Are Hong Kong’s Protesters Getting Bamboozled?

Experts tell FP that Hong Kong's government is trying to divide protesters and play for time.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images



The pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong have entered a crucial phase. The evening of Oct. 2, just minutes before a midnight deadline protesters had set for Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, the head of Hong Kong government, to resign, he held a press conference promising that his deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, would meet with protesters in the coming days. Protesters, led partly by a group calling itself Occupy Central, had vowed to occupy government buildings if the deadline passed without their demands being met.

Demonstrators, who are pushing for universal suffrage and who have rallied since police used tear gas and pepper spray against them on Sept. 28, appeared divided by the government’s offer. The following afternoon, men descended on pro-democracy protesters in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok, attacking protesters and attempting to tear down their tents. Some protesters have alleged these men were paid by Beijing to foment discord, and one protest group has stated it no longer wishes to meet with Lam, although the government’s offer still stands. With confusion reigning, and protesters’ collective resolve being tested, Foreign Policy asked Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University who studies protest in China, and Kang Yi, an assistant professor of policy at Hong Kong Baptist University, to explain what’s happening.

Foreign Policy: In the streets of Mong Kok, a busy shopping district, anti-Occupy protesters are now clashing with Occupy protesters, with police intervention limited. What’s leading to this? How do you think it will affect the dynamic of the protest in the coming days?

Jessica Chen Weiss: The attacks on demonstrators in Mong Kok are a destabilizing and counterproductive development. The nascent talks between the Occupy movement and the Hong Kong authorities are in jeopardy. If further anti-Occupy activities result in more violence, the fragile consensus among the opposition could unravel. It will be harder for moderate leaders to prevail, putting compromise further beyond reach. A more radicalized, uncompromising opposition is not in the interests of the Hong Kong authorities or Beijing.

At the same time, as the night of Sept. 28 showed, the use of force against peaceful demonstrators can backfire on the government, galvanizing more citizens to join the movement in solidarity and prompting international condemnation. Both sides should come together and compromise to defuse this standoff.

FP: Is offering protesters a meeting — with the government’s No. 2 — a smart tactical move? Is the Hong Kong government just hoping protesters will get tired and go home, or become divided, or that other Hong Kongers will get weary of the disruption and turn on them?

Kang Yi: This might be considered a smart tactical move by the government in this battle, thanks to the lesson it has learned after the police’s use of excessive force against peaceful protesters exacerbated rather than resolved the problem. In the long run, the government will have to bear the consequences of an increasingly divided and contentious society.

Every participant of the movement I’ve talked to realizes that the government is adopting a stalling tactic. They are all aware that the longer this protest drags on and the more disruption and inconvenience it is perceived to have caused to local businesses and citizens, the more likely other Hong Kongers will backlash against the students and this whole movement. So far, participants have been highly civilized and self-disciplined. I have seen many banners bearing slogans calling for a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain as well as banners bearing apology messages to those who have been negatively affected by this movement.

Weiss: Holding the press conference and offering dialogue was a necessary step to defusing the situation as the protesters’ deadline neared. If the Hong Kong government had not made such a move, the situation could have escalated once more into protester-police conflict. I don’t think Beijing wants to see any more images of the kind we saw on Sunday night.

FP: It seems that, out of the various protester demands (face-to-face meetings, Leung’s resignation, or political reform leading to true universal suffrage) Leung and his government have chosen the lowest-hanging fruit. And he’s sending his deputy, Lam, to the meetings. Do you think protesters are satisfied? Should they be?

Kang: I think most protesters are certainly unsatisfied, but they are not too disappointed because they didn’t have high expectations. It seems to me that the demands were intentionally made unattainable (e.g., Leung immediately steps down) so that the government could no longer stall and had to give a response. And obviously the government’s response wouldn’t be satisfactory, which would justify escalation actions on the protesters’ side that could save the movement from fading.

In my opinion, the fact that Leung has sent his deputy to the meetings shows that he will be marginalized in the later meetings. This may actually provide a way out of the deadlock.

