Tea Leaf Nation

Did Beijing Get What It Wanted?

Police are clearing Hong Kong’s last remaining protest site, but experts say larger problems await mainland authorities.


The countdown to the end of the Hong Kong protests, which have crippled key parts of the Asian financial center for 74 days, has begun. City police announced that starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11, they would clear the Umbrella Movement’s final major protest site, in the business district of Admiralty. Though the number of protesters had dwindled in recent weeks, thousands are now thronging to Admiralty to catch one final glimpse of the protests, and the tents, improvised study desks, and protest art which have marked Hong Kong’s landscape for more than two months. Students and pro-democracy activists have demanded open nominations and electoral reform after what they see as Beijing’s attempts to limit democratic reform in the semi-autonomous city. And though some protesters have already begun packing up the protest site, others have declared that they will resist nonviolently “until the last moment.”

With the end of the protest — though perhaps not the movement — in sight, Foreign Policy solicited opinions and predictions from several experts on Chinese history and politics. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; William Hurst is associate professor of political science at Northwestern; Jeremy Wallace is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and author of Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China.

FP: Assuming Thursday’s planned clearance of the last major protest site succeeds, does it mark the end of the student-led movement for universal suffrage? The end of the beginning?

Jeremy Wallace: The 2014 protest movement demonstrated that tens of thousands of Hong Kongers were willing to stand up for free elections and universal suffrage. The protestors brought global attention to the complex details of what had been an arcane term: “One Country, Two Systems.” While the streets might be cleared shortly, I believe that the protests and their memory will shape the political future of Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: If the clearance succeeds, it will put an end to a fascinating and dramatic stage of protest activity, which was filled with surprising twists and turns and some inspiring acts of dedication and creativity. I emphasize how surprising things have been because it is so easy after the fact to forget how unexpected developments were, and to assume that things were somehow destined to play out in a particular way. If asked in the middle of September how long they thought the protests would last, I think many commentators would have said that a student strike of at most a couple of weeks was likely.

William Hurst: I suspect there will be a few outbreaks of violence, but that it will generally be peaceful and the authorities will have the road opened by the end of the day Thursday. It is likely that sporadic incidents will occur over the weekend and possibly next week, but this phase is probably drawing to a close. We won’t know for some time whether the movement is over, but I suspect that perceptions and preferences actually have shifted for at least enough people in Hong Kong such that new waves of contention are likely to spring up later if the government does not more in a more liberal direction in constituting the nominating committee or when elections take place in 2017.

FP: Did Beijing get what it wanted?

Hurst: No. The central government leadership is facing its own extremely trying times politically right now and especially in 2017, when the 19th Party Congress is due to be convened. I think top leaders saw holding the line on electoral reform in Hong Kong as necessary to maintaining at least baseline stability over the next several years and ensuring that whatever happens in Hong Kong does not undermine already shaky political compromises and arrangements in the Mainland. While it has achieved its most basic objectives, I think the protests took Beijing by surprise and have tainted this minimal success and likely caused larger problems for Beijing in the years ahead.

Wallace: While Beijing in the end did not concede significant ground on the nominating committee procedures or other issues related to the 2017 elections, it is hard to see this episode as a victory. Beijing did not want protests. It must have been surprised by the Hong Kong people’s fury at statements regarding procedural details about an election that remains years away. Yet it held firm, and on this occasion ended up without having to move away from its preferred policies.

FP: In the aftermath of the protests, Hong Kong society has become more polarized, and trust between authorities and citizens has weakened. Amid these conditions, will the prospect of future unrest negatively impact Hong Kong’s prosperity?

Wallace: Hong Kong is a vibrant city with a large population crammed into a very small space. Such cities can be prone to protests, but the intellectual and entrepreneurial energy of Hong Kong emerges from that same concentration of people. Rather than unrest being a danger for Hong Kong’s future prosperity, I think that forecasts of a future where Hong Kong is just another Chinese city of several million people bode very poorly for its economic vitality. Hong Kong is not prosperous because of its factories or oil but because of its institutions — especially its independent judiciary — and popular support for those institutions. The more that those institutions fail the people of Hong Kong — either due to policies from Beijing or domination by tycoons and other elites inside of Hong Kong — the more support for those institutions will erode and with it the foundation of Hong Kong’s prosperity.

Hurst: I do not think there will be any serious impact on Hong Kong’s economy, provided that very significant and sustained violence can be averted. No one wants that to happen and I think the likelihood is extremely low.

FP: As Hong Kong moves closer to the 2017 Chief Executive elections, how will (or should) pro-democracy law-makers and activists respond if Beijing continues to allow no revisions to the current candidate nomination process?

Hurst: The door has not been closed completely. I am still hopeful that the government may offer concessions in terms of the composition of the nominating committee (for example, by inviting individuals suggested or respected by pro-democracy politicians, scholars, or groups) or in terms of the number of candidates nominated (it is possible there could be three or four candidates nominated with at least one being more liberal or otherwise acceptable to the constituencies backing the protesters now).

