In Hong Kong, Hope That China's Soldiers Will Keep Out

A woman holds a sign that reads 'peaceful protest' as demonstrators gather outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1 Photograph by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

Angus Tang is prepared. Like thousands of other Hong Kong students, he has joined demonstrations in the city’s financial district, hoping to force leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing to follow through on promises of democracy. Sitting in the street in front of billionaire Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa headquarters, Tang, 22, and his classmates have a collection of first-aid supplies for their fellow protesters: rubbing alcohol, contact-lens solution, and baby wipes. “It’s for the tear gas,” explains Tang.

Many of the students believe the protests can still end without bloodshed. After all, Chinese leaders will behave reasonably, argues Tang, and won’t risk repeating a Tiananmen-style crackdown. “The Chinese government has been trying to develop a better image,” he says. “That would be totally changed in one day if they were to use violence.”

With much of Hong Kong at a standstill, some protesters are taking no chances. On Tuesday evening, William Chan, a graduate of the University of Washington who recently returned to his hometown, was teaming up with other protesters to assemble a barricade out of metal police barriers. “We don’t know what their plan is,” he says about the Hong Kong government. After firing pepper spray and tear gas on Sunday, the Hong Kong police (who have a motto of “We Serve with Pride and Care”) have taken a hands-off approach, but the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, might switch gears again and have the police charge the demonstrations.

Hence the barricades. “We’re doing this just in case,” says Chan.

Among the elder statesmen of the pro-democracy movement, there’s little talk of compromise. Take Martin Lee, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. Channeling Patrick Henry in an interview with Bloomberg Television, Lee impatiently dismissed a question about the protests’ impact on business. “Who cares?” he said. “Who cares about business?” Lee said many businesspeople have joined the protest.

“This is the message,” he added. “Give us democracy or give us death.”

Another leader of the Democrats is talking tough, too. Emily Lau, the party chairman, was briefly arrested over the weekend while trying to support the initial student demonstration at the government headquarters on the edge of the Central district. Will President Xi Jinping take a page from Deng Xiaoping’s playbook and order the People’s Liberation Army to fire on student protesters in a Tiananmen-style crackdown? “No way,” Lau said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “The people will not allow it. The world will not allow it.”

Maybe she’s right. When it comes to decision-making behind the walls of the Chinese Communist Party’s headquarters in Beijing, though, the world doesn’t get a say. Neither do the people of Hong Kong. For now, the students sitting in the streets of Central are hoping for the best. By law, the People’s Liberation Army can’t intervene, says Stan Chan, a 19-year-old classmate of Angus Tang’s who is helping at the first-aid station. “The Chinese army can’t come because of the Basic Law,” the mini-constitution that guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy, he says.

Just down the street is the barracks of the PLA’s garrison in Hong Kong, though. “They are watching,” he says.

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