Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power

Hong Kong Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power
Disorganized and divided, the pro-democracy movement is losing steam.
By Suzanne Sataline
December 2, 2014
Foreign Policy

HONG KONG — By 5:00 a.m., the pre-dawn chill of December’s first day had blown in from Victoria Harbour in central Hong Kong and crept onto the sleeping protesters on Lung Wo Road on the northern lip of Hong Kong Island. Some youth nestled their heads on backpacks, while others shivered under metallic blankets that flapped in the breeze. Sitting on the highway median, protester Heman Cheung, 24, shared a cigarette with two other men. His eyelids heavy, he studied the 20 or so police officers guarding the driveway to the city’s government center. He exhaled slowly. “Perhaps it’s a mistake,” said Cheung.

Eight hours earlier, around 9:00 p.m. on Nov. 30, Cheung and a few hundred other young men and women had tried to surround the city’s government headquarters, a desperate ploy in a fight for open democratic elections in a city that many fret is increasingly resigned to Beijing’s dictates. When the tactic didn’t work, protesters surged onto a major transit route, quickly building barricades from plastic pallets, and waited for the police to chase them off, which they did.

It has been like this for just over two months in Hong Kong, a city of gleaming skyscrapers and staggering wealth where protesters are camping in tents on major commercial streets, trying to get residents to join a crusade for open elections within mainland China’s orbit. The protest initially found wide sympathy in Hong Kong, but since then has been steadily losing support as Hong Kong government officials refuse to talk and residents have tired of the inconvenience created by protest occupations. To keep the movement alive, demonstrators have resorted to increasingly brazen, even theatrical, tactics to convince city officials to pay them heed.

But those gambits, too, have failed to achieve the promise of democracy, and the movement has continued to suffer crippling blows over the past several days. On Dec. 1, a court considered an injunction request that could soon level the occupation camp set on a major highway. Later that day, Joshua Wong, the head of student activist movement Scholarism, started a hunger strike, hoping to prod the city’s government to negotiate. On Dec. 2, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group of old-guard democracy advocates, urged students to go home and regroup. All were signs that the two-month-old strike may end in the coming days — perhaps without any concessions from city leaders.

Cheung, a DJ and musician, has been one of several protesters who thinks that the student-led protest has been mismanaged. It had been too tentative and confused, they said, subject to making hasty decisions that crumble from poor planning. The pattern was on display the night of Dec. 1; Cheung said students hadn’t thought about how many people they would need to encircle the government center and hold off the police. And when police quickly cut off walkway access to the complex, the leaders had decided to take Lung Wo, a major east-west transport route that was too vast for the protesters there to hold.

Around 9:00 p.m., two student groups had dispatched supporters to surround government headquarters. Police in riot gear lined up, facing off against teens and young people wearing yellow construction helmets, and clutching wooden and cardboard shields, even a wok with arm straps. After a clattering of batons on umbrellas, raised to shield them from pepper spray, several demonstrators were helped away, clutching bloodied heads. One man hoisted a protester’s slack body over his shoulder.

Volunteer medics swaddled one young man’s head in gauze. The 20-year-old City University student, Kim Ng, said a police officer had pushed aside his black helmet and pounded his skull repeatedly, leaving him with a two-inch gash. “The officers are out of control,” said medic Max Choi, a 31-year-old EMT who said he had been beaten on the neck one night.

A few minutes after 10:00 p.m., a river of protesters streamed onto Lung Wo Road. The move had been tried several times before without success. Students soon erected quick versions of their trademark barricades of metal gates, pallets, and lots of plastic ties. Police hoisted warning signs and asked the students not to swear. “Fuck you!” the crowd cried.

The bravado crumpled by 2:30 a.m. Firing pepper spray, police pushed the crowd into Tamar Park, a speck of green along Victoria Harbour. A few of the 200 protesters who remained hurled bottles as they ran. Blood dribbled down the face of one police superintendent. Cornered by two police cordons, some demonstrators urged the police to join them. “When Hong Kong falls, you will suffer, too,” one man cried. Another called out, “How can you trust the Communists?” and, “You can’t stop us all.”

Police urged the crowd to leave. A few did. The rest lined up along the road as a hesitant rain began. Protesters hoisted umbrellas, shouting, “We want universal suffrage.” Tang Wing-Yu, 20, led the cheer. “Tonight we need to do something. We need to fight,” she said. Around 3:20, students amassed on the road’s eastern end. In minutes, about 200 remaining agitators once again flowed onto the road. The more experienced rebels watched warily, as officers retreated into nearby buses, where they would nap and ready themselves.

As dawn approached, Cheung waited for defeat. “We’re going to lose the road again and about 20 people will be arrested and more people will be beaten,” Cheung predicted. He spoke with a faint French accent that he attributed to hanging out with friends from that country. He learned about outwitting the police, and anticipating their responses, from time spent at the Umbrella Movement’s sister campsite in Mong Kok, where activists sparred several times with officers. Police had cleared that protester area in the bustling commercial hub days earlier, touching off violent standoffs with police. Cheung pursed his lips and exhaled. “It’s police setting a trap,’’ he decided. “We didn’t occupy [the road] at all. We’re just waiting to get arrested.”

