Around 200 protesters, including several Georgetown students, gathered at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office and marched to the White House on Wednesday night to demonstrate support for the Occupy Central protest currently occurring in Hong Kong, where 14 Georgetown students are currently studying abroad.
The rally was organized by Global Solidarity with Hong Kong, a political awareness group advocating for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. On Wednesday, Oct. 1, the National Day of China, the group held similar events supporting pro-democracy protests in 64 cities worldwide.
In Hong Kong, an estimated 150,000 protestors, including university students, have participated in sit-ins across the city’s main districts since Sunday, calling for the Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s resignation and for democratic electoral reform. The protesters blame Leung, who was appointed to his position two years ago, for the current political stalemate, but Leung has refused to step down. The movement gained international media attention when riot police used tear gas and pepper spray to subdue the nonviolent protesters.
“Right now, the current situation [in Hong Kong] can be described as a war of attrition. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people in Hong Kong,” said Roger Li (SFS ’15), a Hong Kong native who participated in the D.C. rally. “I wanted to do as much as I could to show the world how polite and peaceful the protesters are in Hong Kong.”
Fourteen students in the Hong Kong Special Administration Region are studying with programs through the Office of Global Education, according to the office’s director, Craig Rinker.
According to Katy Berk (COL ’16), a former opinion editor for The Hoya currently studying abroad in Hong Kong, study-abroad advisers have advised Georgetown students not to participate in the protests and that it would be a violation of rules and could result in a loss of credits.
“Between that rule and the potential for violence, I’ve chosen not to attend the protests, though they’ve been quite peaceful and orderly since Sunday evening,” she wrote in an email. “The entire highway is flooded with people, the protesters are remarkably polite — serving each other free water, crackers, cool towels, hand sanitizers, even trays of McDonald’s — and there is a lively upbeat atmosphere.”
Michael Woo Cho (MSB ’16), another student studying abroad, said the protest he attended on Sept. 28 was the most violent.
“Tear gas came from everywhere and rubber bullets on the day after the protest, apparently. But people were helping each other out. Students, foreign and domestic, helped the wounded to the back and carried water, food, and medical [supplies] (masks, goggles and vinyl wraps) to the front lines and a lot of adults and old citizens were helping out, too. All for their democracy. An eye watering scene,” Cho wrote in an email.
In solidarity, the Washington marchers donned black apparel and yellow ribbons as they raised open umbrellas, which came to symbolize the movement in China after protestors warded off tear gas from riot police with umbrellas.
The D.C. event began at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, where organizers distributed ribbons and flyers. Although ribbons were tied to railings outside the office, they were removed by the request of local police.
Around 7 p.m. Wednesday, the participants marched from the Trade Office to the front of the White House, raising signs and chanting along the way in both Cantonese and English. The chants mirrored those in Hong Kong, including “Democracy, Hong Kong” and “689 Resign.” In Hong Kong, “689” is a widely used nickname for the unpopular Leung, who was elected from 689 votes in the electoral college of 1200 members. Those opposed to Leung claim that he has political leanings toward China’s mainland leadership. Just after his election in 2012, the People’s Daily, the Chinese newspaper, called Leung “comrade,” and later that year, Leung decided to require pro-China patriotic teaching in school, a decision that was eventually vetoed.
At the White House, participants sang protest anthems in Cantonese, including “Under a Vast Sky” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables.” Jeffrey Ngo, one of the rally’s main organizers, pointed to the gathering outside of the White House as a highlight of the event.
“We applied last minute for the permit to gather right outside of the White House, and it was approved. I don’t know if Obama was at home, but if so, I’m sure he heard us,” Ngo said. “I think being able to sing such an important song as a group at that location, legally, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Ngo hoped that the rally would bring increased attention and a response from the White House to the Hong Kong protests.
“We have gathered over 100,000 signatures to support the petition asking for the White House to respond to the situation in Hong Kong. No other place is more symbolic than outside the White House to sing our song to support democracy in our hometown,” Ngo said.
A sophomore in the MSB*, a protest participant born and raised in Hong Kong, agreed. He said that he hoped the rally would place increased pressure on China from the United States, particularly on Clement Leung, Hong Kong commissioner for economic and trade affairs and the most senior representative from the region to the United States.
“The U.S. really is one of Hong Kong’s largest trading partners and we hold more sway than I think we realize. It is important to get Clement Leung’s attention,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department to discuss the current situation in Hong Kong, stressing China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, and warning the United States not to interfere in internal affairs.
“Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s affairs. All countries should respect China’s sovereignty,” Wang told multiple news outlets.
Ngo criticized Wang’s declaration.
“China obviously wants to keep foreign countries out of the situation, so that it can continue to exploit Hong Kongers’ rights,” Ngo said. “But I believe the international community, especially the U.K., has the responsibility to ensure that the terms of the Joint Declaration are respected.”
The People’s Republic of China government re-obtained sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997. The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong guaranteed the territory rights and freedoms, including freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly, of religious belief and of demonstration.
Many of the students leading Hong Kong’s protests are the first generation to grow up with memories of only Chinese rule.
Like Li, many participants at the D.C. event are Hong Kong expatriates. Marco Lam (MSB ’18) attended the rally as an observer concerned for his home in Hong Kong.
“Many friends I know back home are divided over their political affiliations. Some are protesting, others are anti-protest. I came here today to witness the global support for Hong Kong. Above all, I am impressed to see people halfway across the world engaged in this political discourse about Hong Kong,” Lam said.
However, not all the students who participated were from the semi-autonomous region. Lixun Chen (SFS ’16), originally from mainland China, expressed his belief for the necessity of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
“As a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, I have always regarded it as a hub of information where I could freely gather information that was censored in China. This preservation of freedom resonates with me on a personal level,” Chen said.
Chen called for increased awareness at the university about the issue.
“I would encourage the Georgetown community to seize the initiative and learn about the history of the Hong Kong people,” he said. “To support the cause, we simply need to make it known to others.”
*This student’s name has been redacted to protect his identity.