There is a longing in Wu'er Kaixi's voice when he talks about the protesters who have taken over streets in Hong Kong, demanding political concessions from China.
Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Wu'er was among the youthful idealists leading demonstrators seeking change from the same government. They failed, in bloody fashion, at Tiananmen Square. But he sees traces of their effort emerging in Hong Kong, where a new generation has taken on the mantle of pushing for political freedoms inside China. Those who tried before have been captivated by their efforts – and a bit jealous.
"We carry the same flag. The banner has democracy and freedom written all over it," Mr. Wu'er said, speaking by telephone from Taiwan. "I want to be there, that's for sure."
Over the past few decades, people in different places and at different times have united in a quest to wrest democratic reforms from the Communist Party of China. In mainland China as in Hong Kong, such efforts have often stumbled. But for long-time democracy advocates and veterans of past demonstrations, the ongoing student- led movement is reviving hope – notably because it has created a pressure for democratic reform that has surpassed previous efforts.
"They are teaching us something," said Martin Lee, the lawyer, politician and elder statesman sometimes called Hong Kong's Father of Democracy.
December will be the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which cleared the way for Hong Kong to rejoin China. Those years, he added, have brought many frustrations for those pursuing more open and democratic forms of government.
"Every time, we have tried to be helpful by giving proposals to the Hong Kong government to give to Beijing, proposing what we consider to be reasonable ways of solving problems. But we were never listened to," Mr. Lee said.
"Now the students have taken over and said, 'just give us democracy. Why the hell should we give proposals any more? They are ignored – you better come up with a proposal.' I think they are absolutely right."
Mr. Lee said he was "absolutely delighted" with the protests, which began more than a week ago. Late Monday, student leaders said the Hong Kong government had agreed to conduct a series of talks and to follow through on commitments with action.
Protests are not new to Hong Kong, where masses of people have taken to the streets numerous times recent decades. The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 drew vast numbers of demonstrators – 1.5 million by some estimates – who gathered to express outrage at what they saw happening in Beijing. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of people shut down streets to oppose Article 23, so-called anti-subversion legislation that would have brought stiff penalties for crimes such as treason. It was withdrawn after protests.
There have also been demonstrations demanding universal suffrage and the resignation of political officials. Other protests have focused on local complaints such as land giveaways to billionaire tycoons and over mainland Chinese women coming to Hong Kong to have babies and tying up hospital resources and buying out stocks of infant formula.
In 2012, students occupied government headquarters in a successful bid to demand the withdrawal of a proposed Beijing-backed "patriotic" school curriculum. The leader of that movement, Joshua Wong, has also played a key role in rallying people to the current protest.
What has developed in Hong Kong "is a generation of people who know how to protest," said Yvonne Leung, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which is playing a key role in the ongoing "Umbrella Revolution."
But some of the demonstrators are wary of focusing too much on protest. Ed Lau, a 28-year-old with a law degree who has led the defence of some of the barricades, worried that if "we start protesting over every little issue, we are going to have civil chaos."
Among veterans from an older generation – people who say they are happily passing the torch to younger passions – there is gratitude in seeing the shifts under way in Hong Kong.
"I hope that both Beijing and the Hong Kong governments are getting the message that this younger generation of people are quite prepared to take methods into their own hands if the government doesn't respond," said Anson Chan, a former chief secretary of the city who remains among its most prominent voices.
"Above all they want to be able to maintain Hong Kong's lifestyle and protect our core values, which revolve around the rule of law and the rights and freedoms that we've enjoyed. This is what is at stake."
But others in Hong Kong worry about the risks of continued protests.
"The people who are instigating this are playing with our future in a way that I find totally unacceptable," said Andrew Wells, a business executive who has held senior governmental positions in Hong Kong. In a city with few natural resources of its own, fortunes can shift quickly, he said. "We have nothing in Hong Kong except people and cash. And the cash can go very, very quickly."
He added: "so if this carries on, and people lose confidence in the image of Hong Kong as being a very, very safe place in which people are very pragmatic and very practical – the damage that could be done could be extremely severe."