Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy

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HONG KONG is in the grip of people power. Thousands of protesters have taken over the streets in Hong Kong’s financial hub, not by force but by sheer number. Their objective: shut down the city’s business engine and force the Chinese central government in Beijing to loosen its political hold on the semi-autonomous region.

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Police fired tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, who scattered but regrouped as soon as the clouds of tear gas dissipated.

Occupy Central, as the protest has come to be known, is the most potent anti-Beijing demonstration since the 1997 handover. It is showing no signs of ending soon.

Hong Kong is not known for having a rebellious streak, perhaps because Beijing had given the former British colony leeway in charting its economic destiny. The city is one of China’s first growth centers, a glistening showcase of prosperity, and the central government did not want to fix something that wasn’t broken. The residents enjoyed civil liberties denied to most of the mainland Chinese and thrived in this environment of leniency.

But along with prosperity came a clamor for a bigger voice in deciding Hong Kong’s political fate. At its forefront are the students, who have caught a whiff of Western-style democracy.

It was not long before the democracy advocates wanted to test how far Beijing would bend. Their chance came when surveys indicated that the trust for the central government had sunk to its deepest level since the handover.

Riding on the growing disenchantment, pro-democracy groups put the pressure on Beijing to allow Hong Kong to freely choose its leader. A vague provision in the deal struck between Great Britain and China in 1997 promised universal suffrage for Hong Kong residents. The provision did not go into details and was silent on when it will be carried out.

For the democracy supporters, the time for universal suffrage is now. Since the handover, Hong Kong has been governed by a committee of 1,200 members. The chief executive is elected from this committee.

Last August, sensing the fallout from the rising discontent among Hong Kong residents, Beijing revised the voting guidelines, and put in a proviso that it must screen the candidates for the committee before they are allowed to run.

It was clear that the central government was drawing the line on democratic reforms for Hong Kong.

The decision only added fuel to the protest, which was spreading at a dramatic pace. The students were joined by their professors, then by financial executives and religious leaders.

Beijing, which has a military garrison in Hong Kong, has so far not ordered the troops to come out, letting instead the Hong Kong police handle the demonstrations. Chinese leaders did not want to watch footage on CNN of blood and gore in the streets of Hong Kong. One Tiananmen is enough.

How long will the standoff in Hong Kong last? No one wants to hazard a guess. The police has kept to the sidelines, and the demonstrators have refrained from taunting them. “The police has very high-quality shields — we just have our umbrellas,” said one Hong Kong lawmaker who has joined Occupy Central. The protesters have armed themselves with umbrellas, their flimsy defense against tear gas and pepper spray.

In some places, a festive atmosphere has set in, with protesters singing a popular song blared from speakers on a high-rise apartment.

What is happening in Hong Kong brings to mind our own peaceful revolution on EDSA in 1986. Without the use of arms, we drove out an oppressive leader, reopened the door to democracy.

Democracy is what the protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for.

“We’re going to win this fight not with our fists but with our conscience and moral sentiments,” proclaimed a sociology professor.

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