Chinese tourists are descending on Hong Kong for annual holidays and finding an event not listed in their travel brochures -- huge pro-democracy demonstrations that are being met with a mix of astonishment, pride and annoyance.
China’s Golden Week, when an estimated 480 million mainland Chinese will travel, began yesterday. Hong Kong is a major destination, with mainlanders accounting for 75 percent of the city’s 54 million visitors last year.
“You only need to look at the youngsters of a country to see its future: Hong Kong should be proud,” Ding, a middle school teacher from Shenzhen who toured the main protest site in the Admiralty district, said yesterday. She would only give her last name for fear of reprisal.
“I teach kids of about the same age, but I doubt any of them could pull off something like this,” said Ding, who wore a yellow ribbon, the symbol for the student-led demonstrations. “The environment in which they grow up is completely different. For them, getting into a good university is top priority and everything else is not important. Politics is a big no no.”
While authorities in Beijing are eager to avoid dissent spreading from Hong Kong, with state-controlled media on the other side of a border just 20 miles (32 kilometers) away providing scant coverage of the protests, tourists are experiencing first hand the pro-democracy sentiment on display. Demonstrators are blocking key roads in shopping districts, providing backdrops for photos as mainland travelers visit the three main protest sites.
“The government doesn’t want people in China to know what’s going on,” said a woman from Guangzhou who would only give her last name of Sun for fear of reprisal, as she took photos yesterday of demonstrators in the Causeway Bay shopping area. “They block the media and people misunderstand the Hong Kong people. Some of my friends think that what the Hong Kong people are doing is because of economic reasons, because they can’t find a job. It’s not what they think. Hong Kong people just want to vote.”
The biggest political unrest since violent protests in the 1960s led by pro-Communist groups inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution is testing China’s control of the city after British rule ended in 1997. Protesters are demanding China allow free elections for the city’s chief executive in 2017 and drop plans to vet candidates.
“I have huge respect for the young students in Hong Kong,” said Hu Yang, a design professor from the eastern city of Hangzhou who attended the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing that were crushed by the army in 1989. “They’re leading the way in this extraordinary time of changes and reforms. They are destined to be movers and shakers pushing for changes in Hong Kong and even China, with their pursuit of democracy and universal suffrage.”
Not all tourists supported the protesters.
“People are too naive here,” said Zhu Ming, a retired government official from Henan province as he observed the Admiralty protest site. “Look around, almost all black shirts I’ve seen are kids. They don’t know anything about managing a country or a city. It reminds me of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. Kids are easily manipulated. The good thing is these kids are not violent, but do they really grasp the gravity of this whole situation?”
China’s official media has denounced the rallies as illegal and led by radical activists who lack widespread support. Facebook Inc.’s Instagram service was blocked on Sept. 28, when Hong Kong police lobbed dozen of tear gas cannisters in a failed bid to disperse the demonstrators. Users trying to access Yahoo! Inc.’s main website from mainland China faced disrupted service on Sept. 30.
Posts on the Weibo microblogging service did deliver images and foreign media coverage of the protests to Chinese readers, though government censors deleted many entries, David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website of the University of Hong Kong, wrote on Sept. 29.
“I didn’t expect to see protests of such scale; at home nothing was shown on TV,” Zhu said yesterday. “I heard bits and pieces from friends, but didn’t realize the scale until I got here. It’s not too inconvenient because the shops are still open and I can walk around with no problem. I’m just worried about the kids here. They should go home and study.”
Some mainland tourists were angered to discover the protests when they arrived.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on in Hong Kong,” said Zheng Tian, 40, a tourist from Ningbo, who was trying to reach his hotel on Canton Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district. “It’s very inconvenient for me to drag my two luggages all the way to the hotel as taxi drivers refused to come to this area. Shops are closed, food is out of stock at restaurants, what am I supposed to do here?”
Chow Sang Sang (116), the city’s second-largest jewelry chain, shut six shops yesterday, while some restaurants used bicycles to try to bring in supplies. Dolce & Gabbana and Fendi stores on Canton Road were closed.
The economic loss for shopping malls and office buildings is at least HK$40 billion ($5.2 billion), China Central Television reported Sept. 30, citing business associations. The protests aim to paralyze transportation, harm the rule of law and disrupt business to pressure the government into accepting “various unreasonable demands,” CCTV reported.
With some shopping areas blocked, tourists were urged to attend a “National Day Extravaganza” yesterday in Victoria Park. The event featured “clown street performances, traditional art and craft demonstrations, a showcase of achievements of the People’s Republic of China” and a Hong Kong nostalgia zone, according to a press release from the Home Affairs office.