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Hong Kong Protesters Leave The Streets, Not Their Cause


The biggest pro-democracy protests in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising effectively ended this week. Police cleared a giant tent camp in the heart of Hong Kong on Thursday. Since the former British colony returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been promised that it can retain its way of life for 50 years. But many there see the Communist Party trying to impose its authoritarian will on the cosmopolitan city of some 7 million that's used to Western-style freedom. We turn to Frank Langfitt, whose covered the demonstrations for the past two months and is in Hong Kong. Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us, when this began a couple of months ago, what were the protesters asking for?

LANGFITT: What they're asking for is they're demanding free and open elections from the Communist Party basically in Beijing. They want to be able to nominate candidates in 2007 for the next chief executive's race here in Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party basically wants to be able to vet those candidates and make sure that it's somebody they're amenable to.

SIMON: Did the government ever make any concessions?

LANGFITT: Not one. The Communist Party basically waited the protesters out. The protesters, they had a tactic of kind of occupying the streets for a long time. But over that time, support actually diminished for the protests. Traffic was a problem. A lot of people here in Hong Kong felt the protesters weren't getting anywhere politically. And just a couple of days ago, students actually had to leave the site and they didn't have a single concession from the government.

SIMON: So are the students asking themselves if it was worth it?

LANGFITT: Well, I think they know they were defeated politically. But when you talk to them, they also feel like they have changed Hong Kong and a lot of people would probably agree. You know, this is a pragmatic kind of consumer culture city. But in the last couple of months, there's been a political awakening, and students have been much more politically engaged than anybody expected. The night before the clearance in the camp, I was hanging out with some people around the tent. I met a guy named Joe Ng. He's 29 years old, he's a research assistant and here's what he said.

JOE NG: I think practically it's failed. But we gained something - Hong Kong people are united, and some of the Hong Kong people are waking up, seeing the future and seeing the true political reality in Hong Kong.

LANGFITT: Now, Joe and others left pretty angry and cynical towards the government because the government for the most part wasn't really willing to negotiate at all with them. And it's interesting because as you were saying earlier, it was 17 years ago that Hong Kong came back to China. And they've had - the Communist Party has had all this time to win the kids over and it seems that they've failed. There was one moment, I think, that kind of captured this - as the police were coming into the camp to clear it, there were about 200 people, including some young people, who sat on the asphalt and waited for the police to come and arrest them. And they put up that three-fingered salute from "The Hunger Games," which was basically a way of saying, you know, we have no faith in this government.

SIMON: Frank, democratic elections were the pronounced goal, but was there a subset of other issues?

LANGFITT: Absolutely, one thing is the economy. People are worried about jobs here, housing prices are sky high, and an even bigger issue's identity. Young Hong Kongers feel that they're very, very different than mainlanders. Here they enjoy free press and free speech as you were noting. And they feel really that these values are under assault. I was talking to a woman named San Chan. She's a marketing coordinator and she gave me this example - she was reading about a factory protest in Shanghai. And then when she actually arrived in Shanghai, her colleagues didn't know anything about it because of mainland censorship. Here's what she said.

SAN CHAN: The freedom of news, of media is so backwards in China. I don't want to see this happen in Hong Kong.

SIMON: Frank, is there a democracy movement after this week? Where does it go?

LANGFITT: Well, the students are talking about going into the community and building more grassroots support and they're threatening more actions. Certainly, some people think Hong Kong's going to become less governable under the circumstances. But the protesters are also worried; they're afraid of retaliation. Some have been denied access to the mainland for participating in the protest. And everybody's pretty well aware there are a lot of Chinese agents here from state security gathering intelligence. So they're waiting to see if the Communist Party does retaliate, which in a sense would prove the point of the students in the first place. Hong Kong was supposed to get a high degree of autonomy under this one country, two systems, after the hand handover in 1997. But there's a fear that things here are going to get more and more repressive, just like mainland China.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Hong Kong. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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