What’s Happening in Hong Kong? Stunning Images From the Occupy-Inspired, Ferguson-Tinged Protests

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What began as an Occupy-inspired student sit-in exploded in Hong Kong over the weekend as police responded with excessive force toward peaceful demonstrators, using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. The Occupy Central protests spread from Hong Kong’s financial district to just outside the city’s government offices in Admiralty, but the law-enforcement crackdown had the opposite effect, sending thousands more into the streets in solidarity and shutting down portions of the city. The protests have now bled into the work week and riot police have pulled back, at least for now. Here’s what you need to know so far. 

What started this?

After 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, but has operated semi-autonomously under what’s known as “one country, two systems,” outside of Beijing’s communist rule. The promise was that in 2017, Hong Kong would be allowed, for the first time, to elect its own leader (known as chief executive) in democratic elections, instead of having the slot filled by a committee from Beijing. But earlier this summer, China decided a committee was still necessary, and it would select the candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. Outrage has been building ever since.

Who’s out there?

The protests were organized in part by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which has since called for an indefinite student strike, the New York Times reports. Young people are everywhere, but not alone. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union has joined them with a general strike, as have some professionals after the weekend violence — “office workers in slacks and dress shirts mixed with crowds of students in black T-shirts,” according to the Times.

Occupy Central with Love and Peace, meanwhile, is led by a University of Hong Kong law professor named Benny Tai, Businessweek reported earlier this summer. Tai has been organizing for months, and a look at his planning from June now serves as some serious foreshadowing: 

At some point, Tai says the movement may follow through on the threat in its name and occupy Central, where most of Hong Kong’s top banks and other financial institutions (as well as Bloomberg) have their offices. Many companies are already taking no chances, developing plans in case demonstrators block the streets and prevent employees from getting to work.

What do they want?

In addition to democratic elections in 2017 and continued autonomy for Hong Kong, as previously promised, protesters are now demanding the resignation of current chief executive Leung Chun-ying. The economics are also less than ideal, and the country could be slipping into a recession.

How is the government reacting?

Not well, especially at first. Here’s a video from the ground of protesters being teargassed, in attacks that look familiar from Ferguson and helped stoke outrage among citizens:

The use of pepper spray has been equally alarming, and is reminiscent of previous Occupy protests in the U.S.

As Vox notes, some protesters have taken to using the “hands up, don’t shoot” imagery of the Michael Brown demonstrations in Ferguson. It’s still a powerful image on the other side of the world:

Protesters in Ferguson have sent a message back:

Heather, a #Ferguson protester, wearing a sign that says “Stay strong #HongKong.” pic.twitter.com/9CnqFfERfL

— Amanda Wills (@AmandaWills) September 29, 2014

It’s not surprising, then, that Beijing is blaming the West for stoking tensions. From the Times:

A commentary on the website of the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, claimed that the upheavals in Hong Kong were instigated by democratic radicals who had sought support from “anti-China forces” in Britain and the United States, and had sought lessons from independence activists in Taiwan. It called them a “gang of people whose hearts belong to colonial rule and who are besotted with ‘Western democracy’.”

Hong Kong has canceled its annual fireworks celebration of China’s National Day on Wednesday, indicating that this thing may continue for the foreseeable future.

The protesters, they are so young,” a mother of two who joined the protests on Monday told the Times. “They are fighting for our future, for my children’s future.”

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Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
What’s Happening in Hong Kong? Protest Explainer