There have been barricades and occupations, hashtags and slogans. But no matter the striking optics of Hong Kong's week of student-led pro-democracy protests, there's one interpretation of events that its top activists insist you should not make: Please, they say, do not call this a revolution.
"We are not seeking revolution. We just want democracy!" said Joshua Wong, 17, a leading figure of the student movement, during a vast rally near Hong Kong government's headquarters, the environs of which have been taken over by protesters since last weekend. "We hope there will be no violence. It would be unfortunate if this movement ended with bloodshed and violence."
Many protesters are bracing for a final day out in the streets on Sunday, ahead of an ultimatum delivered by Hong Kong's government, calling on them to clear out and allow public institutions and officials to get back to work on Monday. It's not clear whether a police crackdown will ensure they are removed from the areas or not.
In the days since the occupations began, Hong Kong's protesters have won vast amounts of sympathy around the world. Their bravery and ingenuity seemed to present a stirring rebuke to the ham-fisted actions of the local government and the heavy-handed rhetoric of its overseer, Beijing. Amid thunderstorms and pepper spray, images of Hong Kong's #UmbrellaRevolution spread globally. But this has worried some of the protests' most prominent voices.
They are sensitive to how the protests are being received both by other Hong Kongers as well as authorities in the mainland. China's rulers do not countenance such challenges to the status quo; the Hong Kong public, meanwhile, isn't interested in prolonged, destabilizing upheaval either. The idea of a "revolution" on China's doorstep may play well before the lenses of the international media, but it does not help the students, who are seeking reform and practical political gains.
"This is not a color revolution," Lester Shum, the deputy leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, referring to the generic term used for transformative poltical movements elsewhere. "This is a citizens' fight for democracy."
The emphasis here is not on taking down an existing system, but securing rights and freedoms many Hong Kongers believe they are owed by Beijing. The recent unrest was triggered after China announced that Hong Kong’s future leader – to be directly elected in 2017 – would only emerge from a slate of candidates hand-picked by the authoritarian Chinese leadership.
In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this week, 17-year-old Wong, a spindly waif of a teenager, rejected comparisons linking Hong Kong's protests with other rebellions in the past, or his own organizing efforts with that of other famous revolutionaries. "No one has inspired me," he said bluntly. "I came to organize the action just because I live in Hong Kong and care about the future of this city."
To that end, the protests have certainly showcased a stirring civic ethic among Hong Kong's youth. Their now hallmark resourcefulness and politeness was very much on display during a mass rally on Saturday, despite the cramped conditions and mugginess of the Hong Kong night. Volunteers at various points sprayed the protesters around them with water mist and waved fans to create something of a breeze. Others linked hands amid the massed throngs to create corridors through which foot traffic could keep moving.
"We are here for each other," said Karen Liu, a university student. "And that's what matters."