HONG KONG (Reuters) - Nearly nine out of 10 Hong Kong protesters say they are ready to stay on the streets for more than a year to push for full democracy to counter China’s tightening grip on the city, according to an informal Reuters survey on Tuesday.
For a month now, key roads leading into three of Hong Kong’s most economically and politically important districts have been barricaded with wood and steel by thousands of protesters who have set up semi-permanent occupation zones amid a sea of tents.
The so-called “umbrella” movement, named after umbrellas used as flimsy shields against police pepper spray, has become one of the biggest political challenges to face China’s Communist Party leadership since it crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The overwhelming majority of the student-led protesters who responded to the Reuters survey - carried out at two major protest sites on the one-month anniversary of the start of the demonstrations - remained defiant.
The straw poll found 87 percent said they were willing to keep up the campaign for more than a year, while 93 percent said that even if police forcibly cleared them away, they would regroup to launch fresh street occupations elsewhere.
The most tenacious protests since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 have already persisted beyond most expectations, defying riot police and attacks from hostile mobs, as well as intense government and public pressure.
They were triggered by China’s imposition of a highly restrictive framework for a city-wide vote for its next leader in 2017, which would only allow candidates pre-screened by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
China’s increasing control in Hong Kong was a major motivating factor for 59 percent of the protesters surveyed.
The protest movement has also been fueled by the growing clout of Hong Kong’s tycoons, and 38 percent of the 121 respondents to Reuters’ printed survey said “wealth inequality” was a major factor driving their democratic aspirations.
In the run-up to the planned Occupy protests, scores of local tycoons including Wharf Holdings (0004.HK) Peter Woo and Henderson Land (0012.HK) Chairman Lee Shau-kee warned of the dangers posed by the movement to Hong Kong’s economy.
Since the protests, however, hardly any have spoken out publicly.
Protesters gave an “umbrella salute” on Tuesday to mark the start of the protests on Sept. 28. The umbrellas were held aloft for 87 seconds - corresponding to the number of tear gas canisters that were fired by police a month ago to quell seething crowds of tens of thousands at their peak.
Others held up a large yellow banner with the words: “We want real universal suffrage”.
“I come alone, and I’ve come every day after school. If I don’t come I might later regret it,” said Sung Kit-yan, a 17-year-old high school student sat on a pavement in the gritty Mong Kok district.
“There’s a lot of collusion between the government and the tycoons so I think full democracy will help bring fairer competition. A fairer society.”
The survey also showed 55 percent of respondents said they did not want an independent Hong Kong unshackled from Chinese rule, versus 45 percent who did.
However many said the movement reflected a deep-rooted desire to preserve Hong Kong’s unique identity, including its Cantonese language and culture and freedoms enshrined in its freewheeling, capitalist way of life.
The long-running demonstrations have posed perhaps the gravest crisis for any post-handover Hong Kong government, with the popularity ratings of the city’s embattled leader Leung Chun-ying falling to 38.9 percent, a historic low, according to a separate poll by the University of Hong Kong.
Nearly three-quarters of the protesters - 73 percent of those surveyed - said that they would opt for the best candidate, regardless of party affiliation, should China allow open nominations for the poll in 2017, with only around one in five saying they would definitely vote for a democrat.
Reporting by James Pomfret, Clare Baldwin, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok and Diana Chan; Editing by Alex Richardson