have congregated.

“The network is poor now because there are so many people and the government blocks it [by] some of it ways. So we use the FIRECHAT as it [only] requires the Bluetooth. So many people can use it,” said the student.

While the protesters continue to organize, China's President Xi Jinping remains tight-lipped about the occupation. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson commented Tuesday that the protest constitutes “an illegal assembly,” adding that Beijing supports the Hong Kong government in dealing with the situation.

Graduate Emma Chan, one of those tear-gassed on Sunday, says the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is keenly remembered on these streets. But while the People’s Liberation Army garrison looms over her shoulder, like many others she is more concerned about Hong Kong police brutality than the prospect of Beijing sending the Chinese army onto the streets.

“Honestly, I’ve been here since Saturday when there weren’t so many people, and it was kind of scary. But the whole world is watching. We don’t really believe that the PLA will come out. We still [believe] that China does not want to break its relationship with Hong Kong, yet,” said Chan.

As midnight strikes, China’s national day holiday began to a chorus of boos and chants for Leung Chun-ying to step down. Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader has failed to meet a deadline set by the protesters to address the public.

One of the few statements from his office during the day explained that the Chinese National Day fireworks show on Hong Kong harbor will be canceled.​

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