Cheung has a deep interest in international politics — he calls it a hobby — and lately he’s been following the Catalan independence push. He said he didn’t expect to enlist in the “whole revolution” movement in Hong Kong. He thought he’d join for a few hours on Sept. 28, the day police lobbed tear gas canisters at the crowd. “Then I saw the students staying with their books. And I felt sort of responsible to stay longer.” Soon he was helping to manage protest supplies at a camp station.

Cheung listened when a fellow protester insisted that if the citizens didn’t fight now, it would be their last chance. Cheung didn’t agree. “A revolution takes 30 years,” he said. “We are just the first generation. It’s like an education for the next generation.”

A little before 5:00 a.m., Cheung grabbed his bullhorn to issue instructions to the crowd. “Even if you’re beaten, I hope you will stay to the last moment,” he told the crowd.

Privately, Cheung sounded less confident. Through the night he had stayed in touch with 17 teammates through an ear bud and walkie-talkie that he kept hidden in his jean jacket. Some of the crew had done some reconnaissance in other neighborhoods and found large police contingents that would quickly shut down any new encampments. Protesters needed to grab small bits of territory and hold them, Cheung said. They hadn’t learned from Oct. 16, he said, when youth made roadblocks from culvert covers, and a huge battery of officers swooped in, chasing down and beating people. Trying to take Lung Wo and the tunnel beneath the park had been a “stupid decision,” he said. “We don’t have the human resources to occupy so much,’’ he said. “Yet people keep trying to expand.” The leaderless movement, he said, “is making this into chaos.”

Still, there he was on roadway’s median before dawn, his voice thin from fatigue, his thin frame aching, about to lead young protesters, many of them students, against men with military training wielding plexiglass shields and pepper spray. Cheung smiled weakly. “You got to have so-called experienced people,’’ he said. “We’re trying to organize, but obviously we don’t have enough people.” He stopped and corrected himself. “We tried. I’m still trying.”

Police regrouped at 6:50 that morning. Dozens of officers lined up on the government drive near the road, wearing riot helmets, shields, and thick gloves. The protesters donned their donated construction helmets, surgical masks, and silicone goggles. One protester was ready to head to work, dressed in a suit and dress shirt. In minutes police with batons barreled out of the government center driveway, encircling the protesters from behind, chasing them off the road, through a park, and past government offices. Many stragglers were clubbed.

Officers pushed them into the encampment on Harcourt Road, storming a quickly erected barricade. Soon, student leaders said what many protesters knew: The Lung Wo operation had been a terrible mistake.

Cheung emerged from the crowd, his skin pale. “We have the right to protest,” he said, staring at the shaken students. The government, he said, had shredded any last thread of a relationship with her people, he said. “Somehow, we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes,” he said. “I can’t promise this is a peaceful revolution anymore.’’

Hong Kong Protests Turn Violent

Hong Kong Showdown

Pro-democracy protests enter a nasty new phase following a violent pre-dawn police raid.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 15, 2014
Foreign Policy

The city’s youth were at it again. On the night of Oct. 15, hundreds of young democracy protesters converged on Lung Wo Road near the government center, prepared for what they hoped was the next step in bringing democracy to the Chinese territory. First, they needed heavy objects.

The protest known as the Umbrella Movement — a student-led effort to ensure free and open elections for Hong Kong’s head of government in 2017 — had suffered setbacks of late. After nearly three weeks of occupying the city’s business core, the number of people taking part had shrunk. Government officials had refused to discuss changes to an elections plan that will let Beijing vet the city’s next leader, then canceled all talks with student leaders on Oct 12. On Oct. 14, it took police less than an hour to level the protesters’ dramatic barricades of bamboo, wood and concrete on Queensway, a commercial hub, returning the street to vehicles. So some of the remaining protesters decided to grab the government’s attention by taking a roadway near the government chief executive’s office.

At the eastern end of Lung Wo, a hundred or so protesters fashioned a new barricade in a manner fast becoming their signature — a matrix of steel barriers, heavy plastic gates, and wood. Then someone discovered that culverts on both sides of Lung Wo’s highway were covered with thick blocks of roughly 18 square inches — blocks that most anyone could lift. Protesters lay row after row of the slabs on the highway. Dozens of helpers, some fresh from work, knelt on the tarmac and joined the blocks with plastic ties. Sweat stained their dress shirts.

“It’s like the China Great Wall!” said Chester, a 21-year-old, slightly mangling his English. With all the photographers snapping pictures, many of the young people in the tunnel wore surgical masks and asked that their surnames be withheld to prevent future problems with police.  Around the fourth row of blocks, a group of about 15 youth, dust clinging to their clothes, debated if the slabs should be set upright, or laid down. Some protesters acknowledged that they could not fend off police forever. Terence Lau, a 26-year-old assistant engineer, observed the debate. “The government,” he said, “is crazier than us.”

