Hong Kong is 10,404 km away from Seattle. But that’s not stopping students at the University of Washington from supporting the protests in Hong Kong. Occupy Central, also known as the Umbrella Revolution, is a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong that began on September 28th.
Tina Choi is an international student from Hong Kong and a junior at the UW. She supports the protests and organized a rally in Seattle on Oct 1 to show support to protesters back home.
“Since China is such a big country, it’s actually pretty relevant to everyone,” said Choi. “If we don’t have democracy, I don’t see incentive for political leaders to listen to the people.”
China’s official statement on its ‘one country, two systems’ policy for Hong Kong says, “apart from stationing troops there, Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
Sophia Lo is also an international student from Hong Kong. She studied in Shanghai until fourth grade and later received a Hong Kong education. She supports the protest and its demands for true democracy in Hong Kong.
“It is fighting for what we are supposed to have,” said Lo. “That’s the word China gave us before they promised ‘one country, two systems’.”
According to a press release from the Hong Kong Police Force on September 28, “After police repeated warnings and protestors refused to leave, police decided to escalate the use of force and tear gas was used to stop those acts which endangered public safety and public order.”
“I was really sad because a lot of my friends went to the street and then they got tear gassed,” Lo said. “Hong Kong has always been a peaceful city. You never imagine something like this will happen.”
“I got really frustrated and upset,” said Choi. “Seeing how my home is turned into this land of tear gas and pepper spray on innocent, peaceful protesters.”
While protesters are urging the government to adapt a “one person per vote” policy in Hong Kong, China’s National People’s Congress standing committee announced on August 31 that in 2017 Hong Kong will only have a choice from among two to three candidates selected by a nominating committee.
Zezhou Jing, an international student from mainland China also supports the protests. He believes that people should fight for democracy.
“One person per vote, that is quite natural, and the Chinese government is trying to evade this fact,” said Jing. “If every one of us is trying to be silent, pretend ‘this is not my problem,’ the US might be another place where people have no true democracy.”
Jing is also concerned about his safety when he goes back to China.
“It is legal in mainland China to spy on a government official without their permission,” said Jing, whose father is a government official in China. “So maybe I am not safe…but anyway it has been easier to tell other Chinese students here than back in mainland.”
Jing said that state-controlled media in China has a lot to do with what Chinese students think of the political situation.
“We cannot access Twitter or Facebook or other kinds of western media, and lots of the media reporting back in China is not accurate,” said Jing. “It is kind of like educating people to oppose the protest.”
Not everyone supports the protests in Hong Kong. All three of the students I spoke with have seen critiques, especially online.
“I haven’t unfriended anyone [on Facebook]. I haven’t captured how many people unfriended me, but I do see different views,” said Choi. “I respect them because I do respect diversity.”
Lo believes accepting different perspectives is at the heart of true democracy.
“You don’t have to agree with me,” she said, “but just listen to my words first, and then you can decide.”
Jing said he has seen many angry comments on China’s state media. But he still shows his support publicly.
“If this campaign fails someday, there might be no hope for the mainland democracy, right?” said Jing.
David Bachman, a professor of International Studies at the UW’s Henry M. Jackson School, said that there are a large number of people in China who don’t understand what lies behind this protest. Although there is tension between people in mainland China and people in Hong Kong, there is also some sympathy and hope for the whole country’s future.
“So far there hasn’t been a sign of change by the Hong Kong government, which presumably reflects the Beijing government about what should be done,” said Bachman. “If there is no negotiation, then there is really no end to the challenges going on here.”
In recent days there has been a significant decrease in the number of protesters on the street in Hong Kong. But there have not been any negotiations between the protesters and the government.
“That is a short-term result. The protesters will get tired, they will get frustrated, there will be pressure on them,” said Bachman. “That doesn’t mean in any way that the issue is resolved. It simply means that for the time being they decided to pack up their bags and sort of wait for the next opportunity, and there will be a next opportunity.”
Amnesty International has urges the authorities to respect citizens’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The organization also says that officials should ensure that all those detained have access to lawyers and medical attention.
“If China were smart, if Hong Kong were smart, they would try to figure out ways to meet some of the protesters’ demands and try to figure out ways that people will be much happier with the system.” said Bachman.
Almost 200,000 signatures were collected on “We the People,” a White House-sponsored website, asking for US support of democracy in Hong Kong. The White House’s response is supportive of the protests, stating, ” The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people.”
But, “the US has very limited ability to affect the outcome here,” said Bachman. “I would say that Hong Kong is not the highest priority in US-China relationship.”
Choi said the government should listen to the people and try to work with them.
“It is not a carnival, it’s not fun, people do want to get home,” said Choi. “If they can’t express what they want, if their needs are not answered, they will probably still occupy the street.”