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Its symbols are the umbrella and the yellow ribbon. Its anthem, rendered in Cantonese, is “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables, a song from the barricades of a failed student uprising. Its iconic image, the equivalent of Beijing’s Tank Man, is a protester defiantly holding aloft two tattered umbrellas as tear gas billows around him. Stitched into its very iconography is the language of defeat, of lambs to the slaughter and of idealism crushed on the rocks of unbreakable power. As for its principal actors, these are the tens of thousands of students who have poured out of the universities and on to Hong Kong’s streets, by turns transforming this city of money and commerce into carnival, commune and – when they have come under attack from riot police or roughnecks – urban battleground.

For those who have not seen it with their own eyes, it may be hard to imagine the almost­ surreal transformation that Hong Kong has undergone since students stormed government headquarters two weeks ago. Overnight the city has acquired a new geography, with familiar streets in Central blocked by barricades, and familiar overhead walkways linking air-conditioned shopping malls turned into impromptu television studios.

In just one of dozens of difficult-to-process scenes, a young woman who looked for all the world like a Cathay Pacific flight attendant welcoming passengers aboard, ushered orderly queues of people towards a makeshift ladder. Leaned up against the concrete dividing barrier of what would normally be a busy six-lane highway, the steps were the gateway to another, parallel Hong Kong of sit-ins and pro-democracy protests, of strumming guitars and of thousands of exhausted, elated students and their supporters. The young woman, elegant in her white cotton blouse, held up a sign written in neat capital letters and marked with a helpful arrow, “WAY IN”. This way to the Umbrella Revolution.

The word “revolution” may have set the stakes too high. As pressure on their movement mounted – with momentum fading and threats of crackdown more palpable – some of its young leaders made clear they had no intention of challenging, let alone overthrowing, the Chinese government. “This is not a colour revolution,” said Lester Shum, vice-secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of multiple protest groups, referring to the uprisings that toppled governments across Europe and the Middle East. “This is a citizens’ fight for democracy.”

That, though, has been the central paradox of a movement that pits idealistic young students from a city of seven million people against the might of a Communist party that rules a nation of nearly 1.4 billion. Although protesters have directed their anger at CY Leung, the wooden and at times hapless leader of Hong Kong, behind him stands a rigid one-party apparatus. Beijing is not about to allow an experiment in full-throttled democracy to take place anywhere on its territory – let alone at the behest of a few snot-nosed college students with what it characterises as nostalgia for British colonial rule.

“We all know about Beijing,” said Clarence Ng, a 14-year-old student (favourite subject: economics), camped out on the ninth tense night of protests in front of CY Leung’s heavily guarded office. “We know Beijing is aiming to take full control of Hong Kong. But we want to let them know we won’t stand for it.”

The ostensible issue at stake is narrower than Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status 17 years after Britain handed it back to China. It is about how, in 2017, Hong Kong will elect CY Leung’s successor for chief executive, the name given to the leader of this business-friendly city. In line with its pledge to introduce universal suffrage, Beijing has endorsed a system under which Hong Kong’s roughly five million voters will be able to choose between two or three candidates. The catch is that these will be put forward by a majority of members of a 1,200-strong nominating committee that is currently packed with pro-Beijing, pro-business types. In other words, no one remotely radical, and certainly no one who opposes the Chinese Communist party, need apply.

For realists, all this is self-evident. Hong Kong is a Chinese city, notwithstanding the niceties of the “one country, two systems” formula hammered out between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in the years before handover. It is naive in the extreme, the realists say, to expect Beijing to allow someone openly hostile to the Communist party to run one of the country’s most important cities. Besides, the electoral system being offered by Beijing is an advance on the status quo, which saw CY Leung elected with just 689 votes (something for which the students lambast him mercilessly). Under the present system, 1,200 people pick the chief executive without consulting the people at all. Hong Kong, the realists argue, should accept the deal on offer, far better than anything granted during years of British rule, when London simply appointed governors by fiat.

The students who have brought parts of the city to a standstill, however, are not realists. They are idealists, pushing for what they describe as a human right. “I want Hong Kong to be a better city with the freedom to choose our chief executive,” said Jo Tong, a PE teacher in her mid-twenties. “I really appreciate the students and their passion to change Hong Kong.”

Behind the proximate cause of universal suffrage lies a deeper, almost existential, angst about the future. According to an opinion poll released two weeks ago, faith in the “one country, two systems” formula – under which Hong Kong is granted “a high degree of autonomy” – is at an all-time low. Many Hongkongers feel their way of life is under threat. Residents complain of being swamped by what they describe as the sometimes menacing influence of China. Alan, a security guard who came out to “protect our students” from attacks by suspected triad gangs, proudly wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Not Made in China”. Armed with a stick and with his head wrapped in a skull-and-cross-bones bandanna, he said, “I really am not made in China. I am from Hong Kong.”

Yeung Tsang-yuen, a 36-year-old actor, who was also lending his muscle to the cause, complained that Chinese money pouring across the border was pushing up property prices far beyond normal Hong Kong residents’ reach. Asked if he felt Hong Kong was being absorbed by China, he flashed a bitter grin, enhanced by a gold-inlaid tooth. “That’s a horrible question. I don’t want the answer to be ‘yes’, but yes, it’s true. Everybody sees the changes.”