Around two o’clock, a cry arose from the crowd. “Police!” people shouted. The trill of whistles pierced the air. The protesters raced from the tunnel, donning safety goggles and masks. After 10 minutes, a sea of bobbing blue lights drew closer from the road’s western end. Word raced through the crowd. More police were coming from the east. And a cluster of white lights emerged from the walkway along Victoria Harbour. None had helmets — a good sign, I thought. That meant no tear gas. Hundreds of officers, with round riot shields, began pushing the crowd backwards, toward the tunnel. Another contingent pushed protesters in the other direction. Suddenly, the officers coming from the shore amassed a few feet from a group of us in Tamar Park, a small patch of lawn and trees atop the highway tunnel. The officers addressed the crowd over a bullhorn.

“They say we are here illegally,” said Lock Cheung, a freelance videographer. “Police say if they don’t leave, they will use spray.” The crowd hissed. “Gangsters!” Cheung urged us to be careful. The police, he said, “don’t follow any rules anymore.”

In minutes, police were several feet from us, yelling and shining flashlights in our faces. Along with Cheung and David Feith, a Wall Street Journal writer, I took off. The incessant, unintelligible screech of a female officer’s voice filled the air.

The line of officers ran toward us, but they were spread out along the water. Somehow, they tramped past me. I was behind the police cordon and I heard David calling to me: “Get out of there.” A male cop pushed me, and then a female officer hurled me toward some trees. I tore through bushes, past clumps of officers standing over people prone on the ground. That’s when I realized what the female voice had been saying: “This is a police line. Do not cross.”

I ran until I reached a metal barrier, the edge of a highway construction site. I turned to face the officers, holding my press badge high. I could see nothing but the flashlight beams. “Tell me where to go. I’m a reporter! I’m not crossing your fucking line.” Piercing cries distracted the cops. A few dozen feet away, a tall man was restraining a skinny young man in a teal sweatshirt and shorts, who was clearly cursing. A male officer grabbed him by the shoulder and rammed him to the ground. The officers pounced on him, binding his hands with plastic ties. I saw another set of officers sitting on top of someone else.

Running along the metal wall, I encountered a burly man with black curly hair and a beard. His face was bright red and his eyes were clamped shut. He said his name was Daniel, he was from New York, and that he’d been videotaping when a cop hit him with pepper spray. I took hold of his wire rim glasses, coated in orange goo. With two other men, we led Daniel around the fencing and police ordered us to head back toward the government complex. There the cops had pushed hundreds of protesters who were jammed between some temporary metal structures and the large network of barricades that they had created. Some young people, in their panic were climbing over the road blocks. In the mob, I let go of Daniel’s arm and lost him.

The police had stop screaming and the crowd hurried through a path and into the driveway of the office of the Chief Executive. The police had succeeded; they had pushed the protesters off Lung Wo Road and retaken the area. Soon cars and taxis buzzed past.

Stunned and exhausted, the protesters lay in heaps on the curbs and walkways. Many fell asleep. Several people mentioned seeing people kicked and beaten with fists and batons. The protesters shared their videos showing police shoving their riot shields into people’s chests. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Hong Kong,” said Adrian Gauci, who is 22. “People were just holding umbrellas and they were just hitting them.”

On Lung Wo, a new shift of police officers marched in, the boots crunching the plastic ties littering the street. “They’re like triad members,” said Cheung, the videographer I had met in the park, referring to Hong Kong criminal gangs. “We take their territory and they have to take their territory back. It’s like the 80s or 90s Hong Kong gangster movies.”

Hours later, we would all see the video: A local television crew captured police leading a man to a secluded corner where officers take turns kicking him, as another cop stands guard. A lawyer and colleagues later identified the man as Ken Tsang, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party. In all, 45 people were arrested early Wednesday, and a team of pro-democracy lawyers told the media that five or six of those collared complained that police had punched or hit them.

Protest participants and organizers have fretted in the last two weeks that the democracy movement was fizzling, its fans fracturing without clear leadership. Some of the public, inconvenienced by blocked roads, have slammed protester actions, with some thugs attacking demonstrators sitting at major crossroads. The students pulled back from earlier demands, such as the resignation of C.Y. Leung, and focused on election rules to let the public nominate chief executive candidates — a request that Beijing has flatly rejected. Despite this, the city has been unable to end the protesters’ quixotic crusade. Sit-ins are still going on at three smaller sites.

Wednesday morning, the police action may have revived the democracy movement’s solidarity. Thousands of people came to Harcourt Road in Admiralty, and student leader Joshua Wong described the force as “thugs.” The crowd cheered.

The Barricades of Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Are Digging In

Pro-democracy demonstrators are fortifying barricades with wood, bamboo, even cement.

By Suzanne Sataline

October 13, 2014
Foreign Policy

Outside of the Admiralty subway station in downtown Hong Kong, about 30 young people sat on the pavement near a large and dusty pile of plaster, plasterboard, and wood, which someone had scrounged from an office renovation nearby. Wearing cotton gloves and safety masks, the young men and women pulled nails from thin slats. Some used bricks to nudge the iron from the wood. The dust rose and the sound glanced off steel beams overhead. The building of new barricades had begun.

