At around 8pm on Friday the crowd in Admiralty had already swelled to thousands of people. And it keeps growing larger. To grasp the trend, you just need to look at the subway entrance and check where people go: many stroll toward the streets, only few away from them. At the end of the evening, thousands of people will have attended the rally promoted by Occupy Central, the Hong Kong Students Federation and Scholarism. The presence of police forces is small. Tiny units patrol the area. But even they soon disappear: it will not be a night of pepper spray, after all.
On one of the bridges – they are occupied, too – activists fabricate small yellow umbrellas and spread them on the ground in long lines. “We do it to support democracy,” says a middle-aged woman as she holds up one of her creation.
Down one staircase, protesters have covered the walls with multicolored stickers showing support for the movement, satirizing officials or just expressing patriotic feelings for the city: a sight sure to galvanize any protester and to anger any pro-government official. But not many officials are out tonight, and the stickers elicit a great deal of attention.
At the base of the staircase we meet Jason Lam, a young media artist who is one of the movement’s graphic minds. Together with a friend, Mr. Lam gathers messages of support from the internet and uses a projector to show them above the crowd. They location often. Tonight they are pointing their equipment against a bare concrete wall at the feet of one of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, right behind the statue of a man holding an umbrella which has become an icon of Occupy Central.
“There was a protest on July 1 and 500 people were arrested for just sitting down in public. At the time, I was watching them and I felt very angry because the police was violent,” he says. “Afterwards, my friend and I discussed what to do.” That is how the website emerged. The site receives messages of support from around the world – over 35,000 in just two weeks, contends Mr. Lam – and the best ones are chosen to be shown during rallies. The page was hacked last week, but it is now running again. Mr. Lam says he has no idea who did it.
In the center of the occupied area, student leaders – if they can be called so, since what has become known as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ makes a point of being leaderless – are holding speeches. “Hong Kong is not dead,” says one speaker, his words amplified by loudspeakers. The crowd cheers. “Hong Kong is rising,” he goes on. Hands clap, then a moment of silence. “Hong Kong is not dead!” he insists, the pitch rising, his tone growing harsher. The crowd responds with a booming applause.
Protesters say they are mostly satisfied with the way Friday’s rally turned out. After the local government refused to hold talks, some thought the movement was doomed. “It’s a success, the largest number of people in many days,” says a man who identified himself as Terence. “I thought it would die down, but it’s amazing, they all came back.” A student points out that “tonight was not bad”. “We are satisfied by the amount of people,” he says.
Some are more cautious, stressing that despite the large number of people out tonight, real success will come only if the government accepts to dialogue with the people.
While there is no certainty about the future of the protests or the chances that the government will back down, the response of the people on Friday night demonstrates that Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s plan to thwart the protest has failed.
The government had accepted talks with the students last week, after an attempt to tear-gas them away from the streets backfired. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, however, called off talks on Thursday – the day before he was supposed to meet with the protesters – on the grounds that the students had gone too far and violated the terms of the agreement with the government. Everyone seems to believe that the opposite is true: with the number of people on the streets dwindling last week, the administration felt confident they could afford to ignore the movement without consequences. Not so. Many Hong Kongers are dissatisfied with the current rules and have come out again to demand universal suffrage.
The government’s plan, for now, has crumbled, and the image that more than anything else embodies the current situation is that of a young man dressed in a black t-shirt sitting on a fence, holding a sign with the word ‘full’ written on it. So many people flocked to Admiralty that the organizers had to close the central section of the occupied street.