Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong Protesters’ Quiet Victory

The now-cleared youth protesters showed the city what democracy looks like.

A woman takes photographs of people next to hanging paper umbrellas at the pro-democracy protest site in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on December 12, 2014. Rush-hour traffic streamed through the heart of Hong Kong for the first time in more than two months on December 12 after police cleared the city's main pro-democracy protest camp in the Admiralty district with mass arrests -- but activists vowed that their struggle would go on. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE (Photo credit should read Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — On its face, it appeared to be a rout. Hours before thousands of police officers marched onto the major thoroughfare of Harcourt Road on Dec. 11, surrounding several hundred democracy protesters amid their torn posters and sagging tents, the sleep-starved occupants of this highway encampment weighed the paths of resistance. Should they retreat, or face arrest? Or try to fight back?

The city’s youthful protesters ultimately took the path of every losing candidate rejected by voters: they conceded and bowed out. Having defused rebellion in their ranks — and showing restraint at the last moment — the movement has now positioned itself to perhaps rebuild and grow. By coming to a consensus and leaving peacefully, the children of this Chinese territory took a small step toward showing their government how real democracy works.

Those were hard lessons learned under duress. For more than two months, the remaining campers had ruminated over their dwindling choices to keep the protest alive. Save for a fine performance on live television, when student leaders confidently presented their demands for election reform to government leaders, the protesters had been routinely ignored by Hong Kong’s government, which refused to reconsider a Beijing-approved elections plan limiting candidates to a few who pledge fealty to China. The students had been bruised by a fickle populace that had bolstered protest ranks early, after police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas on Sept. 28. But some of those same supporters turned their backs when roadblocks created traffic jams and disrupted some businesses.

They faced a growing chorus of critics alternately accusing the student leaders of being too slow, too cautious, too impatient, too peaceful, too radical, and mostly, too indecisive. Student leaders debated night after night over the best way to justify their continued occupation, appearing to get nowhere. They feared looking autocratic and alienating the protest’s many blocs. “We are still trying to determine if we should use more aggressive action; or whether we should maintain the status quo; or whether we should turn the political power made by this Umbrella Movement over to someone else,” student leader Lester Shum told Foreign Policy on Nov. 22. Still, he insisted, “we cannot leave …before the government has made any concessions.” Internal rivalries grew, as a growing number of factions demanded more say in the movement’s direction. The loudest criticisms came from so-called radicals, who had organized protests through the Internet and tried several times to occupy Lung Wo Road, a major east-west corridor, each time repelled by police. After a few masked people shoved metal barriers into a glass door at the legislative chambers on Nov. 19, attempting to break in, protest leaders realized they needed a strategy that would prevent the movement from devolving into chaos. “If we retreat, the peaceful, non-violent voice” that has characterized protests “may disappear,” Nathan Law, a voting member in the Federation of Students, one protest leadership group, told FP on Dec. 7.

After city officials promised to send police in on Dec. 12 to clear remaining protest strongholds, friction within the movement seemed to surge. Once low-profile protesters began agitating for action to show the government they would not back down. As late as the night of Dec. 9, after the government promised to clear protesters, several provocateurs were goading the crowd to hold off the police. “We are not afraid of violence! This is a street of revolution!” Ed Lau, 28, told hundreds at a protest site in the business district of Admiralty. Stepping from the stage, he said the goal was to make a last stand. “If we can hold the police back for one day,” he said, “if they have to head back, then we’ll consider that a victory.”

Student leaders found themselves in a tricky spot: order protesters to stay peaceful, and they’d risk inciting rebellion, or an exodus. Do nothing, and television crews might capture the once gentle Umbrella youth spiraling into anarchists. Student leaders worked through the night of Dec. 10 to convince Lau and others that the movement could die if it were tarnished by violence. It worked; early on Dec. 11, a sleepy-eyed Lau said he would leave the protest camp before the police deadline of 11 a.m., stowing the homemade shields that he and friends had made. At that moment, he said, “You have to put down your emotional baggage” to safeguard “the continuation of the movement.”

Still, there was a final choice to make – how exactly should protesters mark the end of their struggle and relinquish their hold on a major transport hub? That was left to each individual – to vote, as it were. Holdouts faced the prospect of arrest. If protesters didn’t leave that morning, the government had also said it would record their ID numbers for future prosecutions.

Some protesters joined dozens of old-guard activists and politicians – people who have been criticized for doing little to advance democracy since the British quit Hong Kong in 1997 – in sitting on a highway strip that morning to be carted off by police. Nine student leaders joined that act of civil disobedience, a choice that mystified many protesters. “I don’t want to be arrested just sitting,” said Matthew Mok, 25. “I want to be fighting for something.”

Mok, like more than 900 others, chose to vote with their feet by simply walking away. They passed single-file through police cordons, and out onto city sidewalks where many hugged, applauded, and chanted. On Harcourt Road, they could hear the growling of huge cranes scooping up tents and supply boxes and desks from the study center, dropping the debris into rumbling dump trucks.

Maximo Lee was one who retreated to a nearby park on the waterfront. Sitting on a broken camping chair in the chilly evening, the 28-year-old environmental consultant – as well as watchdog, barricade builder, and assistant medic during his many weeks on Harcourt Road – shared a cigarette with another protester. Lee looked around, his mouth tight. The protesters, he said, had accomplished nothing. Glancing at the medic team, surrounded by bags of saline and safety masks, he checked himself. No, he said, “We gained a lot.”

In a city of more than 7 million, few protesters knew many of the others before Sept. 28. Still, they managed to quickly work together, knitting barricades, and facing down police. They formed teams to carry off the injured and bandage their wounds. They recycled trash, distributed food, untangled fights, and taught classes about self-governance. It was, Lee said, a model for all Hong Kong. “Making a good community is a good basis for democracy,” Lee said. “Down there,” he said, his chin jutting toward the highway, “we had democracy.” The Umbrella youth now have to convince the rest of Hong Kong that it needs that community too.

Photo via AFP/Getty Images

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