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Opinion The peaceful anarchy of Hong Kong's student protesters is infectious

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests gained a momentum of their own after the catastrophic miscalculation to fire tear gas at peaceful demonstrators.

AS HONG KONG heads towards its fourth night of occupation by pro-democracy protesters, extraordinary moments abound. Thousands of teenagers wake up to a morning-of-a-music-festival atmosphere on a six-lane motorway next to the local headquarters of China’s People’s Liberation Army. A group of violinists performs in the middle of the road in one of the busiest intersections in the world, in a downtown shopping district. Black-clad protesters blanket an area outside the old colonial-era parliament building, except for a small square patch of lawn on which a tiny sign reads “please stay off the grass”. On an abandoned bus now converted into a first aid centre and public noticeboard, not a single pane of glass has been as much as cracked. There are no police, anywhere.

It is possible to stroll for miles from the west to the east of the island along roads that would ordinarily be thronged with cars and buses from morning to night. Along the way, under the shadow of skyscrapers, you pass groups carefully dividing recyclable rubbish, while others do homework or check Facebook on their smartphones. Mountains of supplies – water bottles, bandages, biscuits, bananas – are stacked at makeshift stations dotted along the route, and road signs are plastered with handmade posters. It’s the same situation across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, where shoppers down from the mainland take selfies in front of barricades made up of bins, police cones and metal barriers.

Nobody really knows what happens next. The last time this many people took to the streets here, in 2003, it led eventually to the resignation of the city’s leader, the chief executive, and a raft of new economic sweeteners. That might happen again, but the students who are driving this movement now have set their hearts on nothing less than full democracy. Most people here want that too, but older generations in particular are wary of provoking the central government in Beijing, for whom open elections are simply out of the question.

Tear-gassing teenagers armed with umbrellas

What bridged this grand generational divide, turning a student protest into a genuinely popular movement, was the catastrophic miscalculation to fire tear gas at demonstrators on Sunday. People might not be sold on the wisdom of occupying streets to pressure authoritarian rulers with practically limitless resources; but almost everyone could agree that tear-gassing teenagers armed with umbrellas and Gandhi quotes was beyond the pale.

Tens of thousands arrived at protest sites around the city, locals who have long suspected that Beijing wants to rein in the many freedoms — of speech, assembly, the press — and the rule of law supposedly protected under the “one country, two systems” experiment. Anger at crony capitalism, at corruption, at stark inequality and the most unaffordable housing in the world, has all spilled out onto the streets in the past historic nights.

A common refrain among the students is that no matter how unlikely the possibility that Beijing will concede any ground on democracy, they have no choice but to try. The alternative is to wait idly for Hong Kong to become “just another Chinese city”. Trust in the local and central governments has collapsed. Many of those in a position to do so have been weighing up moving abroad. This most recent protest, which began with a class boycott last week, has the feel of a last stand.

Now the thing has a momentum of its own. The middle-aged academics who helped give birth to the Occupy Central movement admit, with satisfaction tinged with the anxiety of experience, that it’s no longer under their control. The local government, their hands tied by Beijing, seems intent to wait it out and hope the public grows tired of having to take alternate bus routes home. But for now the students — with their recycling stations, art installations, good humour and ‘sorry for the inconvenience’ signs — are winning the PR battle. In a city that has always been ruled by an empire, a little peaceful anarchy is infectious.

Aidan Mac Guill is a journalist in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter @aidanmacguill.

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