Why Hong Kong's Protesters Have Their Hands Up

Demonstrators, some of whom have never heard of Ferguson, show their peaceful intentions with their palms.

Protesters chant slogans in front of police during a confrontation in Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

HONG KONG—Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have, perhaps unwittingly, united themselves with another protest movement some 8,000 miles away. Activists demanding free elections for the semi-autonomous territory have been holding their hands up in the air in a symbol of non-violent protest, a gesture many in the U.S. recognize from recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri after an unarmed 18-year-old was shot to death by police.

Most Hong Kong protesters aren’t purposefully mimicking “hands up, don’t shoot,” as some have suggested. Instead, the gesture is a result of training and instructions from protest leaders, who have told demonstrators to raise their hands with palms forward to signal their peaceful intentions to police.

Asked if the gesture has any link to Ferguson, Icy Ng, a 22-year-old design student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University said, “I don’t think so. We have our hands up for showing both the police and media that we have no weapons in our hands.” Ng had not heard of the Ferguson protests. Another demonstrator with the pro-democracy group Occupy Central, Ellie Ng, said the gesture had nothing to do with Ferguson and is intended to demonstrate that “Hong Kong protesters are peaceful, unarmed, and mild.” (A more important symbol for the movement may be the umbrella, which protesters have been using to protect themselves against pepper spray and tear gas.)

Still, the gesture has taken on new meaning for Hong Kong residents, whose relationship with the city’s police may never be the same. Hong Kong is one of the most intensively policed cities in the world, with a police force of 30,000 that rivals New York City’s in size but serves a fraction of New York’s population. The last time Hong Kong authorities used tear gas against demonstrators was in 2005, during demonstrations outside of a World Trade Organization meeting, and before that in 1967, when leftist activists rioted throughout the city.

Now, residents are shocked by images of students being tear gassed and elderly demonstrators being pepper sprayed in the face, footage that has prompted more protesters to join demonstrations on Monday.

Protesters walk through tear gas on a main road at the financial central district in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 28. (Vincent Yu/AP).
A student protester in Hong Kong tries to negotiate with riot police as they fire pepper spray at a crowd on Sunday, September 28. (Wally Santana/AP).