If Hong Kong’s political pressure cooker has been building for years, nobody could quite have predicted the extraordinary way in which it bubbled over two weeks ago. Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the presumed organiser of long-planned civil disobedience, had originally intended to start its protests in early October. Instead, its middle-aged leaders were caught by surprise when students, led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong, jumped the gun on September 26 by storming government headquarters. That was an echo of Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, when students were also leading the democratic charge. This time, their actions brought tens of thousands of supporters on to the streets around the government buildings. There, in the concrete canyons formed by some of the world’s most closely packed skyscrapers, they set up camp in the shadows of the great banks and trading houses that have made Hong Kong rich.

On the Sunday after Wong fired the starting gun, the mood darkened. Students, armed only with umbrellas and goggles to protect themselves, came under attack from pepper spray and tear gas. The revolution had lost its innocence but gained its iconography: the humble brolly. Tear gas may be reasonably standard police procedure in many countries but in Hong Kong, quaintly secluded despite its proximity to mainland China, it was regarded as an act of shocking brutality. Thousands more poured on to the streets in response.

If what they were undertaking was revolution, it must have been the politest revolution in history. Even their many detractors, who said they were naive and an inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, couldn’t help but admire the way they went about it. Never can an occupation have been accompanied by so many “pleases” and “thank yous”. Never can demonstrators have so scrupulously tidied up after themselves, sorting their rubbish into separate recycling bags before hauling it away. They handed out free water, free bananas and free cooling packs to combat the oppressive humidity. Passers-by were sprayed with water. When it rained, reporters suddenly found someone hovering over them with an umbrella so that they could continue taking notes without hindrance. An Australian broadcaster, clearly swept up by the atmosphere, spoke to camera, saying the students had put the “civil” back into civil disobedience.

If the logistical organisation was impressive, the political organisation was less so. Right from the start, the movement suffered from the fact that it had so many leaders and so many factions. Though they were all fighting for the same (lost) cause – “genuine” democracy in Hong Kong – their tactics for achieving it were less than uniform.

One problem was geographical. From early on, the protests mushroomed, spreading to different parts of the city. As well as the Admiralty district, where the government buildings are located, thousands gathered in the upscale shopping district of Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island, and thousands more across Victoria Harbour, in the grittier, working-class district of Mongkok. When yet another occupation sprang up in Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon waterfront, students argued bitterly among themselves about how they could maintain supplies of food, water and medicine to disparate locations.

They argued about tactics, too. Should they let ambulances through their blockade, as the government had asked them to? Should they allow civil servants to get to work or up the ante by storming more government buildings? The amorphous, spontaneous nature of the protests made it harder for leaders to convince the students to leave, even when the government began to offer talks. Beijing had set strict parameters on the definition of universal suffrage, giving the Hong Kong government little leeway to negotiate. Students pressed unconvincingly for the resignation of CY “689” Leung as a precondition for talks. “They’re young and they’re enthusiastic but they don’t have any worldliness about them,” said one person close to the government. “What was it Kenny Rogers said? ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.’ These kids don’t know when to quit.”

The protesters also faced a generational divide. One refused to give a reporter his name, saying his mum wouldn’t approve. The parents of Jo Tong, the PE teacher camped out in Admiralty, fled to Hong Kong during the cultural revolution. They too were worried their daughter was playing with fire. “They experienced conflict before, so they don’t want to push this,” she said. “They know how cruel things can be in the mainland. My father said, ‘I don’t know why you come out. You can’t make a change.’ ”

If the Umbrella Revolution was a hopeless cause from the start, was it worth it? What has been lost and gained in the struggle? Certainly, the limits to Hong Kong’s autonomy have been brutally exposed. Real democracy is a red line that only the most romantic in the city now believe can ever be crossed while China remains under Communist party rule. “Even if CY resigns,” said one taxi driver, fed up with the blocked roads, “the result would be the same, because the Chinese government calls the shots.”

If in some ways the protests have revealed that Hong Kong is just another Chinese city, the opposite is also true. In the past two weeks, Hong Kong, in its full-throated rebellion, has reaffirmed just how different it remains. Throughout the protests, the media have stayed raucously free and social media unblocked. Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old who helped trigger the Umbrella Revolution, was freed by a judge within 48 hours of his arrest. To appreciate how remarkable that is, one only has to imagine where he’d be now if he’d been caught rushing the offices of China’s president Xi Jinping.

“If there hadn’t been this kind of movement, Hong Kong people would not have developed this kind of consciousness, so to me it’s a success,” said Peggy Tsang, a 41-year-old freelance writer accompanying her 17-year-old nephew on the barricades. “I understand this strike may harm the economy but, to me, justice, freedom and peace are more important than money.”

Clarence Ng, the 14-year-old camped out in front of government house last Sunday night, said something similar. He had welder’s goggles and a face mask ready to put on if the police used tear gas again. Asked whether the students should stand their ground if they came under police assault, he answered without hesitation. “No, they should go home, because it’s dangerous,” he said. “We are still young. The future is ours. In the future we will come out and raise our voices again.”

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

Photographs: AFP; Getty; Reuters; MCT

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.