Beijing remains unlikely to cave to pro-democracy protesters' demands, but it is now losing hearts and minds.
HONG KONG — Future generations may well commemorate Sept. 28, 2014, in the history of Hong Kong as the day when the famously apolitical city turned unmistakably political. Tens of thousands of protesters, calling for "true democracy" — that is, no Beijing-led nomination process in the planned 2017 election for the city’s chief executive, its top government official — confronted the police in the heart of Hong Kong. The smell of tear gas hung in the air near Prada and Gucci shops in glitzy Central area. Police in full riot gear marched on thoroughfares normally congested with traffic in the Admiralty district, where the government is headquartered. By midnight, hundreds of protesters blocked the main roads in Causeway Bay and Mongkok, two bustling shopping areas favored by locals and tourists alike.
Even a day earlier, it had not seemed that Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong, a former British colony and now a special administrative region of China, would deteriorate this quickly. On Sept. 27, university students, joined by some high school students, had called for a school strike and stormed a small plaza in front of the Hong Kong government headquarters, which resulted in forcible removal by police and the arrest of dozens. But most protesters were unharmed and were released within hours.
Matters escalated with shocking speed when protesters began to block roads in the Admiralty district on the afternoon of Sept. 28. Riot police arrived en masse and deployed tear gas against the gathering crowd in the early evening. The police even held up signs warning the protesters that they would be fired upon if they did not disperse. Protesters held up umbrellas against pepper spray, and made gas masks using lab goggles and saran wrap.
The protesters were brought together by the student organizers and the Occupy Central campaign, a civil disobedience movement that had threatened to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district in order to pressure Beijing into giving Hong Kong open nomination rights in the 2017 chief executive election. Occupy Central was highly controversial, with many worried that such a movement would taint Hong Kong’s business-friendly reputation and negatively affect its freewheeling markets. Multiple surveys conducted prior to September 2014 all showed that more than half of Hong Kongers did not support Occupy Central, with a significant minority in favor. Two separate surveys released in August 2014 showed that more than half of Hong Kongers were willing to accept the flawed nomination process.
That narrative has now changed for good after Hong Kong police’s rash response on Sept. 28. The images of Hong Kong as a war zone — where police used tear gas, batons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against unarmed protesters — were deeply unsettling to residents here. Local online discussion boards are now full of discussions of police brutality. Many Hong Kongers on Facebook, a popular social network here, have changed their profile photos into a yellow ribbon in support of the protesters and talked about supporting students with funding and supplies.
The real action (or inaction), however, is taking place in Beijing, some 1,200 miles north. The current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, commonly known as C.Y., admitted in a press conference today that he and the Hong Kong government have no authority to request for the People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, to withdraw its decision on the electoral plans for Hong Kong as the protesters have demanded.
And Beijing has shown no sign of budging since handing down the decision on Aug. 31. On Sept. 28, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency called the protests "unlawful"; Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong "strongly condemned" the Occupy Central movement and claimed that the People’s Congress’ decision "cannot be challenged." The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council also issued a statement avowing that the electoral framework has an "unshakeable legal basis and effectiveness."
Given Beijing’s intransigent stance, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are unlikely to get what they want — but many probably also knew that when they organized boycotts or took to the streets. The real battle, still very much ongoing, is for Hong Kong’s people’s hearts and minds. After watching protesters facing down the riot police, C.Y. apparently doing Beijing’s bidding, and students being arrested, even moderate Hong Kongers are likely to become even more distrustful of the Hong Kong government’s willingness to look out for their interests. A sign making the rounds on social media — "I cannot keep calm because Hong Kong is dying" — shows an increasing unease and anger among the population. Governing the special administrative region is about to become even more difficult for Beijing.