Last night, following three days of student political protests and sit-ins, the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement closed down major roads and faced off a police assault. But to call this ‘Occupy Central’ is misleading. The markets and professional businesses in Central are operating normally, give or take some bad commutes. But the protest movement erupted not just in Central but in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok.
It’s ‘Occupy Hong Kong’.
The protesters are for the most part young and idealistic. I guess you have to be if you want to get tear gassed and maced by the cops. They are, according to people I know who have been involved, behaving with the utmost courtesy. They are armed with umbrellas, to shield them from gas and spray. Fears that some radical splinters in the movement would instigate vandalism or violence have so far not materialized.
The civil disobedience movement here has a reliable track record of good citizenship, non-violence and respect. (It was the pro-Beijing camp that, in a farce of a protest march last month, left a trail of litter and showed no respect for civic norms.)
The police are not known for their brutality, but have been increasingly suborned by the establishment into partisanship. Last night they were given heavy-handed orders, escalating immediately to tear gas and pepper spray in a failed attempt to clear the streets. All they did was to anger people.
(From Beijing’s perspective, the police acted with restraint. Perhaps with too much restraint.)
Committed activists weren’t surprised; they were prepared. Many who were vaguely sympathetic to the protesters, but perhaps skeptical of their actions, are dismayed by what has transpired. People feel sad.
There is for now a touch of romance with the protests. They surprised the police throughout the encounter: first when students infiltrated government offices, then when the tear gas not only failed to scatter the crowd but attracted more people, and finally when protesters mobilized throughout the territory – as of Monday morning the cops do not have control of Causeway Bay. Central is empty but the barricades are still standing, so we may see more action tonight; as I write, the police are making a push against protesters in Admiralty, where the government offices stand.
I argue that the protests would be more effective if they targeted the corrupt tycoon/bureaucrat nexus and not directly opposed Beijing – there is no room for either side to back down now. So the question is whether we have a messy week and protesters fade away, having made their point for the time being, or if more people radicalize and take to the streets. I would bet on the former; if I’m wrong, the odds of a truly violent outcome get worrisomely short. Longer term, no solution is at hand: China simply won’t countenance any ceding of control or face, and Beijing has never explored ample opportunities to find a creative outcome.
Leung Chun-ying, meanwhile, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has secured his place in the history books as one of the territory’s great villains. Makes you wonder what masochist would actually accept Beijing’s nod to run this place.