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In Hong Kong, the revolution will be catered

In Hong Kong, the revolution will be catered
A protester reaches for a cold drink in Hong Kong. A vast supply of donated goods is keeping the demonstrators comfortable. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)

Protesters showing up for Hong Kong's "umbrella revolution" without the eponymous accessory to shield themselves from rain, sun and tear gas need not fear — they can grab one of the hundreds of brand-new models in every hue hanging from pedestrian guardrails, free for the taking.

If they start to flag in the tropical heat, they can pick up a bottle of water (still or sparkling), gratis, and maybe a damp towel for their neck or a sticky cooling pad for their forehead.

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As tens of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets for a fourth day Wednesday to agitate for greater democracy, their material needs were largely taken care of in a remarkable demonstration of the gentle civility for which this semiautonomous Chinese city is known.

For the hungry, there was free cheesecake, bananas, dim sum and more. For those with blisters, there were band-aids. Aching back? A complimentary massage station. And on and on: swim goggles for those worried about pepper spray, recharge stations for dying cellphone batteries, even barbers for those who needed a haircut.

Protest leaders have vowed to stay in it for the long haul — and the massive stockpiles keeping protesters hydrated, sated and comfortable may be giving them confidence they can deliver on that pledge.

Denouncing Beijing-backed dignitaries and continuing their street demonstrations, democracy protesters overshadowed ceremonies in Hong Kong on Wednesday marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of communist China.

"Step down!" a group of youths shouted as the territory's top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, appeared at an 8 a.m. flag-raising ceremony alongside Victoria Harbor. Others turned their backs and crossed their arms in defiance but otherwise did not disrupt the proceedings.

By midafternoon, tens of thousands of people — perhaps more than 100,000 — were again flowing into main roadways stretching from the city's financial district, known as Central, east toward Causeway Bay, where the government was staging the sparsely attended official celebration of China's National Day.

After first trying to quickly disperse the crowds with tear gas, police and government authorities seem to have backed off and adopted a strategy of attempting to wait out the demonstrators. But they've acknowledged that the protests may go on "for a long time," and the protesters seem prepared to stick it out.

"We've got so much stuff it's unbelievable," said Sampson Sung, 40, a delivery van driver who was organizing pallets of water, cases of plastic kitchen wrap, cartons of paper towels, crackers, face masks, stationery and other items around 10 a.m. Wednesday. "People just keep dropping things off."

The former British territory is renowned as a global center of commerce and finance, with a strong tradition of charity. But even Hong Kongers themselves seem shocked by the quality and quantity of items donated to protesters and the speed, efficiency and politeness with which they are being distributed.

"It was a bad thing that brought us together, this tear gassing by police, but when I see this, I'm really proud of Hong Kong," said a 17-year-old high school student at a supply station who asked not to be named because her parents fear she could be detained for taking part in the gathering. "People popped caramel corn and brought it in bags. They cooked siu mai at home and delivered it at midnight in plastic containers."

As she talked, a college student ambled by, holding a fluorescent green sign. "If you need legal help, send a text message to *51642048," it read.

The operations are all the more remarkable considering they are not being directed by one organization but have been cobbled together by ad hoc groups of volunteers communicating via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

"We need to stand up and tell the government how we feel, and if the size of the protests go down, it will be easier for police to clear the streets, so we need to keep people comfortable," said Kathy Ng, 27, an advertising worker manning a table. "I just wanted to do my part."

The squads of volunteer logisticians are not just handing out goods, they're picking them up. A small army of trash collectors have set up garbage stations, collecting and sorting waste from recyclables. Some have gone so far as to use metal tongs to pick up cigarette butts from the street.

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"We moved 50 big black bags last night," said Terrence Ho, 19, a landscape architecture student wearing a T-shirt that read, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." "It's important to clean up to show we are not breaking the law, to show that we are responsible and not give police any excuse to do anything."

A few hundred yards away, a squad of a half-dozen young people armed with wire brushes, water and towels were scrubbing the pavement on Connaught Road.

They were trying to erase graffiti that someone had spray-painted on the asphalt. "Hong Kong police — Shame on you," it read in English and Chinese.

In front of an HSBC bank branch, a wiry and shirtless Fred Cheng, 17, was availing himself of the massage services being proffered by some alumni from a local medical college.

"I've been out here for six days and six nights, sleeping outside, since the student strikes started last week," he said. "I got tear-gassed and pepper sprayed by the government headquarters."

Though Hong Kongers are well-known for their savvy business sense, an unwritten code of ethics seemed to be in place; it was nigh impossible to find anyone among the crowds trying to sell anything.

There were no "Occupy Hong Kong" or "Umbrella Revolution" T-shirts, stickers or other paraphernalia to be had.

Pat Ng, a volunteer with the League of Social Democrats political party, was sporting a T-shirt with a Nelson Mandela quote on the back reading, "It always seems impossible, until it's done." It seemed like just the kind of garment that would be in high demand at such an event, but Ng said the party, which printed up the shirts a while back, had decided that selling them would be crass.

"We can't capitalize on an event like this and sell things; it would look bad," said Ng. "What we are fighting for is too important — we don't want people to accuse us of just wanting to make a quick buck."

Hong Kong, a former British territory, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a framework known as "one country, two systems." The arrangement granted Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, except on matters of foreign affairs and national defense, for 50 years.

Protesters say mainland Chinese authorities are reneging on promises, enshrined in the Basic Law — which detailed terms of the hand-over — to grant universal suffrage in the territory.

Leung has argued that the 2017 election guidelines put forth by Beijing represent a step forward for democracy in the territory because they would allow Hong Kong's 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots for chief executive for the first time. Currently, the position is chosen by a committee of 1,200 largely seen as pro-Beijing.

But opponents say one man, one vote is meaningless if all the candidates must essentially be screened by Beijing.

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"It is definitely better to have the chief executive elected by 5 million eligible voters than by 1,200 people," Leung argued in his remarks. "And it is definitely better to cast your vote at the polling station than to stay home and watch on television as the 1,200 members of the Election Committee cast their votes."

Although the Hong Kong demonstrations have made headlines around the world, the news of the protests has been heavily censored on the mainland.

Amnesty International said Wednesday that at least 20 people had been detained by mainland police for posting photos online with messages of support for the protesters, shaving their heads in solidarity or planning to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the protests. An additional 60 have been called in for questioning, the human rights group said.

"The rounding up of activists in mainland China only underlines why so many people in Hong Kong fear the growing control Beijing has in their city's affairs," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Twitter: @JulieMakLAT

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