17 February 2019
BBC World News’ Babita Sharma stayed in Hong Kong for more than a week to cover the "Umbrella Revolution". Photo: BBC Word News
BBC World News’ Babita Sharma stayed in Hong Kong for more than a week to cover the "Umbrella Revolution". Photo: BBC Word News

Hong Kong wanted to do ‘protest’ differently: BBC World News

With demonstrations in Hong Kong going on for almost a month, tensions between the police and students have escalated. BBC World News’ Babita Sharma joined the protesters when they first took to the streets campaigning against a Chinese government ruling limiting who can stand as candidates in Hong Kong’s leadership election in 2017. Here she shares her experiences:

“Take a yellow ribbon, no school tomorrow!” yelled a 13-year-old schoolgirl as I arrived in Admiralty district with our crew to cover the Hong Kong protests for BBC World News. As we set up our equipment on a bridge overlooking the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, I was struck not only by the age of the protestors but the sheer numbers that had amassed here, day after day, week after week in support of a pro-democracy campaign.

But the word protest seemed to jar with the atmosphere here. If anything it felt like I was part of a crowd who were anticipating the arrival of a headline act at a music festival. Clearly, Hong Kong wanted to do “protest” differently.

Everyday thousands of students, city workers, sometimes families would mark their spot before the next intake of protesters would come through. This vibrant, edgy city had grown defiant after police unleashed tear gas against demonstrators on September 28, but their defiance was showcased in the most remarkable form of politeness.

Navigating our way through hordes of demonstrators, sometimes sleeping, sometimes singing, there was always an offer of free food and water, an offer to help with our equipment as we scaled the small mountains of sandbags and umbrellas everywhere to deal with unpredictable downpours.

But dig a little deeper and it was clear that these peaceful demonstrations were not just about calls for democracy, but an opportunity to unveil the deep-seated issues that have gathered traction since Hong Kong was handed back to China 17 years ago.

“Who cares about us? We need the world to understand that we won’t be trodden on by China, we have a voice and it must be heard,” 18-year-old Hayward told me, echoing the sentiment of other people I came across who were fed up with what they said was “a growing inequality gap between themselves and the wealthy elite coming over from mainland China”.

These disgruntled voices were led by leaders who, when interviewed, did not appear to have a clear strategy in bringing about democratic change. But that lack of coordination didn’t seem to bother these young hopefuls. They found their voice on social networking sites and coined the phrase the “Umbrella Revolution”, which ensured their artwork and pictures would be seen by the world over.

As the story continued to grip our audiences of millions across the world, I remained in Hong Kong for more than a week in order to get as close as I could to the story, meeting those living through it.

Student Helen occupied a small area of Admiralty’s super highway, just beneath our broadcast position, collecting hand-made banners discarded by thousands of protestors. She told me the campaign is about “sticking to a promise and not going back on your word”. Helen was referring to the “one country, two systems” legal framework that was put in place when the city was reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. Yet like many of the protestors I met, Helen is of a generation born in Hong Kong that has only known life under Chinese rule.

Like us, the world’s media were in Hong Kong to capture every moment of this unprecedented story, but the demonstrations have not united the territory. Travel a few stops on the MTR and Hong Kong life carries on as normal with fashionistas flocking to the shopping districts and commuters complaining about road closures and bad traffic.

Taxi drivers lamented a big drop in passenger numbers and off-camera a student revealed how her support of the pro-democracy campaign has caused friction within her family who remain politically divided.

There was a sense of bewilderment among many of the people I met, with many insisting that in Hong Kong things like this — mass demonstrations and use of tear gas — just don’t happen. But it is happening and in a way that few imagined possible. So much so, that the very idea of Hong Kong itself is under the spotlight. 

(EJ Insight is authorized to publish this story online.)

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Presenter and correspondent, BBC World News

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