Pro-democracy protesters who call themselves the “umbrella movement” took some hard blows on Oct. 13. Two weeks after commandeering a highway and part of three shopping districts, bringing a good deal of commerce and traffic in Hong Kong to a halt, student leaders offered a deal to the city. They would allow cars into the Admiralty area in downtown Hong Kong if the city would let protesters meet in Civic Square, near the government headquarters.

Instead, the city continued to insist that the protesters, who are demanding universal suffrage in the Chinese territory and the ouster of the city’s head of government, C.Y. Leung, were breaking the law. Police arrived at Admiralty early on the morning of Oct. 13, cutting plastic ties and removing metal police barriers that students had strung together. Hours later, dozens of thugs arrived and started pushing the metal gates, as well as some protesters. Area office workers watched from nearby bridges, some filming the melee. A crane rolled to the scene and scooped up metal barriers.

But far from being cowed, students soon began re-building their barricades out of anything else they could find.

Instead of abandoning their posts, protesters are once again digging in.

With the nails removed, the youth piled the wood onto a handcart. Two young men wheeled it past a new barricade — one with pieces of wood interlaced with metal and large swaths of beige carpet fastened over the contraption. The men zoomed out to Queensway, a wide road where a crowd of about 200 had gathered. A trellis of bamboo scaffolding jutted skyward, rising from a heap of metal and plastic street barriers topped with wood slats and metal rods, knotted with plastic wrap, steel wire, and bundles of plastic ties. The bamboo rods reached higher than a nearby pedestrian bridge, the ends sawed off to make them sharp. Every head was tipped upward, toward two men who balanced on bamboo scaffolding while knotting a series of plastic ties.

The crowd burst into applause. “This is Hong Kong! They will never beat us!” cried Chris Wong, 26, a healthcare worker. A New Yorker in his 20s named Joe stepped up to the barrier, narrating the scene into his cell phone pressed to his ear. “It’s like Les Mis,” he told the caller.

Innana Chow jumped deftly from a horizontal bamboo pole to the street. A compact man with cat-like grace, he was one of five scaffolding workers there Monday night, none of whom knew the others. But he said they had similar goals. “I want to build something to protect the students,” said Chow, who is 25.

At the base, a team of about 30 construction workers — deeply tanned, with long, lithe muscles — re-checked the plastic ties at the barricade’s base. They don’t work together, but all are friends on Facebook in a group started by construction worker Kruzo Cheuck as a way to socialize. Cheuck said the workers didn’t like that their trade association leaders had blamed the student movement for a recent lack of work. Construction jobs had slowed, and 2,000 workers have been idle, through no fault of the protesters, he said. “We came because we think we are being used,” said worker Manson Lau.

Instead, the workers taught the youth how most anything could be used to block vehicles and protect their turf. Metal bars were joined with chains or wads of twist ties slathered in glue and swaddled in plastic wrap — to make it impossible for the police to simply cut them free. Bamboo poles, brought by the workers, were in abundance. At one barricade, about 20 rods affixed to the metal barriers jut straight out like swords. The ends were sheathed in plastic wrap or bottles, to prevent passersby from injury.

When the crew ran short of metal structures at the east end of Queensway, a central tram route, the team created a matrix of bamboo rods that threaded through trash bins. Wet cement affixed the contraption to the pavement. About 150 feet away, eight police officers stood watching. “We should get the ‘Occupy Best Design of the Year’ award,” exclaimed Max Lee, a 28-year-old environmental consultant. “I don’t think a tank can get in,” said friend Desmond Wai, 30, an assistant manager at a fashion company.

Around one o’clock in the morning, a crew of young workers readied their final barrier of the night — wall after wall of bamboo, metal, and plastic and wood pallets. Workers had dragged large planters from elsewhere to the inside of the maze.

I asked a young man with a skull and bones neckerchief over his mouth if he knew the designer. “I’m pretty sure it’s me,” said Jason Yim. The 23-year-old sound engineer said he was in Mong Kok on Oct. 5 when crowds who opposed the democracy protesters beat up student occupiers in the busy shopping district, leading to 19 arrests. Police said eight suspects had links to the city’s triad underworld. The occupiers, some who sleep at the sites all night, needed to ensure the gangs wouldn’t return.

Thinking of how to shore up roadblocks, Yim recalled a favorite childhood pastime. “I said, ‘why don’t we put it together like Legos?'” Most of the barricades have held in Mong Kok and they will hold in Admiralty, he said — should the government, the police, or the triads return. “I’m pretty sure it’s wisely designed.”

Hong Kong’s Sit-in Encounters a Class Problem

Occupy Central Encounters a Class Problem

By Suzanne Sataline
October 3, 2014

On a steamy Friday evening, splendid air conditioning and the promise of a bargain drew hundreds of shoppers to Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district. All week, the district had been the site of a satellite protest that had spun off from the massive gathering outside of government offices. In Causeway, students participating in protests begun last Friday had blocked traffic by tying together metal barricades, turning one of the city’s most polluted districts into a freewheeling pedestrian zone filled with singing, chatting youth. Into this scene walked some twenty beefy men in tight formation, wearing surgical masks.

