Occupy Central protesters have clogged Hong Kong’s business district since last Friday in a campaign of civil disobedience that aims to force China into giving the semi-autonomous city complete democracy.

In dramatic photos and footage from scene of the protest on Sunday night, Hong Kong riot police wade through crowds of demonstrators, holding rifles and banners reading, “Disperse or we fire.”

Where did the Occupy Central campaign come from? And why is it being dubbed the most dangerous display of civil disobedience in China since Tiananmen Square? Crikey explains.

What’s the story so far? 

1984: China and Britain agree Hong Kong would be governed under a policy known as “one county, two systems”, giving Hong Kong a degree of autonomy. 

1997: Hong Kong is given to China after 150 years of British colonial rule. 

2003: An estimated 500,000 protesters pressure the Hong Kong government into withdrawing proposed subversion laws, which would have banned groups in Hong Kong that are banned on China’s mainland. 

2004: Beijing denies Hong Kongers democracy at the 2007 and 2008 elections and declares it has veto powers over future proposed changes to Hong Kong’s election laws. 

2007: Beijing announces Hong Kongers will democratically elect their leader (known as the chief executive) in 2017, and their legislative council in 2020. However, candidates for elections will still have to be vetted by Beijing.

July 2012: Hong Kongers feel disenfranchised, as elections became marred in controversy when details emerged about then-chief executive Donald Tsang’s questionable business ties. 

July 2013: Benny Tai, a law professor from the University of Hong Kong, establishes the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign in an article. 

June 2014: Beijing releases a white paper on Hong Kong, declaring China’s sovereignty over the city. 

July 2014: Occupy Central supporters hold an unofficial referendum on whether Hong Kong should have complete democracy, but both the Hong Kong government and Chinese officials label it illegal. 

July 2014: Occupy Central demonstrators flood the business district, and police arrest over 500 protesters. 

August 2014: Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) raids the home of Jimmy Lai, an outspoken Beijing critic and media magnate. 

August 2014: Beijing rejects demands for complete democracy at the 2017 election — i.e. elections where candidates would not be vetted by Beijing.

September 26, 2014: Student protesters gather outside the Hong Kong government headquarters, demanding that Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung address their calls for democracy. Protesters clash with Hong Kong security forces, and dozens are arrested, with police claiming protesters tried to storm the government headquarters.

September 28, 2014: Protest numbers surge after Occupy Central founder Benny Tai declares that the long-awaited civil disobedience campaign will begin immediately.

September 29 2014: Demonstrations calm, with many returning to work.

October 1 2014: Protests reignite on the China National Day public holiday, with organisers estimating over 160,000 protesters attending. Demonstrators demand that Leung step down.

What do protesters want? 

Occupy Central protesters demand complete democracy, including the right to nominate candidates for the leadership without interference from the mainland, and to elect the leader. Pro-democracy advocates say Beijing has proposed a “fake” democracy, and that from 2017 candidates would be “Beijing puppets”.

Prior to Britain handing over Hong Kong to China in 1997, both nations agreed Hong Kong would aspire to an “ultimate goal” of democracy. But the agreement is vulnerable to conflicting interpretation, as there’s no timeframe or specification for when Hong Kongers should receive democracy, other than “in the light of the actual situation in Hong Kong” and through a “gradual and orderly process”.

Who’s protesting?

The Occupy Central protests have been compared to Tiananmen Square because because of the high proportion of students. In 2012, Beijing plans to introduce the Chinese curriculum into Hong Kong schools stunned the youth into political awareness, and thousands of students took to the streets. The protests gave birth to a new generation of democracy activists.

Beijing warns that prolonged demonstrations could cripple the economy, but protesters haven’t been deterred, giving credibility to the theory that Hong Kong’s working poor are flocking the protester ranks.

Do Hong Kongers support the protests? 

Organisers estimating over 160,000 demonstrators attended protests this week. Some pro-democracy groups have condemned Occupy Central’s civil disobedience campaign, saying they “denounce chaos and disturbances”.

It’s been widely reported that wealthier or older Hong Kongers are opposed to protests. Hong Kong international student Karen Cheung, for example, told Crikey that while she supports the Occupy Central campaign, her father, a factory owner, is worried the protests could damage the economy.

What’s China hearing?

China’s state-sponsored media outlets follow a predictable narrative. On Sunday, the propaganda arm of the Communist Party issued a directive to media outlets on the China’s mainland, ordering them to “clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about Occupy Central”. In a further sign the Communist Party is on the information defensive, on Monday evening it blocked Instagram on China’s mainland.

A Xinhua report released prior to the restrictions gives a terribly lopsided account, quoting the Hong Kong chief executive and a Chinese official.

What’s Hong Kong hearing?

Most Hong Kong media outlets support calls for complete democracy, but they oppose Occupy Central’s civil disobedience campaign. Ricci Yue, a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong who has been protesting since Friday, told Crikey protesters are “only using Facebook, because there are only one or two media outlets who are being transparent about this”.

Across Hong Kong’s 50 daily newspapers, the Apple Daily is among the few outlets that are supportive of the Occupy Central campaign. When the Independent Commission Against Corruption raided the home of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai, many Hong Kongers saw it as a tipping point, with Beijing finally reaching in, compromising the integrity of their famously free media.

Are protesters in danger?

Riot police plucked at least 78 protesters from the crowds at the weekend. In another dramatic scene, protesters knelt before riot police in an evident sign of peace, while moments later riot police shot teargas canisters into the crowds. Yue told Crikey, “We did nothing, and [the police] just exploded the tear gas. They warned us that they would use tear gas, but actually we raised our hand to show that we were peaceful.”

Dorothy Lui, also a student at the University of Hong Kong, echoed that message, telling Crikey, “police are using all the channels to press charges against protesters, so the organisers kept reminding people not to upload footage or photos with protesters faces captured”.