To the end
The most surprising thing about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners is that they are still there. A month after a small group of students stormed a space outside the government’s head office, the protests now known as the “umbrella movement” have confounded predictions of chaos, apathy or a violent crackdown by China. Though a compromise on democratic reform remains as distant as ever, Hong Kong’s mostly civil activists have changed the city’s political geography for good.
In the months before what was originally known as Occupy Central got underway, Hong Kong politicians and business leaders forecast that civil disobedience would cause disruption and chaos. In fact, apart from the clouds of tear gas at the start of the protests, and subsequent scuffles between protesters, their opponents, and the police, the movement has been overwhelmingly civil.
The three-lane highway that passes in front of Hong Kong’s central government buildings has been transformed into an impromptu city-centre campsite. Wandering between the hundreds of numbered, multicoloured tents on Harcourt Road feels more like attending a nerdy music festival than a hotbed of political agitation. Each evening, scores of students diligently complete their homework at specially-constructed desks, as protest leaders deliver speeches nearby.
Not all enjoy the festivities – the blockade has disrupted traffic and made it harder to move around what is normally an easy-to-navigate city, while taxi drivers, retailers and restaurants in the protest areas have reported lost revenue. Yet Hong Kong’s large financial district has mostly continued to operate as normal. Stock market investors worry more about the slowing Chinese economy than disruption in the former British colony. According to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, just one bank branch remained closed as of Oct. 27.
The protesters have also defied predictions that they would quickly lose interest. The government’s clumsy and sometimes heavy-handed attempts to end the protests have helped. The use of tear gas; the decision to call and then cancel talks with student leaders; the policemen caught on film beating up a handcuffed protester – all have spurred crowds to return to the streets.
The other surprise is that China has not ordered a crackdown. The ruling Communist Party’s harsh response to protest at home would suggest little tolerance for pro-democracy activists waving banners, umbrellas and smartphones in defiance of Bejing on Chinese soil. Yet while state media has condemned the protests, and China’s leaders are clearly watching events closely, their strategy so far appears to be to ignore rather than injure the protesters.
Beijing’s relative tolerance does not mean it is prepared to meet the movement’s requests, however. China has stuck to the proposed system for selecting Hong Kong’s chief executive that ignited the protests in the first place. Any candidate must win the support of at least half the members of a 1,200-strong nominating committee stuffed with loyalists before he or she can contest the popular vote. The protesters’ main wish – that members of the public be allowed to nominate the candidates – is as unlikely to be granted today as a month ago.
Beijing has also continued to support Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, despite his hapless handling of the protests and revelations that he received but did not disclose payments from an Australian engineering firm.
The result is that Hong Kong is stuck in a kind of polite impasse. The movement has little hope of achieving its aims, while the government has little to offer by way of compromise. The protesters can stay in their tents for a while – the weather in November is ideal for camping. But as the city adapts and the global media turns its attention elsewhere, the protests risk losing their sense of urgency.
However the standoff eventually ends, the umbrella movement will have achieved a great deal. It has shown that significant chunks of Hong Kong’s youth are articulate, organised and determined. Their willingness to defy politicians and police to mount peaceful but disruptive protests will be something that future Hong Kong leaders will have to consider, regardless of how they are chosen.