Hong Kong Protesters at a Crossroads

By James Pomfret 9 October 2014

HONG KONG — Student protesters galvanized Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with their energy and ideological zeal, bringing tens of thousands of people on to the streets in a show of defiance against Beijing.

People young and old speak of a “new era” of civil disobedience for an already well-established movement, with young and politically engaged activists more willing to stand up for what they believe to be right.

As events of the last 12 days prove, however, sustaining momentum is difficult, and whatever success protesters had in pressuring the government by disrupting city life, they will always come up against a formidable foe—mainland China.

Protest numbers have dwindled markedly to a few hundred people at times, and the focus for pro-democracy activists has switched to talks scheduled for Friday with key officials in the Hong Kong administration.

Already leaders among students and the “Occupy” movement, as well as tacticians in the city’s pro-democracy camp, say they are doubtful of an outcome that will pacify radical and moderate demonstrators, possibly paving the way for another crackdown.

Protesters’ core demands, namely full democracy in Hong Kong including an open nomination process for elections for the city’s next leader in 2017, are not even on the agenda.

“After the talks there will likely be another crisis,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who has helped advise the students behind the scenes.

“You don’t know what each party will do and what will trigger a crackdown or a backdown. It’s very difficult to say.”

The sticking point is China, which has the final say on what concessions, if any, it might grant Hong Kong.

So far, all the signs point to it not budging from an Aug. 31 decision to restrict nominations for the 2017 poll to candidates who get majority backing from a committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists.

What Next?

That begs the question of what next for a movement that has lost much of its popular support as Hong Kong citizens count the cost of the disruption it has caused.

“Crisis resolution is important right now,” said Kuan Hsin-chi, emeritus professor of politics at Hong Kong’s Chinese University who has been close to protest leaders.

“It’s not the time for getting concrete reform policies or principles.”

A forced police clearance carries the risk of stoking fresh retaliatory blockades, while protest leaders have refused to withdraw given that their demands for full democracy and for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying to quit have not been met.

“If the discussions do not yield the results we want, we will continue the occupation,” said Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

“We believe that the occupation is our biggest bargaining chip, and for now it is able to apply the most pressure against the government.”

The protests have been the most disruptive and prolonged for decades in Hong Kong, affecting core shopping and government districts. The trigger was Beijing’s decision to allow only pre-screened candidates to run for chief executive in 2017.

The turmoil presented the Chinese leadership with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

An editorial in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, criticized what it called a small number of protesters for “daydreaming” that they could incite a “color revolution” in China through the Hong Kong occupation movement.

As with a mass protest in Hong Kong in 2003 that drew over half a million people opposing proposed anti-subversion laws, Beijing is likely to tighten policies on Hong Kong after the latest upheaval, diplomats and analysts said.

Communist Party entities such as China’s Liaison Office and the United Front Work Department will likely regroup extensive networks of political and business allies in Hong Kong, to redouble discreet efforts to counter the new populist front.

“Beijing will launch fierce rounds of United Front work after this,” said Sonny Lo, an expert on China’s influence in Hong Kong. “The short-term result is to deal with the political troublemakers in Hong Kong in a decisive way.”

Triumph or Just Trouble?

The firing of tear gas by police early on and attacks on students by hostile anti-Occupy crowds may have generated fresh waves of public support, but opinion has turned against the protests too as disruptions to traffic and business bite.

The protests also widened a rift between Hong Kong liberals and conservative pro-establishment and pro-Beijing residents.

On the streets of the gritty Mong Kok district over the weekend, heated mobs, some with links to organized criminal gangs, or triads, waved China flags, swore and attacked small groups of student demonstrators.

“Democracy is destroying Hong Kong,” one man shouted before punching a student on the back of his head. The well-built young man turned and swung back at his assailant, only to be set upon by more pro-China supporters.

Despite the challenges, some democrats already consider the spontaneous uprising a symbolic victory and want it to end.

“I think the protests awakened the Hong Kong people to the importance of democracy and freedom, but also to the price of trying to attain it,” said Daniel Sun, 20, a student at the University of Hong Kong.

“These protests mark the start of a new era in Hong Kong people’s attitudes and the idea of wanting democracy will become a norm,” added Sun.

But maintaining unity in a fractious movement will be tough, given infighting between radical and moderate elements that has weakened their leverage.

“We need to discuss an exit strategy and we need to have a united position on negotiations,” said Joseph Cheng, an academic and an elder member of the city’s democratic movement.

“The protesters have come spontaneously. This is beautiful, but we also need better coordination, better unity in action.”

Once the dust settles, student, democratic and Occupy Central leaders say future actions could include fresh occupation of key districts, the disruption of government policy-making by filibustering in the legislature, the non-payment of taxes, as well as marches and class boycotts.

Some are hopeful the democrats can channel this energy into a longer battle.

“I like the students, they use a different approach,” said Martin Lee, a veteran Democrat who helped found the city’s biggest opposition Democratic Party 20 years ago.

“We’ve been doing this thing [democratic activism] without success for 30 years, because every time we took into account Beijing’s bottom line. They’re thinking outside the box and setting their own terms.”