World

10.23.14 9:45 AM ET

Chinese Tourists Are Taking Hong Kong Protest Selfies

Mainland Chinese come to take selfies, and leave with a notion of the outside world, and the workings of democracy, they’d never seen before.

HONG KONG, China — In its fourth week, Occupy Hong Kong has lost steam, and the bright smiles that were on young, idealistic faces have been displaced by weary, suntanned brows. The long haul has become a slow grind. The crowds have thinned, and those who are still on the streets aren’t sure how long they should remain there. But in a development nobody had quite anticipated, the protest camps have become new, trendy places for tourists from Mainland China to visit, ogle, and photograph with their cell phones.

“We know that Hong Kong people call us locusts,” said Mr. Sun, a visitor from Guangdong province. “But we don't come to invade the city. We just want to see what it’s like here, since it's so different from everywhere else in China.”

Roads are still blocked near the government headquarters in Admiralty, in the shopping district of Causeway Bay, and in dense Mong Kok, where confrontations with the police have been rough. Each of the multicolored camp sites has morphed into a tiny village, each taking on its own character. Admiralty’s camp, in particular, is packed with protest art, chalk drawings, handwritten notes, homemade posters, and wild brush calligraphy. Office workers have pleasant picnic lunches on the empty roads. Occupy Hong Kong has created large pedestrian zones, relieving the normally congested sidewalks where locals and visitors once collided like Brownian particles.

As a former British colony and global trade hub, western cultural influence is pervasive in the city, and Hong Kong’s protests have taken on an international flair. A popular protest song is “Do You Hear The People Sing?” from “Les Misérables.” Another is a song called “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” by a local band called Beyond, which was formed in the 1980s, influenced by Pink Floyd and British pop music. Signage at the camp sites is often written in both Chinese and English, and messages have also appeared in Hebrew, Vietnamese, Czech, and many other languages. A massive banner unfurled in Admiralty display’s John Lennon's famous lyric, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Steps away is Hong Kong’s own Lennon Wall, upon which are thousands of post-it notes carrying the wishes of Hongkongers.

This is exactly the kind of cultural DNA that visitors like Mr. Sun came to Hong Kong to experience. It’s sort of Chinese, but different. It’s global. It looks outward without the caution, self-defensiveness, and coldness that is found in Chinese leaders when they interface with their foreign counterparts. Chinese citizenry look outward too, but the relationship is often commercial, not cultural.

Sun and his wife took turns taking pictures of each other in front of Lennon Wall, and then asked one of the college-age protestors to take a picture of both of them in front of the fluorescent Post-its. He spotted a few visitors with selfie sticks, and wondered if any were sold nearby.

Beyond touristic curiosity, a new kind of exchange is going on. Visitors like Sun have never seen civil disobedience practiced in real life. By visiting Admiralty or Causeway Bay or Mong Kok, they see that it's not a dirty affair. Reasonable minds express discontent in reasonable ways, and it's not always necessary for riot police to shut down civic movements, which is the typical response by officials who govern north of Hong Kong.

One of the criticisms of Occupy Hong Kong is that the protestors are wrecking the city's economy, and yet Hong Kong stocks have just posted the world's best monthly gain. During the inception of Occupy Hong Kong, Hong Kong's tourism board recorded about 1.1 million visitors to the city, an increase of 4.8 percent compared to the same period last year.

The attempts to censor news in Mainland China about the protests backfired. Many Chinese citizens didn’t even know that there was something going on in Hong Kong, so they couldn’t avoid it. Shoppers from Mainland China arrived in droves, and gained front row seats to civil disobedience in action.

Sure, some ignored the protests, and made their pilgrimages to Apple, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton flagship stores. But plenty of others dropped by the camp sites for selfies, even though any shots or comments they posted on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, would later be removed.

Even now, the protest sites see a good number of Mainland Chinese tourists who stop by to read the posters and banners. They take pictures of the information that is posted for public viewing, and even record videos of the teach-ins. Some even ask questions about why the students are there.

Earlier this week, C.Y. Leung reiterated Beijing's stance again: direct elections aren't a possibility. Before a room of foreign press, he added that “democracy would see poorer people dominate Hong Kong's vote” He was referring to the half of the city who make less than $1,800 a month, as if being poor is a stain on one’s character and implies a worthless opinion.

With Beijing’s public backing, Leung seems immune to plummeting public approval, even though it has been revealed that he received a secret $6.4 million payment from an Australian engineering firm.

Much of the protest art in Admiralty centers around Leung: he’s a dog, he’s a wolf, he’s a bloodsucker. But look to Lennon Wall and you will find a different tone. Cheap stationery found at writing desks and office drawers around the world has been used for love letters to the city. Each square is a note of support, of respect, of adoration.

“When people in the Mainland say they love the country, it's always related to the government, there's always something official about it. But here,” Sun said, “they love the city but don't need to extend it to the government. It's something that’s very different from the rest of China. It's pure.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Across China, there are red banners printed with white fonts that say ai guo—love your country, be patriotic. Some are hung by individuals who are vying for membership within the Chinese Communist Party. Most others are made by the Publicity Department, formerly known as the Propaganda Department. "I love my country," Sun said, “but I don't need other people to tell me to do it.”

On Tuesday evening, several university student leaders sat down to negotiate with the Hong Kong government. As many expected, the talks were unproductive, but massive crowds gathered to watch the televised debate at the protest sites. Some of those in the audience were from Mainland China, and expressed brief amazement that the notion of democracy could be debated on television and broadcast for public viewing.

In Admiralty, Thomas, a student at the University of Hong Kong, shared a few well-worn words. “We will stay until we get what we want,” he said. And what is it that Thomas and his cohorts want? “For C.Y. Leung to step down,” he answered. “And direct elections,” he added half a beat later. But when Thomas was pressed about Beijing’s stance since day one—that Hong Kong will not see universal suffrage any time soon—he was at a loss for words.

Universal suffrage isn’t within the grasp of Hongkongers. Beijing won’t grant it, and Hong Kong’s chief executive won't ask for it. In that sense, Occupy Hong Kong was designed to fail. But the movement is forging new political leaders. They have been on the streets every day, not necessarily clutching microphones or bullhorns, but definitely watching, learning, and doing their part. Fifteen or twenty years later, assuming they haven't left Hong Kong, assuming they haven't been threatened successfully to keep their heads down and mouths shut, and assuming they still feel the urge to initiate change, they should be wiser, smarter, more resourceful. And they will hit harder than anything that Beijing’s leaders have ever seen.

That’s a win, no matter what happens in the coming weeks.