Charlie Hore reports from the protest outside the Chinese embassy on Wednesday 1 October.
The organisers hoped for three to four hundred people, I was told, but at its height, there were up to 3,000 people outside the Chinese embassy in London on Wednesday night, showing their solidarity with the struggle in Hong Kong.
The demonstration consisted almost entirely of Hong Kong students, very young, and with even numbers of men and women. There were a few Westerners among the crowd, seemingly mostly colleagues, friends or partners of Hong Kong students. There must have been some mainland Chinese students, though no-one identified themselves as such.
It was a very serious, very disciplined, very determined protest – as I got there people were lined up 15 or 20 deep behind the police barriers listening intently to the succession of speakers. Many of the speeches were in Cantonese, but the same slogans rang out over and over again: “Real democracy now! Say no to fake democracy! No elections without people’s nominations”.
For many of the protesters, democracy isn’t just an abstract ideal but something very immediate that affects their everyday lives. Chen, a King’s College student, told me that she had been born in Hong Kong, but then moved to the mainland as a child before coming here to study, “so I know how important democracy really is.”
From the platform (an improvised step-ladder) Lawrence Wong, an east London teacher, spoke of the solidarity statement initiated by NUT members but stressed “We want to learn from Hong Kong teachers too.” Jonathan Mirsky, who was the Observer’s correspondent in Beijing in 1989, told the crowd that they looked just like the students he had seen in 1989, but ended by suggesting that if the army was used students should simply sit down in front of them.
Wang Dan, who was one of the student leaders in 1989, gave an overview of struggles since then and the development of alliances in exile. He linked Hong Kong to Tibet and East Turkestan (the name that Uighurs prefer for Xinjiang province), and told the crowd they were carrying on the tradition of 1989.
I spoke at some length to Avery Ng, vice-chair of the League of Social Democrats, a left electoral alliance best known for its one elected member on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, an avowed Trotskyist universally known as ‘Long-hair’.
“What happens next? The short answer is we don’t know. Everything in the last week has been beyond our expectations. No-one expected the tear-gas, and when it came no-one expected the tear-gas to increase the numbers on the streets.”
He thought increased repression unlikely, pointing out that Hong Kong has only 28,000 police, and played down the threat of direct Chinese military intervention.
“This is a historically unprecedented movement. We have organisers, but they are no longer in control of the crowd – this is really an organic social movement. That brings problems, of course, but good problems to have.”
He disputed the press suggestion that the authorities can just wait for this die out: “Even if the numbers fall off, there will still be a core group of people who will occupy Central. And if the police use violence again the numbers will grow. In the end they have to negotiate.”
For many of the protesters, this will have been their first demonstration. But they’re part of a long-standing tradition of protest in Hong Kong, as I was reminded when I stepped out to take a picture of the Chinese embassy. A man my age asked where I was from, and thanked me for coming. I asked him if he was surprised by the numbers, and he said “Not really. I came here in 2006, but I was in Hong Kong in 1989, when a million of us demonstrated after June 4th. I guess we’re all really proud of being Hong Kongers”
Jun Yip, one of the organisers, said that this was the third event they had organised in five days, and the numbers had grown each time. “What happens next? It really depends on what happens in Hong Kong. But this is unlikely to be the last one.”