Occupy Central

Occupy Central is on: Benny Tai rides wave of student protest to launch movement

In dramatic early-morning announcement movement's co-organiser tells protesters at government headquarters that civil-disobedience plan starts immediately

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 September, 2014, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2014, 7:50pm

Hong Kong awoke Sunday to the news that the long-awaited disobedience movement, Occupy Central, was officially underway.

Benny Tai made the surprise announcement at 1.45am, riding on a wave of protest by students who had spent two nights outside government headquarters in Tamar.

While some students were delighted with the news, others said Occupy had hijacked their movement.

By 5.30am thousands of protesters were occupying Tim Mei Avenue and part of Lung Wui Road near the Legislative Council.

Watch: End of two-night student movement as Benny Tai declares start of Occupy Central

“I’ve got a long-awaited message. Occupy Central will start now,” Tai declared to thousands gathered in Admiralty.

The first step of the movement was to occupy the government headquarters, he said: “Students and people who support democracy has begun a new era of civil disobedience.”

The news of the long-awaited protest sparked friction in some quarters, with some students simply packing up and going home, despite the fact the two movements share the same aims in urging Beijing to loosen its strict package of political reforms and give Hongkongers the power to elect their own chief exceutive.

A 30-year-old man named Tsang said: "The classroom boycott was initiated by youngsters. Its a powerful tool. But now it has turned into a campaign for Occupy Central, which, I think, has distorted the meaning of the student strike."

Occupy Central is making two demands: for the National People’s Congress to retract its decision on Hong Kong's electoral system made on August 31; and to relaunch the political reform process.

The two-night student demonstration showed the determination and courage of Hong Kong people to fight for their own future, Tai said. The government’s failure to respond led Occupy Central organisers to start early the campaign, the group said in a statement.

Occupy had long planned to rally 10,000 volunteers to block streets in Central for democracy. It had been expected to begin the protest, codenamed 'banquet', on Wednesday, the National Day holiday.

"We think that in social movement you have to respond to the situation of the society. We just need to respond to the very enthusiastic citizens," Benny Tai said early Sunday morning, when asked why he changed his mind to call an early start of the movement.

He had declined students' calls on Saturday morning to kick off the civil disobedience movement earlier than planned. 

Tai said in the past that he would not encourage students to join Occupy Central, but he seemed to have had a change of heart.

"Actually we are being encouraged by the students to join. We are touched by the works of students. I will even admit that we are late [in announcing], we should be ashamed of ourselves."

Not all students, however, were pleased with the announcement.

A group of City University students appealed to the Federation of Students to clarify that the event they were protesting at was not 'Occupy Central'.

"We are here to support the federation and the student boycotts. Not everyone here wants to get arrested by police," said Karma Kong, 25. "They [Occupy] have hijacked this movement."

University of Hong Kong students union president Yvonna Leung-Lai-kwok said the student movement was continue as it had for the past two days.

"There seem to be some wrong essages that we are occupying Central immediately, but to continue this movement we must stay here, at least until Alex Chow, Lester Shum and Joshua Wong return safely," she said, referring to the student leaders arrested and detained for more than 30 hours after breaking into government headquarters forecourt on Friday night.

Political heavyweights including Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, former head of the Catholic diocese Cardinal Jospeh Zen Zi-kiun and Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming addressed the crowd.

Zen called for students and protestors to unite, while Lee said "We are forced to [occupy because] we want to tell Chinese leaders that we support the 'one country, two systems' envisioned by [late paramount leader] Deng Xiaoping... If we don't have [genuine] universal suffrage for the chief executive, how can we say that Hongkongers are ruling Hong Kong?"

"Deng [believed] that if Hong Kong can keep its core values, China can catch up in 50 years' time, but the present Chinese leaders don't have that vision to implement Deng's blueprint. We want the real version of 'one country, two systems'.

Jimmy Lai Chi-Ying, the embattled boss of Next Media who is under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over donations to pan-democrat politicians, said he arrived immediately after a call from Martin Lee Chu-ming.

"It's time for Hong Kong citizens to take a step forward now...it's time for everyone to take a step forward," he said.

Lai added that police also deserved sympathy too as they did not mean to harm students.

Co-organiser Dr Chan Kin-man stressed supporters should uphold the principle of non-violence and not to confront the police.

The government should start a new round of public consultation on political reform, and failure to do so would lead to escalation of their political action, Tai said.

Thousands of angry Hongkongers had gathered to support student protesters arrested on Friday night.

Organisers said up to 50,000 people were currently outside Civic Square, the forecourt students barged into on Friday. Police would not give a figure.

READ: Occupy Central won't start early, says Benny Tai, after student clashes with police leave dozens injured

The clashes marked a dramatic end to a peaceful week-long class boycott by students, and a one-day strike by school pupils.

Some 74 people had been arrested by last night. Only three – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the 17-year-old convenor of activist group Scholarism, and Federation of Students chiefs Alex Chow Yong-kang and Lester Shum - had not been released. Protest organisers said their homes had been searched.

Barrister Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, who is helping the protesters, said there were three offences Wong could be charged with.

A Scholarism member said officers took Wong back to his home on Saturday, searched his room for two hours and seized an iMac computer, two SD cards, a USB storage device and a hard disc.

Wong's parents issued a statement calling for the immediate release of their son. 

"We have... been told by Joshua's lawyers that they can see no legal justification for this continued detention given the nature of the allegations, his young age, and his clear record. We can therefore only conclude that the decision to detain him is a political one and that this in fact is political persecution," they said.

Watch: Riot police deployed after Hong Kong students storm Civic Square

As yesterday dawned, police surrounded 61 students in Civic Square, a former protest venue around which three-metre fences were erected in summer to control access.

Police used pepper spray to disperse protesters nearby before arresting the 61 for breaking into government premises and unlawful assembly. One of them, a 27-year-old man, was suspected of possessing weapons.

As the day continued more protesters arrived and well-wishers brought food and water and goggles and cling film to protect against pepper spray.
The University of Hong Kong expressed concern about the students’ safety and urged “all parties to act in a civil, rational and peaceful manner and engage … in constructive conversation”.

Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok denied police had used excessive force. “I feel very regretful that a peaceful and lawful assembly has eventually turned into a break-in,” Lai said.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying – whose refusal to meet students was cited as a reason for the Civic Square incursion – kept a low profile and cancelled his one scheduled public event.

Police urged people “not to join the unlawful assembly” and to avoid the area.

The Hospital Authority said 34 people had been taken to hospital. They included four police officers and 11 government staff.

There was speculation as to whether the clashes would help or hinder Occupy and its fight against Beijing’s tough framework for the 2017 chief executive election. Pan-democrats believe heavy-handed police tactics will win them sympathy. But Beijing loyalists believe the events will turn the public against them.

Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said the protest was “almost like a dry run” for Occupy Central.

But Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing said the break-in had damaged public faith in the student movement.

“As someone who had certain hope on the students’ campaign, I am disappointed,” he said.

Protests for Hong Kong democracy took place in nine cities around the world yesterday.