‘A New Era for Hong Kong’

The city government's wait-and-switch may only galvanize protesters, experts say.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images



[This article has been updated to reflect additional responses.] It’s been one day since Carrie Lam, the second-ranking official in the Hong Kong government, told pro-democracy protesters that she would not follow through with plans for Friday afternoon talks. The government had planned to sit with student representatives to discuss their demands, but Lam complained that "public remarks made by the student representatives" in recent days had "seriously undermined" that effort. In the wake of the surprise cancellation, protest leaders called for a return to the streets, which had thronged with protesters after a series of Sept. 28 tear gassings of protesters by police. 

Read more from FP on Hong Kong

With the situation in the Chinese territory very much in flux — and the future of the protest movement uncertain — Foreign Policy solicited opinions and predictions from several experts on Hong Kong, Chinese history, and Chinese politics. George Chen is a Yale World Fellow who writes regularly about China and Hong Kong affairs; Jessica Chen Weiss is assistant professor of political science at Yale; Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; Allen Carlson is associate professor of government at Cornell; William Hurst is associate professor of political science at Northwestern; and Kang Yi is assistant professor of policy at Hong Kong Baptist University.

FP: Is it too early to discuss the end of the protest movement? 

George Chen: It is too early to declare the protest movement at an end. By all means, we are now seeing the protest movement becoming a very long-term political struggle in Hong Kong. I’m not talking about two months or three months. You may see fewer protesters blocking the roads by the end of the year, but the Occupy Central movement means a new era for Hong Kong — we will see more on-and-off protests, of a large or small scale, around the city, and for different causes. It is unfortunate to see Hong Kong becoming a less happy and more divided society. It’s even more unfortunate to see that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong perhaps haven’t really realized what Occupy Central means for Hong Kong. Simply labeling it an "unlawful" event won’t be helpful at all to end the crisis. Lack of mutual trust and understanding on both sides, for the government and protesters, confirms that the 2014 protest is going to be a protest movement for years — if not decades — to come for Hong Kong. The turning point was the firing of tear gas by the police. People won’t easily forget that moment and we can’t just go back to remove that slide from history.

Jessica Chen Weiss: The crowds may have thinned from their peak, but it’s far too early to discuss the end of the Umbrella movement. Going forward, smaller crowds may also reflect more nimble and diverse tactics to put pressure on the government while still retaining public support for the movement’s cause.

William Hurst: Yes, it is too soon to discuss the end of the movement, but I think we are in the end game. That is, we are seeing now the second or third round in which both sides have a decision to make between escalation, agreeing to talks, or maintaining the standoff (assuming the protesters do not simply give up and go home, which I don’t think all of them will). I do not think this can go many more rounds before we either see the two sides come to some sort of agreement on talks or the state resort to some sort of crackdown.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: I think it is indeed too early to talk about this being an "end," as even if there is not a revival of large street actions now, there are ways that what has happened already could prove inspiring in times to come. Was this a brand-new movement, as it was sometimes portrayed, when it began last month? In some ways, sure, but in other ways it was a continuation of a struggle to push back against efforts to preserve some key elements that make Hong Kong different from other mainland cities — a struggle that began in 2012, with the protests against patriotic education [an effort by mainland authorities that was later abandoned], or in the protest of 2003 against Article 23 [an anti-subversion law, later scrapped], or earlier still.

Allen Carlson: It was too early even before this recent news came out, now, even more so. This is a movement that has been growing and evolving in Hong Kong for years, not weeks or months, so, regardless of what happens on any given day, the forces underlying whatever unfolds within a particular news cycle will not suddenly disappear. Rather, at most, what we saw earlier in the week was the ending of one chapter in the story of its development. Given this, it is very hard to access what difference the past two weeks have made for Hong Kong and China, let alone how history will remember this period.

FP: What do you make of the government’s rationale for cancelling Friday’s scheduled talks?

Wasserstrom: I find it a curious and unconvincing rationale, given how little has changed, on the side of the students, since the plan to hold the talks was announced.  

Kang Yi: Seeing the decline of the number of the protesters over the past few days, the government appeared to be doubling down on its stalling strategy, betting on a gradual end to the movement, as the protesters became exhausted and fatigued, and as public support waned.

Weiss: The government’s decision to cancel the talks is a step backward. Even if the talks failed to make concrete progress, their existence helped demonstrate a good-faith effort at consultation and compromise. Although there was a wide gulf between the government’s stance and the students’ demands in preliminary discussions, the pre-emptive cancellation of Friday’s scheduled talks makes the government look recalcitrant and will fuel further tensions.

FP: Do you think this late cancellation was planned in advance? What strategy is at play behind this (if any)?