They shoved aside the metal gates, sending some crashing to the ground. One guy in a light-blue T-shirt grabbed a skinny student around the neck. Another masked man punched and stomped on a student. Police arrived wearing neon vests, and students beseeched them to make arrests. According to witnesses, officers took the men away, but didn’t arrest them on the scene. Standing nearby an hour later, a twenty-four-year-old named Colin Au was still seething. The men, he claimed, were paid enforcers. “The plan of the government is to try to scare us away, to use every means to stop the occupiers from coming onto the street,’’ he said, to the nods of people around.
Across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island, a mob attacked students and supporters at another encampment, injuring several people. The violence in the area of Kowloon had begun in the afternoon, when a large group of men descended on the few remaining protesters at a satellite gathering in Mong Kok, a sprawling shopping district that draws tourists and the city’s working class. Well past midnight, live television broadcasts showed what appeared to be adult men pouncing on and pummeling students. Residents screamed at the outnumbered police officers who were attempting to break up fights and make arrests. When officers cleared narrow paths through the crowd, leading out shaking students, people in the crowd shoved and hit some, screaming, “Go home!” Police arrested nineteen people and confirmed that eight of them had triad backgrounds. By dawn, protesters had begun to rebuild their camp.

The goals of the main protest group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, had been to paralyze Central, the main business district, and to convince China to scrap a restrictive elections process that would let Beijing screen a few candidates to run for chief executive in 2017. Protesters vowed to strangle the financial heart of the city, choking off access to international banks, financial-service firms, and luxury stores like Prada and Chanel. But college and high-school students preëmpted those plans, starting with a boycott of classes in September, and the protests took root in the nearby Admiralty district instead. There, police used tear gas on demonstrators—a decision that, as I wrote for this site on Wednesday, helped grow the protests.

With Admiralty crammed, the students and other protesters branched out, hoping to spread their message to other neighborhoods. They created a protest zone east of the main movement, in Causeway Bay, and north of the island, in Mong Kok, drawing in some elderly and working-class residents. People remained enthusiastic and generally supportive across two days of holidays, but when Friday broke and work resumed, many other residents were in no mood to slog through longer commutes in hopes of forcing C. Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to resign, or Beijing to relent on its electoral policies. On Friday, Leung refused to step down, and after the violence began a student group withdrew from talks that had opened a day earlier.

Most everyone in Hong Kong has been inconvenienced by the occupation. Bus companies have halted or modified routes, putting pressure on the city’s already jammed subways. And the detours and roadblocks have disproportionately affected those who drive, including many blue-collar workers. With a large span of highway hosting a protest encampment, cars and taxis have been forced into circuitous routes around the base of the island’s mountains. Tradespeople and deliverymen, and the tiny stores and restaurants that depend on them, have lost hours and money. In a place where practicality is a virtue, the quest for self-governance might appear frivolous to them. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor for Causeway Bay, told a crowd on Friday that he had received complaints about people unable to get to work or see doctors. “Slowly you will lose your support,’’ he said.

Occupy Central, at the outset, was a movement of university students, professors, and young white-collar workers. It now has a class problem. Around the corner from the Causeway Bay attack, on Jardine’s Bazaar, a shoving match lasted for more than an hour. Before a hundred or more onlookers, men screamed at the few remaining democracy advocates, attired in the black shirts and yellow ribbons that have become their de-facto uniform. “You want to get democracy? So do I!” a man in a purple polo shirt shouted in Cantonese. “But I have a right to go to work!”

Tear Gas On the Streets of Hong Kong


Tear Gas On the Streets of Hong Kong

By Suzanne Sataline
October 1, 2014

On Tuesday night, a college student named Kathy Tang stood on what would normally be a clogged central highway in Hong Kong, asking fellow protesters if they were equipped with this week’s must-have accessory.

“Do you need an umbrella?” she asked. Amid the mass movement to bring democracy to a city under Chinese rule, the eighteen-year-old student at the Hong Kong Design Institute had assumed the task of guarding protesters against rain, tear gas, and heatstroke. She fanned the crowd with a large piece of cardboard with the word “recycle” written in Chinese characters, as a friend spritzed water on their heads. The effect was delightful. The quest for suffrage need not be sweaty.

“The government will not respond to us,” Tang said. “Maybe they’ll use their force, their tear gas again.” Standing beside her, Benny Liu, also eighteen, said that the students could not retreat. “We need to fight! If there’s some worse situation, they will call in the Chinese Army. If they call in the Chinese Army, then there will be”—he lowered his voice—“a 6/4.”

With tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents now participating in the protest, which had begun in earnest on Friday, after a planned week-long university boycott triggered a citywide student strike, Liu was voicing a worry I’d rarely heard expressed among the students: What was to stop the Chinese government from deploying a force similar to the one used against students on 6/4—which is common parlance for June 4, 1989? Each year Hong Kong holds the world’s biggest commemoration for the hundreds of demonstrators who died in Tiananmen Square. Liu pointed to the grim building that loomed over our heads, which housed the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. “The door is open,” he said, “but they don’t listen to us.”

