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Hong Kong Has Split Into Two Worlds

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

When I arrived in Hong Kong early Monday afternoon, everything seemed normal. A tour guide at the airport told me cheerfully that the subway stations in the center of the city were open for business. Office workers in Central, the neighborhood that has in recent days become a hotspot of pro-democracy protests, came and went unmolested by pepper spray. An intersection where police had tear-gassed demonstrators the day before was already back to regular traffic operations. 

I only had to walk a block before seeing the first sign of irregularity: A team of young men in black T-shirts were erecting metal barriers in the middle of the street. The previous night, clashes with police had forced the protestors to pull back from their position. Now they were expanding their turf again.

Walking past that barrier was like passing between worlds. Outside, everyone was a stranger and coffee cost $7 a cup. Inside, it felt like that first scene in every kids’ movie about a fantasyland that’s a little too good to be true. The average age of the population halved: Young people were suddenly everywhere, sitting, chatting, snacking, painting, giving each other temporary tattoos. Volunteers filled up water bottles at a public fountain, then passed them, small town firefighter-style, along a line to the end where people poured them into orange plastic barricades. Kids walked up and down the street handing out supplies: Within five minutes, I was offered a banana, an apple, bread, a bottle of water, a face mask, goggles, and an adhesive cooling patch for my forehead. I’d initially considered the movement’s name, “Occupy Central With Love and Peace,” a little ridiculous. Now it just seemed accurate. 

Occupy Central is actually something of a misnomer. It has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street, or the anti-capitalist “Occupy” brand. The movement is Hong Kong-specific: It pushes for universal suffrage, a goal that the Beijing government, which oversees Hong Kong, recently derailed by announcing that it would vet candidates for the island’s chief executive before they appeared on the ballot. The name “Occupy Central” is also dated because the protests have expanded far beyond Hong Kong’s Central district to the government center of Admiralty, the Times Square-like Causeway Bay, and the dense shopping district Mong Kok , thereby bringing the busiest parts of the city to a standstill. Furthermore, the original organization calling itself Occupy Central doesn’t oversee the protests anymore, after its leaders lost control of the demonstrations. 

The conventional wisdom after the Sunday night clashes was that the movement had lost momentum. But my conversations with protestors on Monday suggested the opposite. Many of the people I spoke with didn’t come out until after the police cracked down. Henry Wong, 19, a student at Chinese University of Hong Kong, decided to join after seeing a live broadcast of students fighting with police. “I’m here so I can sleep at night,” he told me. Michelle Chan, 18, also said she was galvanized by the use of force: “Police don’t have to be that cruel.” Tony Wong, 24, said he was skipping work to come to the protest. I asked if his boss would be upset. “I can get another job,” he said. “I can’t get another Hong Kong.” 

Despite the collapse of the organization, things seemed to be running smoothly. Volunteers walked back and forth along the road connecting Central and Admiralty, collecting trash. Teams distributed and redistributed supplies from station to station, by hand and by van. In the absence of a leadership structure, regional organizers carrying bullhorns would loudly suggest actions to groups of people—move in that direction, stay here for a while, prepare your emergency equipment—which crowds could choose to follow or not. “It’s like a leadership, but not actually a leadership,” said Cheung Ling Song, 19, a student and one of the designated bullhorners.

Not everyone was impressed with the organization. “We don’t have a strategy, said Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung, a pro-democracy activist and legislator whose trademark locks were cut short when he was jailed last month. Long Hair knows the power of a dramatic gesture, like when he fell to his knees over the weekend begging protestors to stay, or the time he threw a banana at the chief executive. “You can call me the rascal of the democrats,” he told me. (His blue marijuana leaf-print shorts helped his case.) The Occupy movement has a goal in universal suffrage, he said, but it doesn’t know how to get there. Beijing doesn’t seem ready to budge, and the legislature itself has little power to force the issue. So the protesters are focusing on the simplest demand available: Remove the current chief executive, C.Y. Leung.

As I walked east, toward the government headquarters, the anti-Leung vitriol seemed to build. Protesters had turned an abandoned public bus into a mock grave for Leung, laying flowers in front of his portrait taped to the windshield. A woman sprinkled water over the altar in an ironic ceremonial gesture. Two friends charged through the street with an enormous cutout head of Leung with vampire fangs drawn over his mouth. “C.Y. Leung, step down!” became a go-to chant.

Whether or not this is a realistic demand is up for debate. For the protesters, it’s beside the point. Most of them seemed aware that they were unlikely to win ground in any immediate, tangible way. But they felt they had to speak up. “If Beijing limits our choice, then there’s no end to this: We’ll just come out more and more,” said Karmeo Lo, a 27-year-old architecture student.

After the chaos of the previous night, the police seemed to be taking it easy. The only stare-down-over-a-barricade was happening on Arsenal Road, next to the police headquarters. But as the hours passed, both sides seemed to grow indifferent. The only hint of violence was a rolled-up banner carried by one policeman that, if unfurled, would read, “Disperse now or we’ll shoot.” But he never unfurled it. At one point, an officer started yelling and pointing wildly—apparently a protestor had lit a cigarette close to a nearby gas station.

As night fell, the relative absence of police started to seem ominous. At 12:41 a.m., an organizer gathered a group together and spoke quietly into his bullhorn, presumably to keep any keen-eared cops from overhearing. Thirty vans full of police were waiting around the corner, he’d been told, so people should have their masks and goggles at the ready. The boys rearranged the barricades into strong triangular formations, and propped umbrellas on top to guard against pepper spray. As we waited for something to happen, I found myself jumping at every shout and crash. Soon a roar went up and everyone frantically fit mask to face. But it was a false alarm.

How this ends is anyone’s guess. Sooner or later, the Hong Kong government will need to react, either by offering a concession or by forcing the protestors to disperse. The former option would mean embarrassment for Beijing; the latter would risk tragedy. While the protestors may not have much leverage, they do have time. “We’re not in a hurry,” said Mason Choi, 22, a student at City University who was rocking a camouflage jacket and a cooling forehead patch. Whether or not they win this round, said Karmeo Lo, the architecture student, the protests will have been useful: “After this, people know what to fight for, and how to fight for it.” Then his phone rang: “Sorry, I gotta go meet my girlfriend.”