Hong Kong’s experiment in orderly disorder is coming unstuck. Thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sept. 29 calling for political reform and universal suffrage, and many still remain a day later. Markets are open, and the financial sector hasn’t taken any direct hits. But what started as a meticulously planned act of civil disobedience now risks spiralling into something more volatile and unpredictable, with damaging long term-implications for the city.
The “Occupy Central” movement has been in the works for over a year, but its beginning took all sides by surprise. Protests started three days ahead of schedule after students tried to break into government buildings. Riot police unleashed tear gas and pepper spray in the central business and government districts. The agenda has also taken an unexpected turn. Where organisers originally wanted deeper debate over political reforms for the 2017 elections, students and protest leaders are now calling for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down.
The lesson is that even in orderly societies, disquiet is hard to predict or contain. While the protest organisers’ original plan was to target the financial sector, markets remained open on Sept. 29. Many global financial companies reported business as usual. But rather than narrowly pinpointing finance, the sit-in is swelling into a social movement of people with little protest experience, spreading to at least two popular shopping districts. Fragmentation makes the unrest harder to control. Worryingly, thousands of people paid no heed to the organisers’ calls to go home. The government’s heavy-handed response may only prompt otherwise ambivalent people to join, especially when a two-day public holiday begins on Oct. 1.
While things could deteriorate further, Hong Kong at its worst still looks more stable than many places in Asia. In mainland China, such protests would have been stamped far more harshly. But in such a dense and compact region, minor disruptions have a magnified effect. If nothing else, Occupy Central could challenge the notion that comfortable middle classes aren’t interested in engaging in messy unrest. And investors in the city will have to price in a new layer of volatility.