Hong Kong Democracy Protests: Students, It’s Time to Grow Up

More than a month since the start of the student street demonstrations that led to sit-ins in three locations in Hong Kong, no end to the stalemate between protesters and the government is in sight.

On 21 October, five representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) sat down with the same number of government officials, led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the SAR’s second most senior leader. The exchange revealed the enormous gulf between the two sides – not that the extent of the gap was not obvious beforehand.

There is undoubtedly ample backing for the protesters. But there is also undeniably a large and growing number of Hong Kong people who would like to see the barricaded streets opened

The government appealed for protesters to end their action, putting forward legalistic and constitutional arguments. The young leaders called for solutions, pressing demands that the government had already said cannot be granted.

Inequality, vested interests

The students achieved two important things in the televised talks. First, they showed Hong Kong people that they are not uninformed hotheads driven by passions more than political principles.

Second, while they focused on the dysfunctional constitutional system of Hong Kong, they tied their request for open nomination and universal suffrage of the chief executive in 2017 to the need to address inequality in the society. They sought action on addressing the influence of vested interests, specifically the tycoons who support Beijing and are wary of democracy.

The government officials did offer concessions. They proposed to send a report on the events of the past month, covering protesters’ concerns, to the mainland government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office – not to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee – “for reference.”

They suggested that it may be possible to make the nominating committee more representative. (Beijing has ruled that only two to three candidates can run in 2017 and they have to be nominated by a committee that the protesters say will be hand-picked by China).

The Hong Kong officials also said that a platform would be set up to discuss constitutional development after 2017.

The HKFS has rejected these proposals. They and the Occupy Central movement, comprising academics and other professionals, later announced that a poll of protesters at the sit-in sites would take place on 26-27 October.

Online vote

This online vote was initially reported to be aimed at gauging whether protesters wanted to accept the government’s proposals and possibly decamp. It turned out that the motions put forward would be about how to angle the protesters’ demands. Whatever the outcome, the sit-ins would have continued.

Just hours before the vote, however, the organizers scrapped it, saying that there were too many views on the value and validity of the poll. They apologized for not consulting the people enough. According to one analyst, the decision to shelve the vote was due to the government making clear to the students in a news report that going ahead would have been considered the equivalent of ending their dialogue and that the only option left would be forced eviction.

The prolonging of the protests will disappoint many in Hong Kong. There is undoubtedly ample backing for the protesters. A poll conducted between 8 and 15 October showed that 37.8% of those surveyed supported the Occupy action, up from 31.3% from mid-September.

But there is also undeniably a large and growing number of Hong Kong people who, while sympathetic to the students and their desire for more democracy, would like to see the barricaded streets opened so that business can return to normal in the affected areas.

Taxi, minibus and lorry drivers have been among the most vocal groups calling on the students to end their blockades. Some organizations have obtained court injunctions against protesters defending their barriers.

While police have not been ordered to remove the obstacles, the injunctions prevent them from intervening if third parties do so. This could lead to confrontations between protesters and anti-Occupy groups who have clashed repeatedly, mainly in the Mongkok protest area.

Unguided vs. incompetent

Where does all this leave us? Hong Kong is in the thrall of the unguided – some would say misguided – and the incompetent. The protesters are a leaderless group of several thousand hardcore activists without an end-game strategy. They continue to press demands that simply will not be granted.

The government, meanwhile, is pursuing a passive wait-them-out approach, with police generally exercising restraint, though there have been instances of the use of strong force and even abuse.

Leung likely did not mean to be as harshly plutocratic as he came across. But the damage has been done. In any case, his handling of the protests has meant that his political career is probably over

The incompetence of the authorities has been mainly in the public relations department. There have been three major own-goals by the government:

  • the use of tear gas against protesters on 28 September, which prompted anger and a show of support from the general public
  • the clicking of champagne glasses on China’s 1 October National Day celebrations while protests raged outside
  • Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s admission in an interview with US and European reporters published on 20 October that opening up elections in Hong Kong would give poor people a dominant voice in politics, and open the way to the creation of a welfare state

Leung, who in the past has highlighted the need to address inequality and whose administration has implemented pro-poor policies such as expanding the housing supply, was inarticulate. He most likely did not mean to be as harshly plutocratic as he came across. But the damage has been done.

In any case, his handling of the protests has meant that his political career is probably over. Already, some cracks are beginning to appear on the pro-Beijing side. A businessman-politician, James Tien, has suggested that Leung quit. If he does not resign, Leung would do well to say he will not run again in 2017.

The protesters appear to have dug in for the long haul. That certainly appears to be the case at the Admiralty site, which has taken on the semblance of a commune, with tents, study areas, artisan stalls, art displays, recycling and garbage removal and other services available.

It has the feeling of an aspiring Utopia, populated by idealistic young people, mainly students without the obligations of employment or families to support.

