While the world is watching Occupy Central, one group has gone beyond mere spectating. Five nights ago, when students in Hong Kong braved waves of tear gas, after days of trying unsuccessfully to occupy the park in front of the government headquarters, another site of the Hong Kong government came under occupation: the Hong Kong Economic and Cooperation Exchange office in Taipei. The occupiers -- Taiwanese students.
"We wanted to support the Hong Kong students in Taiwan, and send our message of support to Hong Kong," said Chun Yi, a college sophomore who took part in the occupation.
Taiwanese students are no strangers to protesting China. Many of them took part in the historic occupation of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, called the Sunflower movement, earlier this year in March when Taiwan's pro-reunification president Ma Ying-jeou attempted to ram an unpopular trade pact with China through the legislature.
As Taiwanese students waged their own battles with police on Taipei streets, many young Hong Kongers sat glued to their computer monitors, watching live streams of the protests and firing off words of support and advice over Facebook."Today's Hong Kong is tomorrow Taiwan," wrote young Hong Kongers warning their Taiwanese counterparts not to give in to greater dependency on China. Now, with Hong Kongers on the streets, the roles have reversed.
But, the depth of the conversation taking place between students on the street of Taipei and Hong Kong extends beyond mere words of support. An important dialogue about tactics and strategy -- about how to make civil disobedience work in a Chinese cultural context -- is taking place as well. One recent editorial in the People's Daily, a mouthpiece for the Central Communist Party (CCP), directed particular blame towards Taiwanese "independence activists" for imparting their protest experience on Hong Kongers -- which, in an exaggerated, hyperbolic kind of way, holds a lode of truth.
In the months leading up to Occupy Central, Hong Kong students looked towards the Sunflower movement as a model for success. Back in June, some Hong Kong students even attempted an exact replication of the Legislative Yuan occupation, rashly staging an occupation of Hong Kong's Legislative Assembly. Though the mimic occupation was an instant bust -- students were dragged out immediately -- and created internal disarray among Hong Kong activists, the conversation with their Taiwanese counterparts continued. Hong Kong students looked towards what worked and implemented it in their own struggle.
Rachel Cheung, a journalism major protesting this week, recalls watching the Legislative Yuan occupation on live stream. "[Taiwanese students] threw away their rubbish and recycled cans, I know it's something really little, but they paid attention to important details... many of us thought this is something we should follow." Beijing has claimed in recent days that Occupy Central is uncorking bottomless chaos, but the protest site across Hong Kong, which has been a model of cleanliness and orderliness says otherwise. The Independent went so far as to call it possibly "the most polite demonstration ever."
Taiwanese have been happy to share their experiences as well. "Don't let the journalist leave when the police kick them out:" the advice one Taiwanese offered in an online post. "No camera, no truth."
Last week's student class boycott, which jump-started the massive occupation across Hong Kong this week, heavily bore the Sunflower movement's mark.According to student organizers, they looked towards the Sunflower movement for assistance, replicating the division of responsibilities between organizers, volunteers and protesters, which made the Sunflower movement flexible and responsive. They also booked professors to take part in a lecture series modeled after the teach-ins held in the occupied Legislative Yuan, which contributed to the Sunflower movement's legitimizing air of civic engagement.
"The movement here is more advanced," said Jeffery Wang, a Taiwanese student who participated in the Sunflower movement and is now studying abroad in Hong Kong. "What took us two or three weeks to do, they've learned from us and done in two days."
"We're sort of copy cats," quipped Kris Cheng, a Hong Kong-based activist and writer.
But Occupy Central faces significantly more difficult challenges. While the degree of exchange between Hong Kong and Taiwan is understandable, unlike Taiwan, which is an island democracy, Hong Kong has no form of democratic accountability. The police on the street report to the Chief Executive, and the Chief Executive only answers to Beijing. The Taiwanese agree Hong Kongers will need all the help they can get... Hong Kong is a fast-paced financial hub, ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, and is a special administrative zone of the People's Republic of China. Taipei, on the other hand, is a midsize Asian city known for its placid green hills and welcoming people as well as being the seat of a government officially still at war with the PRC. What student activists in both contexts share is a common foe and common hurdles: oppressive stereotypes about Chinese being unfit or uninterested in democratic participation, the constant specter of "instability and chaos" from detractors, and the skepticism of their elders. Together, students in Taiwan and Hong Kong have crafted their own brand of social activism, marked by a spirit of benign civic awareness and displays of exceeding politeness or orderliness, which has managed to jolt the greater publics into action.
The remarkable success student movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong represents a new stage in the struggle for democracy and autonomy from Beijing, and the maturation of a form of civil disobedience refined for a Chinese cultural context. It's hard to say whether the current conversation between Taiwanese and Hong Kong students that has brought about this advent will develop into direct coordination. Hong Kong and Taiwan, after all, remain different places with very different political environments. Yet, with Hong Kongers now on the streets, we can be sure the Taiwanese are taking notes.