Kang: This was obviously an excuse, rather than the reason for the government’s pullout, as Lam announced the government’s unilateral cancellation of the scheduled meeting just 90 minutes after several pro-democracy groups and legislators called for a new wave of more coordinated uncooperative acts. But I would not say this cancellation was planned long before the scheduled meeting. I think C.Y. Leung’s recent financial scandal [in which he was accused of failing to disclose a rich contract with a former employer] has significantly changed the political dynamics in Hong Kong, and thus the officials’ calculations and strategies have been adjusted accordingly.

Chen: I don’t think the cancellation was planned at the very beginning. The government may feel it can persuade the students to give up their two "unlawful" positions: their demand that Beijing withdraw its decision on electoral reform [which requires Beijing to pre-vet candidates for Hong Kong’s head of government] and Occupy Central [which has blocked certain key roads]. Apparently, when the government and students began to plan their meeting, both sides felt the gap was too big.

The strategy behind the government’s calling off the meeting is clearly to put more pressure on the students. The government tried to paint the students as a bunch of uncooperative kids amid growing dissatisfaction among ordinary Hong Kongers [due to the disruption caused by protests].

Hurst: I do not think it was pre-planned. I think it is possible that there is turmoil within the Hong Kong government, between the corruption allegations now swirling around C.Y. Leung, possible splits among key actors over how to handle the protests, and perhaps mixed or unclear signals from Beijing on what concessions are feasible. In other words, there may be no strategy and the government could thus be playing for time to figure out what to do. But it is also possible that we should take what Chief Secretary Lam said in her remarks at face value, suggesting that we are at the same kind of tactical impasse we so often observe in such situations.

Carlson: If it was, at least in terms of developments over the previous few days, it was a brilliant move on the part of the Hong Kong government and Beijing. Earlier in the week, when talks were first announced, they had the effect of taking quite a bit of air out of the protest movement’s collective balloon. There are, though, two rather glaring problems with such a line of reasoning. First, it suggests a level of policy coordination and cooperation, not to mention strategic foresight, that strikes me as quite extraordinary. How is it possible that they [in the Hong Kong government] have now become such skilled operatives that they can game out such a complex, and unfolding, set of variables? I doubt they have; rather, what we are likely seeing is more the result of divisions and differences within the halls of power over how to handle the protests. Second, if it is, indeed, a strategic choice, I suspect that the short-term benefit of pulling the protests back from the brink earlier this week will be far outweighed by the long-term costs of an even greater erosion of trust on the part of the Hong Kong people toward those who govern them.

FP: Is this move by the government going to backfire by causing more protesters to re-amass? Or is this going to be a win for them? 

Kang: I expect this move to backfire rather than help government win the battle. I talked to a few people shortly after the government called off the scheduled meeting. While some of them supported the movement and others claimed to be neutral, they all perceived the government’s move in a negative way, criticizing it for "being hypocritical" and "throwing its weight around." The government’s flip-flop may incur a strong feeling of aversion among citizens. Also, Carrie Lam may have misjudged the situation by commenting that "the number of protesters has seen a decline." In an era where the Internet’s public sphere has flourished, online mobilization can be accomplished swiftly. People could come back to the street at any time. Let’s wait and see whether people will come out in greater numbers this evening, as the student leaders have called for a large rally in response to Carrie Lam’s comments.

Chen: It may backfire, as students leaders are now calling every supporter "to buy a tent" to join the long-term fight. Previously we saw people occupy the roads here and there. Imagine if the student leaders manage to get hundreds — if not thousands — to set up their tents across Hong Kong. This could be a very, very long battle for the Hong Kong government to eventually clear everybody out. On the other side, the students will also get more complaints from ordinary Hong Kong people who complain about the impact on their daily lives. The students may need to do a better PR job to convince people that they are fighting for the big picture, so Hong Kongers are willing to suffer for the short term.

Weiss: The government called off the dialogue ostensibly because the talks were being used as an "excuse for ‘Occupy Central’ organizers to incite more people to join" the protests. But student organizers have drawn the opposite conclusion, arguing that the government cancelled the talks because crowds had thinned over the past few days. Protests have already begun to swell in response to calls for renewed protests.

Hurst: It might well provoke the protests to pick up steam again. If that happens, we would be back to last weekend, with another chance to agree on talks but also another window for a potential crackdown. But the protests could also peter out –- it is hard to get that many people to keep turning out day after day and night after night. Should the protests fizzle without talks or concessions, it would be hard to see this as a pure "win" for the government, as none of the core issues would be addressed. The government would have won the day, but weakened its position in the decades-long struggle over the direction of political change in Hong Kong.

Wasserstrom: I think one thing the events of the last couple of weeks should have taught us is how hard it is to predict how protests will develop, due to all the variables in play, and to be skeptical of those who think they can say with certainty what will happen next. To cite just two of many possible examples, had tear gas not been used early on, the protests might not have grown as quickly as they did, and had beatings of protesters led to a death a few days ago, the demonstrations might have swelled to become still larger. A lot will depend on everything from the words the government uses from here to defend its actions to how new protests are dealt with, if they happen.  

