HONG KONG – For some mainland Chinese in Hong Kong, the sight of thousands of people on the streets protesting for greater democracy is an alien one that has prompted comparisons with the relative lack of political freedom back home.
Others are less impressed, and see the mass show of defiance as a dangerous tactic that has shut down large parts of the city and raised the risk of serious confrontation with Hong Kong police.
“For the first time in my life I feel close to politics,” said a Chinese tourist from Beijing who gave only her surname, Yu. “This is a historic moment for Hong Kong,” the 29-year-old added.
She was among those who had arrived from the mainland to celebrate a one-week holiday that starts with China’s National Day on Wednesday.
“I was quite afraid in the beginning, but now I firmly support it. There’s nothing wrong with supporting one’s rights with reasonable acts.”
She said she planned to share photographs of the protests with her friends and post them on the Internet.
“I believe something like this will happen in China one day.”
That is exactly what the government in Beijing wants to avoid, and why the unrest in Hong Kong is such a major challenge.
Chinese Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and they have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations.
The protests are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule in 1997. They also represent one of the biggest political tests for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Li Qi, in her mid-20s and from the southwestern city of Chengdu, is too young to remember that bloody episode. “Patriotic education” has also ensured that many young Chinese have only limited knowledge of that and other protest movements.
“It’s the first time (in my life) that I’ve seen this kind of movement,” said Li, who was in Hong Kong to shop.
“The actual scene is quite well organized and very disciplined. Not the kind of chaos we would have expected.”
Tens of thousands of protesters, mostly students, have taken to the streets over the last five days to demand greater democracy in Hong Kong.
They have called on Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying to step down after Beijing ruled that it would vet candidates wishing to run for Hong Kong’s leadership in 2017.
China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Nonetheless, Beijing has called the protest movement illegal, and for some mainland Chinese looking on, breaking the law is not the right way to go.
“I support their demands, but I don’t support their overly aggressive actions to achieve this, because I think breaking the law is not good,” said Steven, a Chinese PhD student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who only gave his first name.
Others said they were dismayed that Hong Kong people were ungrateful for the benefits they enjoyed under Beijing’s rule.
A woman surnamed Lin from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, who was traveling to Hong Kong on Wednesday to shop, said the protesters’ demands for a democratic election were “disrespectful to the mainland.”
“Even though the government has brought a lot of development to Hong Kong, they don’t acknowledge this,” Lin said.
Stunned by the Beijing government’s harsh response to the Tiananmen movement, and tired of decades of turmoil under Communist rule, many Chinese people now balk at the idea of mass revolution.
Jennie, who grew up in China and runs a Hong Kong-based charity, said she feared that if protests descended into riots, there could be a much stronger response from China.
“The Communist Party has the ability to do it, (we’ve) seen them do it before and they will do it again,” she said.
“There are much deeper problems, and it will take generations to correct this. One protest won’t do it.”