Tea Leaf Nation
Resistance Is Futile
Beijing is emerging as the big winner from protests that have left Hong Kong's social fabric in tatters.
HONG KONG — A chill has gripped Hong Kong. The Occupy Central movement, which advocated for open nomination rights in the 2017 election for chief executive, the city’s head of government, is entering its third month, and what is likely to be its final phase. After more than 60 days of sleeping in the streets and battling police batons, protesters are almost out of moves, while the powers that be in Beijing have not yielded one inch to demands that they allow more open elections in the Chinese territory. Hong Kong will probably emerge from the movement battered — its government scorned, its police mistrusted, its social fabric torn. Even for Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive and the protesters’ staunchest foe, the end of occupation will likely be a Pyrrhic victory. The central government in Beijing, on the other hand, is likely to be pleased with the turn of events. It has successfully mobilized its allies in Hong Kong and discredited the movement on the mainland. Ah Yeh, or “Grandpa,” as the central government is known in Hong Kong, has shown that it is firmly in charge.
Although the occupation of two of Hong Kong’s key commercial areas has not ended, the protesters’ tactics increasingly smack of desperation. After more than 1,000 demonstrators heeded the call from the Federation of Students and Scholarism, two main organizers of the protests, to lay siege to the city government headquarters and chief executive’s office on the evening of Nov. 30, police clashed with protesters for hours, leaving many with bloodied foreheads. By the next day, student leaders Alex Chow and Joshua Wong admitted that the siege was a failure and apologized to supporters. Wong, the 18-year-old student leader, then began a hunger strike on Dec. 1 to try to win sympathy (and maybe end his participation in the movement with a soupçon of glory). These tactics are likely too little, too late to save the movement. “All forms of protests are futile,” said Leung on Dec. 2.
Signs of setback are everywhere. Hong Kong’s high court granted an injunction on Dec. 1, filed by a local bus company, to clear most of Admiralty, the busy business area that has been occupied for over 60 days. Police have already cleared an occupation site in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok on Nov. 24, after the court granted a similar injunction.
Internal schisms among the protesters and their supporters — students, legislators who advocate for democracy, the occupation movement’s brain trust, and fringe groups with their own agendas — are increasingly apparent. The co-founders of the occupation movement, two professors at local universities and a Christian minister, have surrendered to the police to take responsibility for the civil disobedience movement that had crippled parts of the city. (They were released without charge after a few hours.) The surrender was a controversial gesture, as many protesters believed it “sold out” the remaining protesters and would further delegitimize the movement with the general public.
Indeed, it seems the public has already turned on the protesters. Opinion polls taken in mid-November showed that about 70 percent of residents wanted the occupation to end. Legislator Ronny Tong of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy party, has warned that continued occupation may cause a “chain reaction,” and that a wider public backlash would cost the pro-democracy camp precious seats in the legislature in the upcoming 2015 and 2016 elections. The Occupy Central co-founders and most of the legislators have advised the students and other protesters to retreat.
Yet even though Hong Kong authorities seem to have prevailed, it’s likely to be a short-lived victory, won on the backs of thousands of overworked, stressed-out, and occasionally injured police officers. The seeds of discord have been sown between the Hong Kong government and a large swath of the population who now believe the chief executive is a stooge of the Chinese government, the police a politicized arm of the establishment. Flash mob-style protests involving hundreds of people mobilized via Facebook, online discussion forums, and smartphone apps have become almost a nightly occurrence in Mong Kok — sometimes aimed at shutting down businesses. This type of pop-up protests may continue as hardened activists seek a way to continue to spread their message after the movement ends, but they may also may further erode support for their cause among the general public. Analysts are rightly concerned that Hong Kong, once known as the pliant seat of Asian capital, will be harder to govern in the future.
Worse yet, the movement has torn at the social fabric of Hong Kong, pitting parents against children, old against young, friends against friends. There are genuine disagreements among Hong Kongers over whether the blockage of roads, disruption of businesses, and provocation of the police are laudable, even if these acts were done in the name of pursuing democracy. The phenomenon of people taking to social media platforms like Facebook or WhatsApp to “un-friend” their acquaintances, sometimes even close family members, who do not share their views is one troubling bellwether of social dispersion.
Everyone in Hong Kong will probably emerge from the Occupy movement a bit bruised, either physically or mentally, but some in Beijing might be smiling. China’s central government has stood fast on the core issue — that Beijing will vet the slate of nominees for Hong Kong’s chief executive in the 2017 election. Years (if not decades) of “united front” work, a term used by China’s ruling Communist Party to describe efforts to hew non-party elites close to its goals, seem to have paid off. Beijing has proven that it knows how to pull the right levers in Hong Kong to wield considerable influence — all of the local government officials toed the line, tycoons spoke out against the occupation, and grassroots groups staged counterprotests. When one businessman took the position that Leung should resign, he was swiftly removed as a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as a form of discipline and censure. The ranks of the pro-establishment camp will likely tighten, while the opposition pro-democracy camp is left in disarray amid infighting.
More importantly, Beijing has managed to discredit this brand of student-led protests in the eyes of many mainlanders. In the initial days, Chinese censors tried to erase news of the movement from Chinese social media, going as far as shutting down Instagram, probably fearing copycat movements in the mainland. But as the movement disintegrated and sometimes turned violent, Chinese web portals began to carry news of the Hong Kong protests on a daily basis, often putting emphasis on the mayhem and portraying protesters as hooligans. On Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, most comments on the news about Hong Kong’s occupation movement are negative. “After seeing the riots in Hong Kong, I feel like I don’t want democracy,” wrote Wang Hai, a businessman in the eastern city of Dalian. “If mainland China had this type of democracy things would be much worse.”
To be sure, the Chinese government still wants Hong Kong to serve its role as a stable financial capital and a gateway for foreign investment into China, as demonstrated by the Nov. 17 launch of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect, a long-anticipated program that allows investors in Hong Kong to trade shares on the Shanghai Stock Market, and vice versa. However, the trend of China’s economy growing less reliant on Hong Kong will likely continue, which could mean that Beijing will feel less beholden to calls for wider democratic participation in Hong Kong.
The Occupy Central movement is likely to be remembered as a watershed moment in Hong Kong’s history, when the territory’s politics became toxic, its businesses jittery, its people on edge. On a day-to-day basis, governance of the former British colony will become more challenging as some among the population, particularly the discontented and indignant younger generation, seek ways to undermine the authorities. But from Beijing’s point of view, Occupy Central may turn out to be a positive development, allowing the central government to pull strings among its allies and flex muscles against its foes. Grandpa, it seems, has gotten things under control.