FP: Looking farther forward, what difference have the past two weeks made for Hong Kong? For China? In other words, how will history remember this?

Chen: Hong Kong used to be more or less remembered as a business society, a financial center, the Wall Street of Asia. After Sept. 28, the day when the police fired tear gas and put Hong Kong in global media outlets, Hong Kong has become the latest and one of the most important protest centers in the region.

Kang: The young generation in Hong Kong now is more aware of their role and responsibility in society, understands more profoundly the dark side of society and politics, and has become more capable of standing on their own. They have, more or less, awakened the adults and kindled society’s political passion. For better or worse, the young people have made their mark in Hong Kong’s history. On the other hand, the movement has inevitably resulted in increasing tensions. The government’s failure in handling the protests wisely has intensified the destructive effect.

Hurst: It is, of course, far too soon to tell. But the past two weeks have definitely had an impact on the long-term trajectory of Hong Kong politics and, depending how this ends, that impact may be profound. If talks can eventually defuse the standoff and produce a meaningful agreement, it will be decisive evidence that Hong Kong — and, by extension, China — is on the path toward genuine political reform and liberalization. It will also give an important and much-needed boost to overall state strength and the quality of state-society relations in both Hong Kong and the mainland. If, on the other hand, this ends with a violent crackdown, that would highlight the systemic weakness of the Chinese state, a glaring disconnect between state and societal interests, and the increasing dependence of Hong Kong political authorities on Beijing.

Carlson: If indiscriminate force had been used against the protesters, or if it is used in the coming days, then the episode will end up standing out as a definitive turning point in China’s decision to go it alone on the world stage. That would be the act of a leadership that no longer cares about being a responsible member of the existing international order, and is so fearful of its own people that it is willing to bear the brunt of international condemnations and censure. It is my hope that the country has not yet come to this point, that there will continue to be a way out that will be acceptable to each of the interested parties involved in the protest movement, but I am not sure how much confidence we can continue to have in such an outcome.

FP: If you were advising the protesters, what would you urge their next move be? 

Wasserstrom: They have been doing a lot of the key things already, such as working hard to mobilize in orderly and calm ways that undermine the government line on the protests being chaotic acts. 

Carlson: For now, I would tell them to do nothing. If the rug is being as unceremoniously pulled out from beneath the talks, as now appears to be the case, it is the Hong Kong government and Beijing that will look to all as incredibly disingenuous, clumsy, and uncompromising. In other words, this has the potential to be a public relations disaster for the government. Anything the protesters do, in terms of taking to the streets, would only, for the time being, undermine the crystal clear nature of such a blundering move. This being said, once the dust settles the protesters will be in a stronger position to make their case to the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the world about the legitimacy of their concerns and misgivings about a government that they no longer trust.

Chen: The students should rethink their demands. Negotiation is not about yes or no. Negotiation is always about supply and demand — what you can offer and what you want to get. Is there any room for students and the government to sit down and to first agree that they want to improve the existing political system, and let’s work together to reframe or redefine what Beijing’s decision really means? I believe there should be room for negotiation to focus on how to reframe and redefine Beijing’s position. We can argue what “representative” means, based on the articles of the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s constitution]. If not a civic nomination, then what is the other alternative to get the widest possible nomination process that fits the current social reality?

Weiss: A more unified process for coordinating the movement’s actions and demands would improve its chances of success. Even those who support the movement’s objectives have expressed concern that the lack of an authoritative and representative leadership may make progress in negotiations with the government difficult.

FP: If you were advising the Hong Kong government, what would you urge their next move be?

Chen: I’d give them about the same advice I gave to student protesters.

Carlson: I would advise them to get their ducks in order and to give serious consideration to the potential negative repercussions of cancelling talks. In the short term, it could quickly lead to another wave of protests led by people who now have one more reason not to trust the government. In the longer term, it could be looked back upon as a crucial tipping point in the unraveling of the political status quo in Hong Kong. At the same time, though, I have to say that the Hong Kong government is very much between a rock and a hard place in dealing with the protests. On the one side, they have a local population that is clearly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and will only be satisfied with some sort of concessions from the Hong Kong government. On the other side, they have a leadership in Beijing leaning over their shoulder, and which has a vested interest in seeing the protest movement shut down as quickly and efficiently as possible without making such compromises. Satisfying both sides is then not impossible, but threading the needle between the two has a very high level of difficulty.

Weiss: The government’s perceived indifference to the feelings of the Hong Kong people is what sparked this standoff. More dialogue, rather than less, is the way to defuse tensions and strengthen the position of moderates who favor compromise over more radical voices in the movement.

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

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