In support of the Occupy Central campaign, over 100 attendees gathered outside the McConnell Engineering building in solidarity with student protesters in Hong Kong. The event was hosted by QPIRG McGill and students Michael Law, Elliot Tan, Ailisha Macharia, and Cathy Wong.
The rally kicked off around 2 p.m., as demonstrators began to assemble, many sporting a yellow ribbon – the symbol of global solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong. All of the speakers were unanimous in their support for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy and against police violence.
“A few days ago in Hong Kong, students went down the streets […] they’re protesting against the Chinese government’s recent decision to undermine Hong Kong’s democracy by stating that the candidates that they would vote on in 2017 must be approved by Beijing prior to the election,” said Law. “That’s not how democracy works.”
The “umbrella revolution”
In 2013, the Occupy Central movement was founded by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Dubbed the “umbrella revolution,” referring to protesters’ use of umbrellas to guard against the police’s use of pepper spray, the protests in Hong Kong can trace their roots to the years of anger Hong Kongers hold against their Chinese-appointed government, undemocratically elected by partial suffrage. The city’s wealth disparity and ever-rising living costs have been another source of discontent.
However, the spark that catalyzed this built-up tension came from Beijing. In June, the Chinese central government released a white paper asserting “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the city and making alarming statements such as the requirement that judges be “patriotic.”
The last nail on the coffin was hammered in on August 31, when Beijing declared its decision on electoral reform for the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, effectively blocking all candidates except those pre-approved by the central government.
In response, university and secondary school student associations started a city-wide boycott of class on September 22, triggering a series of sit-ins and protests that steadily escalated into physical confrontations with the police. This culminated in clashes between protesters and the police on the grounds of the government headquarters.
Riding on the popularity of the student protests, Tai announced the start of the Occupy Central protests on September 28. In the ensuing conflicts, the use of force by the Hong Kong police peaked when tear gas was fired into protesting crowds and gave rise to photos such as that of the “Umbrella Man,” which circulated widely on social media.
Montreal stands in solidarity
Vincent Tao, a member of No One is Illegal Toronto, spoke to the deep emotional impact of seeing fellow Hong Kongers protest in the streets.
“I am the son of Hong Kongers […] so I cannot begin to describe the complicated feelings of longing and belonging I felt when I first saw the images of Victoria Square filled with people my age marching for what they believe in,” he told the crowd.
“We recognize that an empowered people will empower others. And a freed people will free others. And democracy is contagious,” said Law.
Following the speeches made by the organizers of the protest, a petition was made available for attendees to sign in support of Occupy Central. It will eventually be delivered to the Consulate of China in Montreal.
Hui Peng, who came to Canada a year and a half ago from mainland China, compared the Occupy Central movement to past political protests. “This is really similar to what happened in China 25 years ago, which is the Tiananmen Square massacre. There are some things similar, and some things different, which is this time, the people there, they are more disciplined. They know that they are not going to fight, they are [going to] peacefully argue for their rights. I think there is hope.”
“The cause of Hong Kong is the cause of all of us; it is the cause of people in Indonesia, Taiwan […] because they want real democracy […] and everyone stands in solidarity with Hong Kong,” said Nicholas Pullen, a Masters student in History.
Despite public support for the Occupy Central movement, Tao reminded attendees to contextualize it in past political struggles in Hong Kong, as well as current labour struggles that span beyond the achievement of democracy.
“So contrary to the notion that this is the first time in Hong Kong’s history that the people are coordinating themselves with little direction from the government or institutions, and with an exceptional air of middle-class decorum at that, we must be reminded that in May of 1967, the youth of my father’s generation set off bombs in the fight for decent working conditions and social planning initiatives from Hong Kong’s negligent colonial administration,” said Tao.
“What must not be erased here is the long history of labour organizing, grassroots mobilization, and protest in Hong Kong. But more importantly, I fear what else may be erased in our hasty celebration of the pro-democracy movement is the actual content of democracy,” Tao continued. “Why is there no mention of the appalling income gap in Hong Kong, of how one in five of the island’s population are below the poverty line, of how suicide rates in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods are three and a half times higher than they are in the adjacent financial districts?”
Tao also highlighted the issues faced by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. “Will universal suffrage be extended to the foreign domestic workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Thailand, and Bangladesh that make up 10 per cent of the island’s workforce?”
Tao referenced the case of Erwania Sulistyaningsih, an Indoensian woman who was severely abused during her time as a migrant worker in Hong Kong. “When migrant workers must keep silence in the face of overwhelming rates of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from the employers they must live with for fear of near-immediate deportation, how can we begin to talk about democracy?”