We have updated our Terms of Use.
Please read our new Privacy Statement before continuing.

The flagrant harbour

1 October 2014 By John Foley

Protests often start out peaceful, then fizzle out, or descend into chaos. So far, Hong Kong is turning that playbook on its head. Demonstrators whose demands for democratic elections were met with tear gas and batons on Sept. 29 had, by the next day, settled into a kind of happy, harmonious state. For the authorities in Beijing, that’s potentially an even more nerve-jangling state of affairs.

A walk among the tens of thousands clustered around the Admiralty district in Hong Kong feels more like attending a music festival than a protest. The demographic of those calling for representative elections in 2017 is mostly twentysomething or younger – some are in school uniforms. Volunteers hand out snacks, drinks, and goggles to defend against pepper spray, though there has been no sign of any since the first day’s ruckus. Volunteers shepherd new arrivals away from overcrowded areas; others hand out home-made flyers on how to remain calm if provoked.

Anyone can be violent, but keeping protest this calm requires strategy. According to many non-violence theorists, the only way to confront a muscular government like China’s is to train, plan, stay calm and kill the enemy with kindness. When Breakingviews met with Benny Tai, a law professor and one of the organisers of Occupy Central, in 2013, his bookshelves were stacked with tomes on civil disobedience. As well as the obvious Mohandas Gandhi, Tai has also studied Gene Sharp, a modern-day guru whose thinking the Occupy movement has borrowed heavily.

In one way, Hong Kong is the perfect cauldron for peaceful protest. It is orderly, relatively stable, and residents largely trust authorities to have a proportionate response. Tai even has a keen awareness of how Chineseness plays a role. While protest movements like Occupy Wall Street  have failed partly through lack of leadership, the academic who cooked up Occupy Central tried to avoid having a single figurehead, fretting that doing so would create a human target to be bribed, threatened, manipulated and discredited by China.

What’s most impressive is that the orderliness is basically self-generated. While some training had taken place beforehand, much of the co-ordination among the protesters has been ad hoc, with more experienced protesters conducting on-the-spot education, according to one organizer. Supplies are requested via social networks and Google Docs. Meanwhile, the crowds have the element of surprise on their side. Protests were still spreading to previously untouched areas today, including the high-end shopping district Tsim Sha Tsui, a magnet for mainland tourists.

Fighting without fire

There has been endless conjecture on how Beijing will respond to the protests, now in their fourth day. But its response has mostly faced inward, not out. Mainland citizens’ access to scenes of protest has been kept to a minimum. Instagram, the photo-sharing app, has been blocked. So apparently was the website of the South China Morning Post. Chinese media has largely ignored the protests, though party mouthpiece People’s Daily griped about students “coerced” into attending.

That’s not surprising. China’s authorities have good reason to be fearful of what’s happening in Hong Kong – but not for the obvious reason. Images of violent unrest aren’t welcomed, in case they might provoke disgruntled ethnic minorities or disenfranchised landowners into getting restive. But images of peaceful, methodical protest are far more compelling. They are also harder to reciprocate with force. Tear-gassing protesters simply brought more out onto the streets. That’s the kind of thing that China’s leaders, still raw from memories of Tiananmen Square in 1989, want to avoid.

Promoting fear of violent unrest is a powerful weapon in the Beijing government’s arsenal. For many, the idea of upheaval is still associated with the violence of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong entreated citizens to “not fear disorder”. The threat of society collapsing into chaos is pervasive. Hong Kong is a must-visit destination for luxury goods and still-unreleased iPhones, and one of the world’s richest and most stable cities, but many people in Beijing describe the city as “luan” – a word that roughly translates as “messy”.

In Hong Kong this week, the idea that unrest means chaos couldn’t be more wrong. The biggest danger for protesters, in spite of the high spirits and huge numbers of people in attendance, was being drenched with occasional rain, or overloaded with free snacks. Police forbearance, after the initial heavy-handed response, is a big factor. It’s easy to imagine why Beijing wants to keep those images away from the eyes of the mainland masses.

What all this will achieve is the big question. It’s unthinkable that Beijing will bow to pressure to give Hong Kongers full democracy, with the ability to choose leadership candidates through universal suffrage, as the protesters demand. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying reminded them that much on Sept. 30. Protesters were calling for Leung himself to stand down, though that wouldn’t change much either. No-one is irreplaceable, especially not the hamstrung leader of Hong Kong.

The biggest obstacle to Occupy Central is probably that there is no clear plan about what would constitute success. That may mean that protests eventually fade out as the public loses interest, or the crowds become too fragmented. But by confronting China’s authorities with the reality that social movements can be emotionally charged but peaceful, disruptive but harmonious, Occupy Central will have done something historic precisely by doing not very much at all.




Email a friend

Please complete the form below.

Required fields *


(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)