“Stay overnight with us!” Tang said, her voice rising with glee.

The idea behind Hong Kong’s Occupy movement (known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, or Occupy Central)—to compel democratic change by flooding the central business district with demonstrators—was long considered the pipe dream of flakes and wonks. One pro-democracy lawmaker, who goes by the name Long Hair, is better known for ​​his demonstrative tactics than for the cogency of his arguments. Other activists had buried their arguments in academic papers about constitutionalism in China.

In the first days of the protests, city officials made three errors. First, they arrested a slender seventeen-year-old university freshman named Joshua Wong and held him for two nights. Wong had rallied students in 2012 to successfully protest the use of a Communism-infused curriculum in public schools. (He and another student activist in Hong Kong were the subject of a recent documentary called “Lessons in Dissent.”) Then, police choked off the bridges and sidewalks that led to the government area in an attempt to prevent more protesters from joining. This prompted thousands of people to scale the barriers along Connaught Road, one of Hong Kong’s major transportation arteries, halting cars and buses. Then came the third mistake: someone—it’s still unclear who—gave the order for police to fire chemicals into the crowd.

I was there during three of the first attacks. On Sunday afternoon, outside of the Admiralty subway station, a river of people were gathered under the bright sun. Most of us were on the roadway, unable to see the helmeted officers assembled before the park that led to the legislative chambers. The force faced the front line of protesters, some of whom were clutching inverted umbrellas. Toward the rear we heard yelling, and students at the back formed a brigade, passing water bottles, saline solution, paper towels, and more umbrellas. The kids at the front had been tear gassed.

“Oh my God, this is pretty fucking crazy!” shouted Kayi Kwok, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University. She had hoisted herself onto a concrete barrier and was filming the scene with her smartphone. “What kind of government is this?” A middle-aged man ran up to me. “It’s coming! Tell the whole world, look what they’re doing to us!” Many on the street coated their arms in plastic wrap and donned hygienic masks or wrapped towels around their mouths. Those who didn’t have silicone safety masks unspooled cellophane around their faces and eyeglasses.

The crowd trafficked in rumors. The cops would squeeze us from both sides. They would attack us with rubber bullets. Tanks would roll in. A few students showed images from Facebook of a lone tank moving down an anonymous highway. A few minutes after sundown, someone shouted, “Riot police!”

A hundred or so people darted up the highway’s westbound flyover and peered over the railing. A paramilitary unit marched in: black boots, olive jumpsuits, plexiglass helmets, and tear-gas guns. The troops halted on the lower access road, a dozen yards from our faces. One of the protesters must have seen a nod or the twitch of a hand, a silent order. We flung ourselves away from the railing. I tripped, and a college student offered me his hand.
We lurched up the two-lane road, our vision hampered by the sweat under our safety masks. Then the sounds came—pop, pop, pop. Acrid smoke filled the air. We gasped and coughed, staggering up the roadway. We heard the sounds again, then again. Turning, we saw plumes fall on the larger crowd on the main highway and heard screams as people tried to scramble over concrete barriers, away from the gas.

At the railing, after the smoke cleared, John Meldrum, a resident of more than two decades, recovered quickly. The decision to use force, he said, was cruel but effective. “Hong Kong people felt they didn’t have a voice under the British,” he said as more smoke plumes arced into the crowd below. “They don’t have a voice under their own people. And now they don’t have a voice under China.”

That night, the police returned and hit protesters with more tear gas. In a press conference the next day, police officials disclosed that eighty-seven rounds had been deployed.

As China’s National Day, on October 1st, approached, secondary-school students joined the strike, as did the city’s largest teachers’ union. Employees at many companies walked off their jobs, and sister protests sprung up in the Causeway Bay commercial district and a working-class area called Mong Kok. More adults streamed into Admiralty district—bankers, importers, real-estate salesmen, teachers. Occupy Central with Love and Peace called for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to resign. Donations to the protest arrived by cart, motorcycle, and truck, each load greeted with applause. It became impossible to take ten steps on Connaught without a college student pushing crackers, water, safety masks, or tissues on you. Medical students and nurses manned ad-hoc MASH units, equipped with hundreds of bottles of saline to irrigate burned eyes.

The protests developed a certain rhythm. By day, the streets filled with younger students, housewives, and bemused office workers. After five, younger workers, artists, and college students packed the area, gossiping among clusters of friends.

Tensions were highest before dawn, particularly early on Tuesday. After 2 A.M., word began to circulate through the crowd in the Admiralty that police had been seen in nearby Wanchai. On cue, thousands of people began wrapping their arms and faces in cellophane and tightening disposable particle masks around their noses and mouths. The area became very quiet. And then we sat, waiting, like extras in a bad sci-fi movie: “Night of the Plastic People.”

Many dozed off at around 4 A.M., so I left and wandered onto an east–west corridor, Queensway, a tree-shaded thoroughfare lined with corporate offices. Teams of students were pushing metal barriers into intersections, arranging them in a lattice pattern and securing them with plastic ties. They had managed to block off nearly every intersection in the main business district. Occupy Central had found a way to truly clog the heart of the city, without needing bodies at each spot.