But while the international media has glorified the orderliness of the settlements and the politeness of the demonstrators (who apologize for the inconvenience they are causing), there is a distinctly dystopian aspect to the situation.

People who have shouted legitimate complaints at protesters and wailed about their lost income or difficulties with child and elderly care have been met with stoic silence and cute-yet-mocking singing of “Happy Birthday.”

Protesters have complained about anti-Occupy groups removing barriers made up of government property, presumably believing that they have the right to put these barricades in place, while other citizens have no right to remove them.

The 26-27 October poll that was cancelled would have been as much of a closed-circle vote as the very elections that the protesters are railing against. Why not hold a Hong Kong-wide referendum on whether the barricaded streets should be reopened?

Ending the occupation

Many who support the goals of the protesters and admire their zeal are reluctant to call on them to end the street occupation. But there are compelling reasons for the protesters to do so as soon as possible.

First, the longer they continue, the more their support will wane. Of course, if the government takes action that revives sympathy for the students, then there may be a spike in approval. But in the long term, Hong Kong people will grow ever wearier of the disruptions to daily life by diehards.

Beijing has wanted the “one country, two systems” concept to work. But as construed for the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China 17 years ago in 1997, it may now have reached its limits and require revising

Second, the longer the blockades are in place, the more likely that the Hong Kong government will take tougher action to remove them. It is highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army will be called in.

But once China is done hosting US President Barack Obama and other APEC leaders at their summit in Beijing in mid-November, the Hong Kong Police could very well pursue a significantly more strenuous approach to the protests.

This could lead to real violence and even casualties – something that nobody wants.

During demonstrations against the G8 in the Italian city of Genoa in 2001, a 23-year-old Italian protester was shot dead by an Italian policeman of about the same age. The death happened in a regrettable instant when frenzied protesters rushed panicky police in a stalled vehicle. One such moment of rage and fear could result in tragedy in Hong Kong.

Sustainable movement

Are the young idealists on Hong Kong’s streets, lionized as revolutionaries by the Western media and hailed as the new generation by their elders in the Occupy movement and the pro-democracy politicians, aware of the real risks they face?

The students took the lead in launching these protests. Many of them are skeptical of and even disillusioned by the ineffective leadership of the established democrats. But in their youthful enthusiasm, are they cognizant of the very real consequences of their actions and the growing possibility of a serious ending?

While the protest movement may have brought the Hong Kong community together, especially after the police tear gassed demonstrators, now the street action is laying bare the raw divisions in Hong Kong, pitting citizen against citizen.

This should be the time when the protesters begin to think about how to turn their action into a sustainable movement. The ingredients are there: the focus on inequality and a lopsided playing field that has led to a society where young people worry about affording housing, getting a good education and a decent job, and breathing clean air.

The argument goes that abandoning the fight against the China-approved electoral changes is useless because the dysfunctional political system and China’s controls will remain. To be sure, the proposed 2017 electoral procedures are unsatisfactory to anybody that believes that Hong Kong people are ready for more democracy.

The inconvenient truth of China’s sovereignty, however, cannot be ignored.

Immovable rock

Beijing has wanted the “one country, two systems” concept to work. But as construed for the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China 17 years ago in 1997, it may now have reached its limits and require revising. 

The Communist Party of China is a very sophisticated organization and the Chinese leadership is highly capable. The pro-Beijing political parties in Hong Kong are known to have better grassroots organizations than the pan-democrats.

There is a time to grow up and for Hong Kong’s protesters, that time has come

The Chinese leadership may be perplexed by this gap, which has persisted and grown despite preferences and favors that Beijing has extended to Hong Kong over the years. The even wider disconnect with Hong Kong’s young people bodes ill for the future.

Beijing could be magnanimous and relent, but that is not how they roll. China’s default option is to take a hard line when it comes to constitutional matters and challenges to its rule, as they are entitled to do as the sovereign power governing a sub-region.

It is impossible to determine with any certainty what the thinking is in Zhongnanhai. Quite possibly, the leaders do not know what to do – or have not yet decided what to do.

Indeed, all three sides in this drama – Beijing, the Hong Kong government and the protesters – seem to know what they do not want, but cannot figure out how to get what they actually want.

Time to grow up

By all means, Hong Kong people should rage against the unfairness and inequity in society, especially the glaring income gap and the dominance of vested interests.

Yet a minority, however noble their cause or admirably fervent their resolve, cannot take the whole community hostage, with a charming apology for the inconvenience absolving them of adult responsibility.

Chalk what is happening up to Beijing’s tough stance clashing with the enthusiasm and idealism of millennials, who love to be part of a leaderless social network and are dissatisfied by the hierarchies and rules favored by older people.

But there is a time to grow up and for Hong Kong’s protesters, that time has come.

About the Author

Alejandro Reyes is Visiting Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong.  

Photo credit: Alejandro Reyes. Lennon Wall in the barricaded Admiralty district

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