Wallace: I would expect savvy and sophisticated messaging by pro-democracy law-makers and activists, likely including calling for members of the nominating committee to approve all potential candidates, for transparency in the selection and actions of the nominating committee, and for potential nominees to be willing to take on all challengers. Again, demonstrations blocking streets and halting traffic could crop up at particular moments in the process if the nomination or broader election processes fail to be changed.

FP: Would a different protest strategy have changed the outcome of the protests, or in facing down Beijing were these mostly leaderless student protests bound to fail?

Wallace: These protests — which included members across demographic and socio-economic groups in Hong Kong although were mostly closely identified with the student population — signaled to the people and government of Hong Kong, to the Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing, and to the world that many in Hong Kong were willing to upend their lives for the chance to affect political change. However, Beijing had altered policy in Hong Kong previously due to protests — in 2003 on the Article 23 bill [a proposed, but withdrawn anti-subversion bill] and in 2012 on patriotic education — and appeared unwilling to allow protests to push them off their goal in this case. I have a hard time believing that a change of protest tactics would have allowed the activists to somehow win the day. In particular, I think that taking a more confrontational or violent path would have destroyed the solidarity of the movement, undermined global support, and provided Beijing with a propaganda victory.

Hurst: I don’t believe the protesters have made any grave strategic errors, nor do I think the protests have failed. To the contrary, the protests have been a remarkable success and the leaders and organizers of the movement have managed to maintain impressive coordination and generally prevent violence and disorder in a difficult and fluid situation. Local authorities have generally also shown an impressive degree of restraint and patience in their responses so far to the protests. I think the protests have helped induce a significant shift in perceptions and preferences for at least a substantial minority of Hong Kong citizens such that much more significant popular pressure in support of further political liberalization is likely in future, compared to what had been the norm in the past.

Wasserstrom: I can’t imagine any specific strategy that would have gotten Beijing to give in on this issue. At least initially, the protesters did many things that were both creative and effective — not in terms of getting the Communist Party to change its policies, but in terms of garnering broader popular support in Hong Kong itself. Later choices were less successful when it came to that second thing. It’s hard to say, though, what exactly would have been more effective.

FP: Though Beijing has ruled out open nomination of candidates for chief executive, are there other electoral reforms it might consider to address Hong Kong’s unrest?

Hurst: I think they may likely consider allowing for a more open or inclusive membership of the nominating committee than has so far been assumed by critics in Hong Kong or abroad. I also think they can allow for the nomination of more than just two candidates, with at least one nominee more appealing to the constituencies that have supported the protests.

Wallace: The space between the status quo and the demands of the protestors leaves substantial room for negotiation between the two sides. For instance, rather than a potential candidate needing to receive support from more than half of the nominating committee, a different figure could be used such as one-third or two-fifths.

FP: What lessons are leaders in Beijing likely to take from these protests?

Hurst: I am not sure. But I think they are likely to pay more careful attention to Hong Kong popular opinion and intellectual and philosophical debates about politics. China’s leaders are not foolish, but finding a constructive way of dealing with these protests is extremely difficult from their perspective. The next few years will reveal how much they have learned and to what degree they are prepared to innovate and adapt in their approach to governance of Hong Kong.

FP: Scholarism founder Joshua Wong has said that the protest movement marks a “political awakening” among Hong Kong’s previously apolitical youth. Is this likely to have lasting power, or has the moment passed?

Wasserstrom: One of my main referent points continues to be the history of Chinese mainland protests. I remember being in China in the mid-1980s and hearing people on campuses say that the current generation was apolitical, focused only on getting ahead or having fun. Then there was the 1986 protest wave, and when that ended, it seemed the moment had passed, but along came 1989. Then after 1989, it seemed that, no matter how much repression there had been, a generation had been transformed and awakened, but there was little activism after that. Here again, what history and the sociological study of protest alike underscore is the difficulty of prediction.

Hurst: Of course, this is extremely difficult to discern at present. But Hong Kong youth may well have been less “apolitical” than had been assumed previously. At least some have found their voices through this protest movement and many others have watched and listened. I do not think this will just fizzle out completely, like the US “occupy” movement did, for example. But whether and how it becomes a more sustained or meaningful political movement will depend on many factors and as-yet uncertain contingencies.

Wallace: Individuals that have spent days and nights, for weeks on end, standing amidst barricades filled with political slogans are likely to be changed by their experiences in profound ways that will endure. The movement’s short-term failure will sour some of these protestors against any such future actions, but others will self-identify as activists and seek out other opportunities to shape their society and government.The Hong Kong protest movement has crystallized a generation gap, with the student generation supporting the protests at substantially higher rates than their parents who tend to be more willing to accept the increasingly Beijing-dominated status quo. As that older generation fades and the younger generation rises, this acceptance will likely fade with it.

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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