I hate people who block traffic for any reason, but these kids in Hong Kong have won me over.
The students have chosen, with an impressively-rapid acquisition of traction and seemingly-universal and escalating global support, to take a careful stand against a powerful and stubborn adversary over a matter that is mostly symbolic and hard to explain to the rest of the world whose attention they need.
They have done so artfully. While some are calling it Tienanmen 2.0, the students are calling it the Umbrella Revolution, as they have been using umbrellas, an “nonthreatening” object, to shield themselves from the sun, the rain and pepper spray. When it rains, they explain, people open their umbrellas in unison, and they feel in a figurative sense that it is raining on Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and escape from becoming another Chinese city, and so they go outside with the umbrellas opened in unison. That’s poetic.
They do not torch police cars. They don’t loot. They don’t race-bait. They do not throw Molotov cocktails nor do they burn tires. They do not shoot guns (they don’t have them, but I doubt they would shoot them if they did). They do not get sidetracked by regarding the police as their adversary. They do not get arrested. Maybe two or three arrests, not bad for 30K protestors.
You know what they do?
They actually do their homework. Literally! They sit down on the streets and do their school assignments. They put political slogans on their umbrellas, they use social media, they use tact in aiming for some concrete successes in challenging primarily a Hong Kong official instead of Beijing (so far). That’s a realistic near-term goal, the ouster of this man. If they succeed, more dramatic goals will shift from fantasy to possibility.
Though they block traffic, they move out of the way for emergency vehicles. They distribute water, crackers and bananas, and, unlike environmentalists in New York City, they pick up their trash. Not only to they pick up their trash, they sort the recyclables.
They hold signs that apologize for inconveniencing the city. Wow, right? They have self-organized medical teams, and an emphasis on health and hygiene, and they have achieved a weakened position for authorities to violate their own constitutional rights.
Unlike other Occupy movements, they have established some leadership, they handle the press effectively with every one of them I’ve seen interviewed speaking articulately with a mostly uniform, reasonable and simplified message, and doing so in English, a foreign language.
They have managed to stay on track enough to impose ultimatums with a timeline. They have mostly done well in avoiding seeing the Hong Kong police as their enemy, something that is challenging historically for protestors.
Unlike other movements, they have not made getting arrested a goal. Perhaps this is the most civil form of civil disobedience the world has experienced, perpetrated by those belonging to a group that has perhaps the highest average IQ in the world, and a good education. And manners. And candles:
They have not achieved their stated goals yet, however, as a consequence I think of their behaviour, they have widespread support. Their restraint in ambitiousness lends them more credence and I suspect opens the door a little wider of a much larger victory. It’s a little too early to demand independence from China, for example, particularly given that China has military bases in Hong Kong. Instead, they are being smart and writing a playbook for Taiwan.
People give them food and water. Youtube gives them a live stream channel. The authorities gave them toilets instead of using their bladders as leverage, they have respect and sympathy of much of Hong Kong.
They have succeeded in turning the heat world attention on Beijing’s anti-democratic behaviour, cornering Beijing into the most uncomfortable position of weighing whether to capitulate to the protestors and look weak (they hate that, losing face, especially their current president) or standing firm and possibly clamping down with violence that could truly lead to another Tienanmen.
The Chinese know how to quash a protest, so long as the protest is in a Chinese region over which they have full control of information. In Xinjiang they can crack skulls, but in Hong Kong they would not be able to enjoy that luxury, not without extreme and costly world disdain.
The students have succeeded in making political reform the largest issue in Hong Kong. They have succeeded in forcing China to suspend some tourism of Mainlanders in Hong Kong, making it difficult for Beijing to suppress the real news and the severity of the goings-on in Hong Kong. They have succeeded, though inadvertently, in getting the world press to attribute Monday’s dips in the stock markets and the Hong Kong dollar to the movement which, though I don’t like losing paper wealth, highlights the strength they’ve built. And they have succeeded in making Beijing appear tone-deaf.
They have succeeded in cancelling the annual fireworks show celebrating the 1949 birth of the People’s Republic of China, a bigger deal than it sounds. They have succeeded in convincing their government that they intend to keep at it and to be taken seriously.
They succeeded in prompting the British prime minister to remind China of the 1997 deal which included a pledge for a high degree of autonomy and a trajectory toward universal suffrage. Meanwhile, Beijing has forced their social media companies to expunge mentions of Hong Kong, instead to make “selfies with the Chinese flag” as a trending topic, if you can believe it.
They have succeeded in prompting President Obama to make a comment to our media in support of the protestors and their cause, with Obama encouraging authorities to exercise restraint. This is no longer just an irritant to China’s President Xi, but a thin and frayed tightrope to navigate through with a lose being the destinations of both ends of that rope and beneath.
Mr. Xi did not see this reaction coming, quite a blunder. I hope he can solve this puzzle with more finesse and less blood than the Chinese government has produced in the past and I also hope that Americans with an axe to grind learn from these students.