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Hong Kong's Unrest Is Fading, But These Protesters Aren't Giving Up

Chris McGrath/Getty Images News

Protesting is easy. Make a sign, show up to a rally, and yell a few slogansor, if you’re a Hong Konger participating in Occupy Central, distribute some bananas and pick up trash. The hard part is the slow, cruel grind of negotiation, and waiting to see if all the protesting made a difference. 

After more than a week spent barricading the streets of downtown Hong Kong, students came to an agreement with government leaders on Tuesday that they would meet to discuss possible reforms to the electoral system. But that meeting doesn’t happen till Friday. Until then, protesters are hanging in a limbo state of sort-of-protest, conditional on the outcome of Friday’s meeting. Many have gone back to school or to work. The Admiralty crowd, once in the thousands, by Wednesday had dwindled to a couple hundred. 

Among those who remain, determination varies. At a volunteer medical station in Admiralty, I asked Lillian, a communications student at Hong Kong Baptist University, how long she planned to stay. “Till the end of the revolution,” she said. When exactly that would be, she wasn’t sure. For now, she was setting an example by refusing to budge. “If one person leaves, the others might leave too,” she said. She then went back to reading her printed-out copy of D.H. Lawrence’s The Odor of Chrysanthemums

Her co-volunteer, Gary Yeung, 25, had been manning the station since day one, just after Hong Kong police first pulled out the pepper spray. He’d been putting off going back to work at his education business for more than a week now. “I have 300 emails piled up,” he said. Work could wait, he felt, because this was the protesters’ only shot at implementing democratic reforms. “It’s do or die,” he said. “If we give up now, the Hong Kong government will never take us seriously again.” Even so, he was pessimistic that they’d achieve their goal of universal suffrage unmediated by Beijing. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we get a compromise. … Morale is not great.”

A middle-aged woman came by the medical station to berate Yeung and his co-volunteer. Her two kids had school canceled because of the blockades, she said. Yeung argued that blocking roads was the only way to get the government’s attention. The mother said it wasn’t necessary, since the government would be reasonable. “They will change their mind,” she said. “The future is good, good, good.” Her tone soon soured. Tear gas and pepper spray wasn’t enough, she said—the protesters deserved to be locked up. “I’m not threatening you,” she said, “but you better leave before something bad happens to you.” 

Other protesters have already gone back to work. Ho Hing Sheung, 23, returned to her job as an event organizer after a few days of protesting. She had too many responsibilities, she said, and had to work late into the evening. “This revolution is a long term fight,” she said. Leona Ho, 25, was pulling double duty as a graphic designer by day and Occupy Central barricade guard by night, sleeping about three hours a night. On Wednesday night, she and her fellow guards decided to head home early. “We all agreed we should save energy for Friday,” she said.

Protesters have already become comfortable with police hanging around. Before, only undercover police would cross the barriers. Now cops in full blue walk around leisurely, as if sight-seeing. “They’re conditioning us to their presence,” Yeung said. “Pretty soon they’ll start letting cars in.” 

The protesters can’t keep occupying Central forever. But the mechanism of their dispersal is unclear. The moment police tried to clear the area, supporters would rush back, and in even greater numbers if the cops used force. The police could wait them out, but some of the protesters are patient. (Especially the one who brought a bed.) The government’s best hope seems to be conceding enough during Friday’s talks to slacken the protesters’ resolve, and give them cover to go home without too much face-loss. This may be a best-case scenario for protesters, too. “If we play the endurance game, we’ll lose,” said Yeung. 

In the meantime, many Occupiers seemed to be enjoying what might be the last moments of exhaust-free, middle-of-the-street hang time. Winnie Wo, a 23-year-old social worker, sat with a group of friends in Causeway Bay, making origami cranes to be strung up along the barricades. “The cranes are usually for sick patients,” she said. “These are for Hong Kong.” 

Leona Ho took advantage of the festive atmosphere to bring her 80-year-old grandmother, Lo Wai Ching, to see the demonstrations. “I saw it on TV and thought it was so horrible,” Lo said. Her skepticism seemed only somewhat alleviated by her visit. She supported democracy, she said, but didn’t believe that the students should be blocking the roads over it. Plus, “I think the Americans are behind all of it.” 

Ray Yuen, a 25-year-old logo designer whose pink shirt bore the words “Holy Shit!,” acknowledged that the students would probably not win major concessions from the government. But they had to try, he said. "If the city needs me, I can come out, forever and ever,” he said. “It is my responsibility, like the Batman. We are all heroes."