A twenty-six-year-old, Hong Kong–born physician named Jake Chan stood by, wearing scrubs and two surgical masks, scanning the street appreciatively. He worked at a hospital on the mainland. His sister had been gassed on Sunday, and he said that he felt compelled to lend his skills to help the students. His boss had given him permission to take leave. He was partway through a twelve-hour shift at a nearby medical tent.

“It’s brilliant,” he said, watching the students push barriers in place. He feared that China would act, though, and harshly. “I think of Tiananmen,” he said. And so, he added, did the students: “They know what they’re doing—the inferences and the consequences.”

Welcome to Vorkuta

Welcome to Vorkuta

In this former prison town in Russia’s Far North, why can’t the government pay people to leave?

By Suzanne Sataline
May 23, 2004

VORKUTA, Russia – The road from this city in Russia’s far north cuts into the frosty gray bleakness, sweeping past exhausted coal mines and crumbling watchtowers near settlements named “Komsomol” and “Industrial.” One grim housing block is home to pensioner Rasma Pavlovna Stodukh.

Stodukh arrived in Vorkuta in 1947, during the Soviet Union’s second wave of repressions. As a teenager, she was accused of aiding Latvian partisans and convicted of treason. She and two dozen male prisoners were packed into a cage on a train that crawled toward the cusp of the Arctic Circle, bound for one of the most infamous prison camps in the Soviet Union.

For 13 years and four months Stodukh shoveled coal onto a conveyor belt and dreamed of seeing the next day. In January the night winds bellowed 50 below zero, gusting through the slats of the wooden barracks. After she was freed in 1959, Soviet laws prevented her from returning to Riga and so she remained in Vorkuta, marrying and raising a family.

Today, at 76, she lives in a cluttered, dusty apartment with sinking floors and drafty large windows that let in a few hours of meager sunlight in winter. “We hoped to save money here and maybe a little later move from Vorkuta, but then we stopped thinking about it,” Stodukh said.

To some this arthritic grandmother might seem just another one of Russia’s stoic survivors. But in the eyes of the Russian government and the World Bank, she’s a roadblock to the country’s economic reform.

Last year, with $80 million borrowed from the World Bank, the government asked Stodukh and thousands of other residents of three northern cities to leave, offering a one-time payment of $2,400 toward the cost of housing — a huge sum for pensioners who might receive $70 monthly — if residents would abandon their decrepit homes and move south, to what northerners call “the mainland.” To the authorities, the north is a new kind of costly prison, so cold, so remote, and so poor that local governments are going broke trying to provide food and fuel. Just whittling away these outposts, according to World Bank officials, could save these cities $15 million a year — and create a model for evacuating other unsustainable communities across the globe.

But the economists and demographers failed to take into account one thing: the power of the Russian refusenik.

Since the program began signing on volunteers, 2,053 people have taken the payments and moved, and another 4,000 are expected to go soon. But hundreds of families — including former prisoners in Vorkuta, Norilsk, and the Magadan region — said no. Many said their relatives were dead and they had no one to join. Others said the laughably small housing allotments would not allow them to afford shelter elsewhere. Some discovered that the Russian government would cut off their monthly pension if they returned to their now-independent homelands.

Asked about her own decision to stay, Stodukh warbled a patriotic rationale echoed by others stuck in the north. “If a person has been living in a place so long, it’s his motherland,” said Stodukh, who keeps photographs of herself smiling with other prisoners in a field. “That is the best place for him.”

The first thing you notice in Vorkuta is the wind. It howls down from the North Pole, rattling antennae and battering the wood-frame hangar at the tiny local airport. Only when you manage to open your eyes do you see the white tsunamis of snow that curl over apartment houses and consume cars. Standing outside, even for a few minutes, strips the down from your nose and cheeks. The cold rages for 10 months of the year.

The mining villages outside the city cluster off the main road, collections of wood, cement, and steel structures that appear suddenly after miles of ice. Between the villages, the bluish-white moonscape is unblemished by trees or road signs. Sometimes there’s a scattering of wooden crosses, an impromptu cemetery of German prisoners. Not that the dead stay buried. Come spring, the ice melts, the land heaves, and coffins bob to the surface. In July the water gives birth to thick swarms of mosquitoes.

On a bright April day, 22 degrees below zero, Vitali Troshin shrugged off the wind as he scurried out of the limping VW bus he had commandeered for a tour of his adopted city. An artist and town gadfly, he motioned to the

edge of a cliff overlooking the frozen Vorkuta River. Below lay a bowl of frosted earth, the city’s birthplace. The site of the first prison camp, closed in the 1960s, it was plowed under a few years ago. Troshin hopes to raise money to build a memorial that will encourage people to visit.

“The idea is to show this tragedy was vast,” he said. “In the history of the whole world no sitting government killed so many people and sent so many to camps.”

