It is in the ‘pearl of the Orient’. It has an enigmatic name. But what are the ‘Umbrella Protests’ and why are they happening? University of Southampton student Alexander Tam has set up the Yellow Ribbons movement here on campus and we asked him to help explain the current events in Hong Kong.
How and why did the protests start?
Tam: So basically it starts from a student boycott of the decision taken by the Chinese government that they are going to screen the candidates for our next chief executive [to be elected in 2017]. Beijing is saying “we will give you votes in Hong Kong”, but this is not the case. It is not democracy at all.
But the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping have offered ‘universal suffrage’, why is this ‘not democracy’?
Tam: What they are doing is they have set up a 1,200 member elective committee [similar to the Electoral college in America], 900 of which are nominated by the communist party in Beijing. They will pick the three candidates for whom the people can vote. [All the candidates will therefore be party loyalists]. In Hong Kong Basic Law, article 45, Hong Kong is promised democracy. This is not democracy.
So the people are demanding real democracy, not the so-called ‘Chinese style democracy’? What name does the movement go under?
Tam: This ‘umbrella’ thing is coined by the BBC and CNN. The real name is Occupy Central with Peace and Love [or just Occupy Central]. The Umbrella moniker is a western one, because of how the protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves from police tear gas.
What led to the police administering tear gas?
Tam: A public area was restricted – one which was normally used for protests and the students wanted to take the area back. The police respond in an ‘unfriendly’ way I would say – dropping tear gas on the students. They used many different methods to cover themselves, [the most iconic of which has been]umbrellas especially. The police also arrested the student leader: Joshua Wong. He is a veteran of the protests and has a student group called Scholarism.
So Joshua Wong is the leader of Scholarism, which is a student group. By the sounds of it, the protests have been heavily-dominated by students, have other groups taken up the call?
Tam: Initially it was just students. But now, people of the working class, the middle class, everyone has come out on to the streets. A mum with two kids. A taxi driver. The working class, the van drivers who have helped the students to move their resources. It is not just students as some media have been portrayed. This is a popular movement.
You talked earlier about the Chief Executive, I wanted to go back to that and discuss the current Chief Executive. What are your thoughts on him?
Tam: The Chief Executive now is CY Leung. Some people call him a puppet for the Chinese government and I don’t have much objection to this name. He is pretty useless in a way. There is a lot of unpopular unrest within the civil service itself and his measures are unpopular. How he has dealt with emergency situations has been really bad. For instance the protests have been going on for a week and he hasn’t gone out to speak to them once.
Can you talk about the idea of ‘One Nation, Two Systems’. It has allowed Hong Kong to operate as an extremely free economy with a vibrant and inquisitive press. What are your thoughts on it given the apparent encroachments made by Beijing in to this way of life?
Tam: ‘One Nation, Two Systems’ was enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration which transferred Hong Kong in to Chinese sovereignty [by 1997]. This treaty protects the people of Hong Kong and demands that Hong Kong should retain a high autonomy and promises democracy [as mentioned above, in article 45 of Hong Kong Basic Law].
‘One Nation, Two Systems’ has to work and has to stay on. Hong Kong is such a huge financial city: a financial base because of it. It occupies this unique space to be in China while also having a strong legal system based on British common law. Hong Kong is very proud to be the only place in China to be able to talk about freedoms, autonomy from the central government and retain high levels of freedom of speech.
But ‘One Nation, Two Systems’ is also beneficial to the mainland. When companies want to go in to China, they start in Hong Kong. They trust the legal system in Hong Kong more because it is more open. It essentially serves as a gateway in and out of China.
I want to bring us back to Southampton now. What are you doing and how can the student body help?
Tam: A week ago I saw the news of the tear gas and thought we should do something. So I thought of doing a petition and starting to raise awareness and this is what I have been doing. We have also been handing out yellow ribbons.
What is the story behind the Yellow Ribbons?
Tam: Yellow represents peace historically. It does not start in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong it has come to represent the student boycotts and is now a symbol of the hoped for Hong Kong democracy. We encourage people to wear the ribbon around campus in solidarity.
Tam: Support our Facebook page at Yellow Ribbons for Hong Kong Democracy. We have a debate organised with the Southampton Debate Society coming up on how Britain can intervene so look out for that. We are also doing a joint-venture with the Amnesty International Society here on campus that we will have more news on in the coming days. We will be setting up our stall wherever we can. Today it was pouring with rain but we were here, in the library, trying to raise support.
How successful have you been so far?
Tam: So far we have more than 700 signatures on our petition. We have made contact with the local MP and contacted the local newspapers. We are hoping to push this outside of Southampton.
This all sounds very promising and a cause that everyone should throw their support behind. Do you have any closing comments?
Tam: I believe that when we unite the people we can have this voice. Don’t underestimate what you can do. When I started this in Southampton we had only three members. Now we have a committee and more members. I was a new-born to politics. I only knew how to work in a lab! But this has been a very satisfying experience.
I am constantly looking for change but we can also savour the small victories. These victories don’t happen with money but with what we are doing. One shy boy, who did not speak much English, after two hours on our stall, was much more confident and going up to people to get them involved. These are the small victories we can take as we look towards the larger victory of change and democracy in Hong Kong.