Hong Kong: the spirit of freedom

HK protest 30 SeptAs far as the eye can see, young pro-democracy protestors have taken to the streets of central Hong Kong to demand the right to elect freely the next chief executive of the territory.

The students’ speeches, songs and placards celebrate the freedoms they want to enjoy.

Beijing has announced restrictions for the 2017 election – which effectively rule out any prospect of a democrat standing. The youth of Hong Kong are not happy with how their non-democratic future is shaping up.

After a week of demonstrations, the current Chief Executive CY Leung has offered the protestors talks. While seen by some as a possible ploy to play for time – it is an offer that has been accepted.

But can the fresh-faced young students of Hong Kong really take on the ruthless old elite of the Communist Party in Beijing and win?

The omens are not good.

While the youngsters practise nonviolence, the rulers have already shown themselves willing to send in baton-wielding, tear gas-firing police.

While the students light up the night sky with their smartphones, Beijing has shut down Instagram and censored social media sites across China, less the contagion of protest spread.

And as the students organise themselves as a mass movement with popular support, Amnesty has documented how Beijing’s security forces – ever fearful of their own people – have arrested scores of pro-democracy activists across China.

And hanging like a spectre over downtown Hong Kong is the memory of Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students and workers were mown down and rounded up by the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army in 1989. Could it happen again, should the “crisis” reach a point where Beijing feels the need to use force to save face?

That’s the question to which all fear the answer, although most believe that a response of such brutality, amidst the glare of the world’s media, would be almost unconscionable today.

What is clear is that full democracy and human rights are not part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan for Hong Kong or the country as a whole.

The students have other ideas. They are young, educated and determined to have the same human rights as people in other developed countries.

China may be able to crush the protest, but they will never be able to extinguish the spirit of freedom. Not in 1989. Not in 2014.

A version of this article is published in the Belfast Telegraph today (not yet online).