The People's Daily, of Beijing, has said that the tens of thousands of democratic protesters in Hong Kong are people "whose hearts belong to colonial rule and who are besotted with 'Western democracy.'" The Communist newspaper is not altogether mistaken. Freedom of speech and commerce and the rule of law were all more secure under colonial rule than they are now. As for democracy, there had been little progress toward truly representative government prior to Britain handing over the territory to China in 1997 – nor has there been much progress since.
This week's young protesters, however, can hardly be accused of nostalgia for the colonial era, since they are not old enough to remember it, but they have an admirably clear view of Western democracy. They do not have to be "besotted" to have a vigorous admiration for political freedom and a desire for a directly elected legislative council and chief executive, in contrast to the skewed electoral processes proposed by the rulers of China.
The present wave of protest is more prudent than the initial Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, which disrupted the financial district, in an attempt to imitate the New York protests in the wake of the financial crisis. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the business community has an integrity greater than that of mainland China.
Tear gas is a heavy-handed reaction to a peaceful protest. Still, it is very safe to say that the Chinese government does not want to repeat what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when hundreds of protesters were killed. It hopes to patiently sideline and stifle the protest, not violently crush it. It doesn't want international embarrassment, including via Hong Kong's vibrant, uncensored social media.
Compromise is possible, though not to be counted on. Beijing fears democracy, for obvious reasons. But the people of Hong Kong – not just its youth – have made their democratic views clear for the long term.