Soviet geologists discovered rich coal deposits just west of the Urals in the late 1920s. Josef Stalin decided the best and fastest way to extract it would be by force. In 1931 a team of prisoners arrived by boat, supervised by secret police agents. Somehow they survived on the tundra and began building what would become Vorkutlag, one of the country’s biggest, most brutal camps. By 1938, during the Great Terror, writes Anne Applebaum in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gulag: A History” (2003), Vorkutlag had grown to 15,000 prisoners, many sentenced there for false crimes such as joking about Stalin. After World War II political prisoners from Poland and Germany swelled the ranks again.

Prisoners built the power plants, schools, apartment blocks, and many of the city’s existing landmarks. More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, many buildings still bear the hammer and sickle insignia. The interiors of the Mining College, the Palace of Youth & Culture, theaters, and the city’s many skating rinks — all grandiose stone structures — appear untouched since the 1950s. The telephone and telegraph office rely on technology current in Stalin’s day.

Many prisoners were freed after Stalin’s death in 1953. But the Soviet Union’s rules often barred people from returning home and restricted where they lived. So many stayed, mixing and marrying with camp administrators and others who viewed a voluntary northern assignment, with its hardship pay, subsidized goods, and Black Sea vacations, as a path into the middle class.

The freebies ended with communism’s collapse. The government still subsidizes fuel and food, but has allowed prices to climb to market rates. The reevaluation of the ruble in 1998 plunged Vorkuta, like much of the country, into poverty. Retirees like Zhenya Khaidarova, a geologist who moved here in 1973, understand the philosophical benefits of democracy but are bitter about its costs. “For many years Vorkuta was a gulag of political prisoners. Today it’s a camp of economic prisoners,” she said.

Not that she is eager to leave. Asked about the mines that have closed and the beggars on streetcorners in their shaggy reindeer-fur boots, Khaidarova stiffens. “Not only Russians but foreigners say, `If I were free I’d come to Vorkuta with pleasure,”‘ she said.

By the late `90s, government economists realized how fast northern cities were straining the country’s budget. Demographers estimated Russia needed to move 76,000 people from the Komi Republic, where Vorkuta, with its current population of 157,000, is one of the biggest cities. The government’s first program, which offered pensioners new apartments in less expensive regions, got so backlogged that people lost hope of being able to move, said Andrei Markov, a senior human development specialist with the World Bank in Moscow who oversees the program. At the government’s request, the World Bank designed the Northern Restructuring Program to speed things along.

After five years of planning and delays, the government distributed the first housing vouchers last year in the nickel capitol of Norilsk, a gold-mining outpost near Magadan, and Vorkuta. The money would not cover an apartment in Moscow or St. Petersburg, Markov conceded, but it would be adequate for one in the regional capital, Syktyvkar, west of the Urals and a 26-hour train ride from Vorkuta. Officials hoped it would be the largest mass migration since Stalin’s time, when entire populations were shipped thousands of miles across the country.

But so far only 1,700 of the 8,400 people who were eligible have moved from Vorkuta, Markov said. In Norilsk the numbers were worse: 200 out of 23,000.

The World Bank’s efforts weren’t helped by Vorkuta’s pugnacious mayor, Igor Shpektor, who blamed the World Bank and the Russian government for closing mines too hastily and impoverishing his people. Today he laughs bitterly at the inflation-battered housing vouchers. “The program for moving is only for the rich, and most people here are poor,” he said.

Shpektor brags about the region’s tourism and mining possibilities. But analysts say shrinking the cities is the only viable plan. Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, authors of “The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold” (2003), say that if Russia doesn’t evacuate the north, the country will drain precious assets it needs to invest.

“The fact is, you have millions and millions of people living in the wrong places,” Gaddy said in an interview. “Short of beginning a forced move, where you put everyone in a cattle car and move them to western Russia, you have to depend on incentives. And that’s costly.”

But for most residents the incentives aren’t costly enough. On a visit last spring, Raisa Sevastyanova was one of the last residents in the Sovietskiy development, holed up in a nearly vacant apartment house that was walled in by snow, her barren rooms smelling of sewage.

Sevastyanova was a KGB clerk in Moscow when she was arrested in 1952 and forced to confess that she wanted to kill Stalin. She was shipped to Vorkuta, leaving behind her husband and young daughter. She was freed in 1956 but never got permission to rejoin her family. Years later, the government “rehabilitated” her, wiping out her conviction and boosting her monthly pension to 2,300 rubles, about $76. The 1998 currency devaluation drained her savings. “That’s why today I often say, ‘Russians need their second Stalin,”‘ she said, laughing.

Today Sevastyanova repairs fur coats for a living. She moved up the Russian government’s waiting list and secured an apartment in Tambov, a city in south central Russia. But like many residents of Vorkuta, she is convinced that she will die if she moves to a warmer climate. She ought to go to Moscow instead, she said, but she can’t imagine how she could afford it.

Sevastyanova is pessimistic about the Russia she lives in — and the one she might find if she ever escapes Vorkuta. “Today people don’t have jobs. People with a higher education sell ice cream,” she said. “I’m sure in the camps we lived better than poor people do today.”