Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong’s House, Divided

Hong Kong’s House, Divided

HONG KONG — Violent clashes broke out on Nov. 25 in Mong Kok, a busy shopping district in Hong Kong and one of three pro-democracy protest sites here, as police took action to contain protesters on a major thoroughfare pursuant to a court order. Hong Kong police said they made 86 arrests, including one of a local journalist. According to Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, an outlet generally seen as sympathetic to protesters, police also beat some unarmed demonstrators with batons. The violence is arguably another setback for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, who have camped out in several major areas of the Chinese territory for almost two months as they continue to demand that Beijing give Hong Kong a freer hand in selecting the city’s leaders. It’s also further dividing a movement that’s begun to show signs of internal strife. 

The day began more peacefully. A small section of the Mong Kok protest site was cleared the morning of Nov. 25 as dozens of bailiffs removed tents and roadblocks while accompanied by a heavy police presence. Protesters remained largely calm and showed little resistance at the beginning. But tension intensified in the afternoon as police forced people onto narrow streets and dispersed them using pepper spray cannons, an riot control tool not previously seen during these protests that can reach targets up to 30 feet away.

As evening fell, what looked like hundreds more protesters flooded into the protest site. As police sought to disperse them, standoffs were visible at multiple intersections and side streets. Student organizations, including the influential Scholarism, urged users on social media to join the front line and donate protective gear, including goggles and helmets.

The immediate outcome of the clashes resembles an incident on Oct. 17, when protesters in Mong Kok retreated after a night of violent clashes with police, then simply retook the streets the day after they were cleared. The Mong Kok site is well known for housing demonstrators willing to risk arrests and brave violence. Many said police could never take Mong Kok because protesters, determined to demand a response from the government, would keep coming back. "If we back down now, there will definitely be heavy political repercussions for democracy activists for a long time to come," said Anthony, a 20-year-old university student who declined to give his last name because of fear of reprisal for his involvement in the protests. 

The protesters are not insistent on retaking Nathan Road, the busy thoroughfare from which they were just cleared. Many said they could always occupy new streets. "If police also clear Nathan Road tomorrow, I’ll see where people are occupying next and join them," said Maddie, a 60-year-old mother of three. She said she has been coming to Mong Kok almost every day since late September. "But no matter what, I’m not going to back down. I’m fighting for the future of my granddaughter and the next generation."

It’s unclear whether the protesters will persist with their current tactics. Tensions among those holding different views of the movement’s approach have recently intensified. Internal conflicts in the pro-democracy camp are not new, but those advocating for escalation, such as the storming of Hong Kong’s legislature building by protesters on Nov. 18, are growing impatient with what they consider passive and ineffective tactics by organizers based in the financial district of Admiralty, who focus on public outreach and run the Admiralty protest site so that at times it feels like a festive village. Major disputes broke out last week as netizens and demonstrators in Mong Kok attempted to remove Admiralty-based organizers from power, who they believed are an obstacle to their plans to escalate. Jeffrey Lam, a pro-business legislator here, stated on Nov. 19 that protesters had "lost control."

It’s true that more people who support the cause are likely to be turned off by the scuffles. As the protests drag on and the Hong Kong and Beijing governments show no sign of concession, public opinion has begun to turn against the pro-democracy movement. A public opinion poll conducted Nov. 17 and 18 by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme found that 82.9 percent of 513 respondents wanted the protests to end.

In response to dwindling public support, protest leaders are looking for a new direction for the movement, but are divided about what direction to go. According to an open letter from organizer Benny Tai, organizers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, one group behind the protests, are planning on turning themselves in to police, perhaps on Dec. 5. Meanwhile, student leaders and pro-democracy politicians said they will stay on the streets until they are arrested. Yet in-person conversations and social media both make clear that some protesters in Mong Kok wish to escalate, believing the current movement is no longer putting pressure on authorities.

Hong Kong’s protest movement, it seems, is starting to divide, as different groups pursue their own strategies. Ironically, that is exactly the spirit of democracy that the protesters are pursuing.