Weiss: Yes, the Hong Kong government is trying to buy time and prevent the rapid deterioration of the situation in the streets. But a face-to-face meeting is a necessary and important first step toward a mutually acceptable resolution to the current standoff. Some protesters are dissatisfied, particularly because their demand that Leung resign was flatly refused. But I expect to see the rest of their demands strenuously raised in the coming meeting.

FP: Many protesters were aggrieved that the meeting with Lam is likely to be private. Why do you think the government made that choice? Should protesters be wary?

Kang: I believe the government has little to bring to the discussion by way of solid justifications for how its policy stance is in the best interests of Hong Kong. Deep down, Lam knows that what the government is offering to Hong Kong citizens is unfair. And this will be subjected to repeated questioning by the representatives of the protesters — which, in an open forum, may compromise government credibility even further.

By keeping the meeting private, the government may have space for manipulation. Tensions and divisions among the protesters will easily emerge when transparency is lacking in the bargaining and decision-making process. If the outcomes are not to the protesters’ satisfaction, rather than blaming the government, the protesters may instead point their finger at the meeting participants for arriving at these concessions without consultation.

Weiss: The desire for privacy is understandable but cuts both ways. In private, officials can express sentiments that they would not be able to make public. But private talks also make it easier for different parties and voices to draw very different conclusions about what was discussed, which can create misunderstanding and distrust, especially when more hard-line voices are not participants.

FP: We often talk about a "face-saving" solution or compromise. Can you unpack what that means for people who aren’t familiar with China? 

Weiss: The movement’s leaders would be well-served to identify a set of steps that do not require Beijing to go back on its commitment to an "unwavering" stance on the Aug. 31 decision [to require Chief Executive candidates be pre-vetted by Beijing] by the National People’s Congress [China’s legislature]. That means that for now, the process of selecting which candidates will appear on the 2017 ballot will remain in the hands of a 1,200-person nominating committee. But some portion of that committee could be democratically elected or more broadly representative.

FP: Does this offer feel to you like it came out of Leung’s playbook? Beijing’s?

Kang: I don’t think Leung has much autonomy at this point in time.

Weiss: No, this feels new. The authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing are not used to dealing with deadlines set by anyone but themselves. The authorities in Hong Kong and the protesters occupying the streets of Hong Kong are playing a game of chicken. This time, the authorities blinked, but just a little bit.

FP: Now that we know what the Hong Kong government is offering, and protesters’ preliminary reaction, what’s your prediction on how this will end?

Kang: The movement is fighting an uphill battle that is virtually unwinnable. A more feasible solution may be to get Beijing’s concession on composing the election commission that nominates a candidate.

Weiss: Whether this represents the first or the last step toward a negotiated solution will depend on whether both the Hong Kong government and democratic opposition, including students, are willing to negotiate rather than stick to their maximal demands.

FP: How does the existence of social media change the protest equation here and moving forward?

Weiss: The protesters in Hong Kong have done an incredible job of utilizing social media to mobilize support both within Hong Kong and for Hong Kong. But I also wonder whether social media makes it harder or easier to coordinate the movement’s actions. And it doesn’t require as much physical control of loudspeakers and megaphones.

FP: Some in China are saying the persistence of these protests shows that China is honoring its "one country, two systems" arrangement. The unspoken corollary is that protests like this would never be tolerated in Beijing or Shanghai. Can you explain what might happen, in 2014, were such a group to amass in a mainland city?

Weiss: Such protests are unlikely to materialize in the first place because activists would be detained upon arrival, and calls for such protests would never be allowed to circulate for very long. If a sizeable crowd with overtly democratic objectives were to somehow slip through the web of censorship and surveillance, I don’t doubt that authorities in Beijing or Shanghai would quickly cordon off and shut down the protests, even if it meant mass arrests. The only types of large-scale protests that occur with any regularity in major Chinese cities are nationalist protests, which I’ve written about, and NIMBY-style environmental protests. Those protests do not directly target the political system, and thus are dealt with less harshly, even sometimes producing government concessions or policy changes.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.