In Hong Kong, Clean and Polite, but a Protest Nonetheless

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from The New York Times,

The pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, which expanded into additional neighborhoods on Tuesday in defiance of new government warnings, has been a diligently clean, exceedingly polite and scrupulously peaceful insurgency that supporters have taken to calling the Umbrella Revolution.

Their shield of choice, and the symbol of their cause, is the umbrella: protection against the sun, rain — and pepper spray fired by the riot police. “An umbrella looks nonthreatening,” said Chloe Ho, 20, a history student distributing apples, chocolate and wet towels on a six-lane downtown expressway occupied by protesters. “It shows how mild we Hong Kong people are, but when you cross our bottom line, we all come out together, just like the umbrellas all come out at the same time when it rains.”

Hers is a movement without a clear leader, one in which crowds of largely younger people are organizing themselves and acting on their own, overtaking months of planning by veterans of the city’s pro-democracy camp. The spontaneous, grass-roots nature of the revolt is one of its strengths — it has adapted quickly and seized the momentum from the government — but it may also make it difficult for the movement to accept any compromise that the Chinese government might be willing to offer.

The mass sit-in — and for hardier participants, sleep-in — in several of Hong Kong’s key commercial districts has presented the Chinese leadership with one of its biggest and most unexpected challenges in years. The protesters are demanding the right to elect the city’s leader, or chief executive, without procedural hurdles that would ensure only Beijing’s favored candidates get on the ballot.

China’s state-run news outlets have depicted the protests as the handiwork of a conspiracy aided by the West to topple the Communist Party. But what leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong face is something even more alien to party thinking: an amorphous movement that does not answer to any particular individual or agenda.

The protesters’ desire for democratic elections was first articulated by organizations dominated by academics and students, but the movement that has blockaded the city streets since the weekend is a cacophony of voices, with demands ranging from face-to-face dialogue with Beijing’s handpicked chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to his immediate resignation to more ambitious, and unlikely, concessions from the central government.

“The strengths of these protests are that it’s so decentralized, so first of all you can’t crush them through arresting the leaders,” said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, who has monitored the demonstrations. “The weaknesses are, of course, that there could be confusions and splits as the situation quickly develops. So far it has worked remarkably well, but it might not further along the way.”

“I came here because I don’t want to lose my Hong Kong,” said Bo Au-yeung, 20, a saleswoman at a clothing store who had volunteered to run a supply station. “I don’t want Hong Kong to be the next China.”

“We want to stay clean to show that we are normal citizens fighting for our democracy,” said Billy Chan, 21, a computer science student who was heading home on Tuesday morning to wash up.

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