Just months after being elected leader of Hong Kong's biggest university student group, Alex Chow joined in the city's annual, orderly July 1 pro-democracy march. But in a move that foreshadowed last week's massive sit-ins, Chow and a committed core of activists decided to break from the usual script.
After the march, they sat down in a road in the Central District, locking arms and chanting, "Our own government, our own choice."
After midnight, police moved in to break up the unauthorized gathering, picking up the kicking and screaming activists and arresting 511, including Chow. As one of the biggest confrontations between Hong Kong police and the public in years, it left a deep impression on the 24-year-old comparative literature and sociology student, whose ponderous eyes are prone to welling up with tears.
"There were tattoo artists, massage therapists, construction workers, engineers, teachers, photographers, retired civil servants. I really felt sorry for them," said Chow, writing about the day's events a few days later in an online forum. "In the past 30 years, the democracy movement has been too slow and too painstaking. The power of civil disobedience lies … in the blood and tears of everyone who is behind the struggle."
Chow's frustration has catapulted him to the center of the biggest political crisis facing leaders in Hong Kong — and Beijing — in years. Whether more blood and tears are soon to come rests, to a large extent, on Chow's young shoulders.
Chow has worked closely with founders of two other groups, a 3-year-old high school student organization called Scholarism and a recent protest movement called Occupy Central With Love and Peace, to mobilize the largest and most disruptive demonstrations in the territory in decades.
But the government has shown a preference to deal with Chow's Hong Kong Federation of Students, a storied organization dating to 1958 that counts many of the territory's current leaders as alumni. And so it is that Chow and his more introverted 21-year-old deputy, Lester Shum, have emerged as first among equals as protest organizers and now, perhaps, negotiators.
A fast talker skilled at impassioned oratory, Chow in recent weeks has proved himself adept at rousing crowds who have poured into the streets to demand a free choice of candidates in the city's 2017 election for chief executive — a framework that Communist Party leaders in Beijing have explicitly rejected. On Saturday, dressed in dark blue jeans and matching blue nubuck oxfords, Chow told thousands of demonstrators occupying government headquarters: "This is not a student movement; this is a Hong Kongers' movement."
Whether Chow and Shum can steer the movement to a peaceful conclusion and win real concessions remains unclear. Even many student protesters, let alone older demonstrators, say they aren't taking orders from Chow and Shum and have doubts about their strategy.
"This is a self-initiated, spontaneous protest and we'll go home when we want, not when someone tells us to," said Tony Tsang, 19, listening on Thursday night as Chow warned that the Beijing-backed chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, must step down or students would "occupy" government buildings. "I don't think he should be asking C.Y. Leung to quit; they would just replace him with another guy who's exactly the same."
Less than an hour later, as midnight approached, Leung offered to hold talks with Chow's group — but refused to resign — and Chow backed away from his threats. News of the detente was met with ambivalence among the demonstrators.
Veteran observers of the student-led movement, though, have praised Chow's and Shum's leadership — in particular their move Thursday to reach out to the government for dialogue. This may have averted, or at least delayed, an escalation of tension, these observers said.
"They are as passionate organizers as they are good strategists," said Dixon Ming Sing, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a longtime researcher of the city's democracy movement.
Still, their meteoric rise to global attention has surprised some. Nelson Lee, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who taught Shum in two politics courses, said the college junior "was always on the quiet side."
Shum, who switched his major to politics after one year studying engineering, was passionate about getting an intellectual grounding, Lee recalled. Lee's "Politics of Culture" class, which delves into Marxist theories and neocapitalism, is popular among young activists, and Shum appealed to Lee in person to enroll in the oversubscribed course.
Shum, more casual in dress and deliberate in speech than Chow, was nervously chewing his thumb and index finger before Saturday night's rally. Taking the stage in white wrinkled shorts and black flip-flops, he appeared to be fighting a lingering cough.
"We are just ordinary students. What we're fighting for is our future, for a democratic system," he said, his voice growing hoarse. After wrapping up his remarks, he performed his trademark slight bow to the audience. "All of you have worked so hard," he said.
On Sunday, as protesters again appeared at loggerheads with the government and Leung said forcefully that demonstrators needed to clear the streets in time for the workweek to start Monday, Chow and Shum were facing calls from many quarters to declare victory and retreat.
Hong Kong University President Peter Mathieson urged all of his school's students and staff to leave the protest zones. "I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety," he said, adding to an ominous sense that police might use substantial force to disperse the crowds.
Bao Tong, a former secretary to the reformist mainland China Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who sympathized with Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, penned an open message Sunday to the protesters urging them to wind down the demonstrations:
"The seeds have already been sown, and they need time to lie fallow," Bao said. "No great task can be achieved all at once; they all need some time to gestate."
But Willy Lam, a political analyst and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Chow and Shum fear if they go home now, they'll lose all momentum.
"They don't want to give up without achieving something tangible," he said. "Even if police are to come out in force, they are determined to hang on."
Lam said that stance was understandable "because they are the first ever student leaders from Hong Kong to have made this big achievement, to apply really big pressure and assemble more than 150,000 people on the streets."
But what is unclear, Lam said, "is whether their decision to hang tough, to hang on, might be the best solution going into the next step." To achieve serious revisions to the election rules dictated by Beijing, Lam said, the students need to build a united front with other stakeholders, including Occupy Central and liberal lawmakers in Hong Kong's legislature, as well as nongovernmental organizations.
At Saturday night's rally, Shum acknowledged that he and Chow — who have been arrested several times for civil disobedience — were taking serious personal risks. "We might be in for big trouble," he said. "We might have to go to jail. Alex and I each have got five charges on our back."
But he and Chow seemed to have made a clear choice.
Before the July sit-in, Chow said he received an email from his father, who was overseas. His dad expressed support for his son but also concern that he might end up like a "Tiananmen mother," a reference to a group of women who lost children in the 1989 crackdown.
Addressing the crowd that night, Chow choked up and covered his tear-streaked face.
"Even if we can win a bit of democracy," he said before his arrest, "that should be the best reward for my parents."