Analysis: Protesters stand their ground, but potential miscalculations abound on all sides

Originally published on Al Jazeera America – Oct. 2, 2015

Went totally nocturnal for over a week to write this and other Hong Kong protest coverage in New York, on the phone with old sources from Hong Kong and the mainland.

The political standoff on Hong Kong streets moved toward a dramatic escalation Thursday, as the territory’s Beijing-chosen leader, Leung Chun-ying, pledged to have the chief secretary of his administration meet with protesters but refused to step down in response to protester demands.

Leung, who announced that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would meet with protest organizers from the Hong Kong Students Federation, said he hoped protests would remain peaceful. Protest leaders signaled that Leung, during a press conference, did not rule out the use rubber bullets to counter demonstrators – a point they reaffirmed with an image of the official circulated on social media.

Protest leaders had said they would occupy government offices if Leung did not resign. They held their ground on Thursday, surrounding the government complex. And some protestors poured onto Lung Wo road – a major artery – creating a flurry of noise. The police were seen moving teargas and rubber bullets to the site of the protests earlier in the day.

Well into the night, it remained unclear whether demonstrators still planned to storm the building at sunrise.

Effectively shutting down the services that grease the wheels of the local economy and facilitate everyday life for residents, entering government buildings would anger would-be supporters, legal analysts say.

“Occupying government buildings would seriously change the dynamics of the current situation,” said Simon Young Ngai-man, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) who has been blogging about the demonstrations and their legal implications.

Government office encampments “run the risk of shifting public opinion, which up to now probably measures on balance in favor of the protesters,” Young said. “But once public services are affected — beyond transportation inconvenience — then the public’s anger will rise and give more reason for the police to return to its more aggressive and confrontational approach.”

Director of HKU’s Public Opinion Program and political science professor Robert Chung Ting-yiu agreed, saying that as it stands, “the apparently peaceful protest is enjoying landslide support from the general public and the international community.”

The sympathies of the wider public could shift against the protesters, however, if they were perceived as “no longer control[ling] themselves and the protest becomes a riot,” Chung said. “Any violence or escalated action may have strong repercussions from the general public.”

What many residents saw as an excessive use of force against protesters last Saturday precipitated a public outcry in support of the protesters. That strong public reaction may have restrained authorities from further use of force, and riot police were withdrawn from the streets on Monday. But should the public perceive the demonstrators as provoking an escalation, the dynamic may change and potentially isolate the most determined faction of the protesters.

“The worst-case scenario is that the police step up their enforcement action, driving many protesters to leave, while a core group remains until they are dragged away after highly emotive scenes of violence and confrontation,” Young said.

Occupy leaders did not respond to questions regarding the potential ramifications of their strategy.

It remains unclear whether protesters will make good on their promises to enter the headquarters; this is not the first time they have pledged such action. In 2012, protest leader Wong, also the founder of student movement Scholarism, pledged in a firebrand speech to “Occupy every inch of the Hong Kong government headquarters” amid proposed curricula to teach the territory’s students Chinese patriotism. Protesters never passed the park below the building complex.

Still, caught up in the euphoria of massive public support — with tens of thousands taking to the streets — Young said there was room for a tactical faux pas.

“I don’t at all believe that those who are calling for an escalation in protests fully realize the likely consequences of their actions,” Young said. “Once public opinion shifts and people start to feel the pain of the movement, the government will have little choice but to take uncompromising measures to restore order.”

In a sign that a breach of government grounds would mark a turning point in the ongoing movement, police deployed pepper spray and gas canisters on Sunday only after demonstrators reportedly attempted to penetrate government buildings.

Of Beijing and Big Biz

In a territory largely dominated by its financial services industry and stock market, powerful business interests — both legislators and in the private sector — have expressed support for Beijing’s hardline stance on Hong Kong electoral reform. Key players in those sectors are deeply invested in the stability of the status quo.

“Beijing has sought to co-opt Hong Kong’s business community as early as in the early 1980s. From the business elite’s point of view, they are also not a big fan of democracy because democracy may give rise to higher tax and stronger labor unions,” said government professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Stan Wong Hok-wui.

One of the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s leading pro-business parties, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), has taken a particularly vocal stance in favor of Beijing.

“We need to mutually embrace each other. It’s good for the economy,” DAB Chairman Tam Yiu-chung told Al Jazeera this week, referring to Hong Kong civil society’s relationship with Beijing.  Occupy “will affect Hong Kong’s economy.”

Whether the business interests ideologically support Beijing is a different question. Some simply don’t want unrest to hurt the local economy.

Chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, Y.K. Pang, told protesters in an open letter that he “understands that Hong Kong citizens have the determination to fight for universal suffrage.” But he urged protesters not to “block roads to bring traffic to a standstill, which affects the livelihoods of people in the nearby areas and disrupts business.”

What is usually among the busiest shopping weeks — surrounding China’s National Day, when Mainland Chinese tourists pour into the territory during their weeklong breaks and bring a huge injection of cash into Hong Kong’s key services and retail sector — was clouded by events on the ground, with protesters reportedly hurling insults at mainland tourists as they roamed the streets of what remains a Special Autonomous Region of China.

“People can think what they want [about the mainland], but people know we need tourism here,” DAB’s Tam said, explaining that people who insult Chinese tourists suffer from a “low level of culture.”

But lawmakers who support the movement observe that Hong Kong has a great deal more to lose if Beijing cracks down on protesters or protester demands aren’t met and tensions augment.

“I can understand those doing business in Hong Kong complaining,” said Martin Lee, former Hong Kong Democratic Party legislator and a key figure supporting the protests, but “this is a small loss compared with what would happen. If Hong Kong were cracked down on this would affect the entire economy. A lot, instead of a little bit.”

Hong Kong’s economic growth has been largely overshadowed by the mainland’s in a little over a decade. China, of course, also needs Hong Kong — which foreign enterprises often target as a base because of laws and practices favorable to foreign enterprise. Mosts of Hong Kong’s richest people do business in the mainland, and Chinese companies making initial public offers on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange have almost invariably fared better than on mainland counterparts.

Officially mistaken?

Hong Kong’s Occupy protesters have shut down roads and businesses. Countless students have missed classes.

Media studies professor Fu King-wa said earlier this week that of 38 students in one of his classes, only 12 showed up for his lecture Monday.

“I had emails before class saying apologies, because they can’t join the class today. They will join the protests,” Fu said.

“I was surprised. Yesterday, you saw the police use tear gas,” Fu said. “They are remaining on the streets.”

Leung and Hong Kong’s presently unpopular administration have thus far refused to meet with protesters, some analysts say, because Leung is assuming that people will at some point need to return to school and work.

But Occupy leaders say demonstration fatigue or returning to the status quo is not as inevitable as leaders may think.

“The government should make a substantial response,” Occupy leader Chan Kin-man said. “The problem will not go away until the problem is solved.”

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