Neither Cracking Down Nor Backing Down

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing appear to be eschewing another attempt to forcibly disperse the island’s massive student-driven protests, which grew in numbers today as China held its national day celebrations, but they won’t negotiate with the demonstrators either. Peter Ford reports that the government is banking on the movement wearing out its welcome with the public:

They have withdrawn almost all policemen from the protest areas, where the atmosphere is relaxed. A protracted national holiday means that the strikes blocking streets in four spots around the city will not disrupt much until next Monday. … Government supporters expect the crowds to disperse if the protests continue into next week and prove to disrupt the city’s normal life. Polls have found that Hong Kongers are pretty evenly split over the merits of the government’s plans for political reform, and over how they regard the “Occupy Central” movement.

But with the protestors demanding that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resign by tomorrow and threatening again to occupy government buildings, the situation could easily come to a head again soon. Heather Timmons and Lily Kuo pass along a harshly-worded editorial in a party-line newspaper and worry:

Not only is Beijing unwilling to reconsider the August decision to allow only Communist Party-approved candidates to run for Hong Kong’s highest office, but Hong Kongers who continue to participate in the protests should expect dire consequences, an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper warned today. Some activists and analysts, including a former Tiananmen student leader, say the piece bears a marked similarity to a notorious editorial that ran the People’s Daily more than 25 years ago. That piece was later blamed for leading to the brutal crackdown on demonstrations, which killed hundreds or thousands, depending on estimates.

Chris Beam checks out protester-police relations and finds them surprisingly cordial:

Most protestors I spoke with sympathized with the plight of the police. “They don’t want to hurt any Hong Kong citizens,” said Andy Loh, 25, a travel guide whom I found near a barricade outside the police headquarters. “They just listen to their bosses.” Icarus Cheng, a 30-year-old financier, said he had friends on the force who had been working nearly straight for the previous 30 hours. “They’re suffering,” he said. “Of course, we are too.” Part of the problem is that, while Hong Kong has plenty of protests, they rarely occur on this scale, and with the outcome so unpredictable. “Policemen don’t have much experience handling this situation,” he said.

The police don’t seem especially offended by the protesters either. “They’re nice,” said a youthful officer who was guarding the headquarters on Tuesday. He said that some students have offered him and his colleagues food and drinks, which of course they have to refuse. (A similar thing occurred at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and some hungry officers accepted.) I asked what he thought of the movement overall. “Freedom of speech,” he said.

Jessica Chen Weiss reflects:

Even if foreign governments stay out of the public fracas, it is unclear whether peaceful demonstrations will compel Beijing to do more to abide by past promises to grant “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” as stated in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Indeed, China has offered Hong Kong more than any other city under its jurisdiction: universal suffrage. But protesters in Hong Kong have rejected what they see as an ultimatum from Beijing, demanding a more democratic nomination process.

Whose move is next? Commentators have painted Xi Jinping into a corner: Back down and be seen as weak, or stand firm and be seen as reneging on “one country, two systems.” With Hong Kong protesters depicting Chief Executive C. Y. Leung as a vampire with fangs, and pro-Beijing media smearing Hong Kong activists as U.S. and British accomplices, the outlook for “gradual and orderly progress” toward a more democratic Hong Kong appears bleak.

Fisher doesn’t discount the possibility of another Tiananmen-style massacre:

That would seem unthinkable, given the global backlash that image-conscious China would face for using force in a city full of foreigners and foreign media. But perhaps the most essential eternal truth for understanding China’s government is that the ruling Communist Party prioritizes the preservation of one-party rule way before anything else, including the outrage of the entire world, to the extent that it will sacrifice just about anything to maintain the system. The world has changed a lot since 1989, and so has China’s role in it, but it was also true in 1989 that Beijing was full of Western journalists and China knew it would pay heavily for massacring protesters, but did it anyway.

Gwynn Guilford surmises that “China’s leaders may think they have little to lose by cracking down even harder on protesters—and less to gain by reversing their ban on universal suffrage in 2017”:

Any compromise on that point might stoke similar demands from the four other territories and countries that the People’s Republic claims: Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. … The fact that students in Taiwan are aligning with the Hong Kong demonstrators—and that Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s generally pro-Beijing president, is supporting them—threatens the Communist Party’s policy of “reunification.” Meanwhile, an insurgency in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang is quickly gathering momentum. Of course these are the reasons China’s leaders might think they should maintain a hard line. There are plenty of ways that violence in Hong Kong could hurt the mainland.

Richard C. Bush III points out that income inequality has also played a role in driving discontent in the territory:

On the economic side, income inequality in Hong Kong is among the highest in the world. According to Forbes’s rankings, Hong Kong has forty-four billionaires, which is the highest in the world once population is taken into account. Young people believe, with some justification, that they will not be able to secure a standard of living that is as high as their parents. A key reason is the control that a small number of property firms have over the real estate market, which raises prices for both residential and commercial space. For many couples, owning even a small apartment is increasingly out of reach. Moreover, competition for jobs has intensified as the flow of smart, eager applicants from China grows. The divide between the One Percent and The Rest continues to deepen. In most advanced societies, democracy provides a check against excessive wealth and market concentration. Not in Hong Kong.

Finally, Jay Ulfelder expresses some cautious long-term optimism, noting that “this uprising was not born last Friday”:

The longer arc of this challenge includes a much wider array of methods and spaces, including this summer’s referendum and the marches and actions of political and business elites that accompanied and surrounded them. … Based on patterns from similar moments around the world in recent decades and the Communist Party of China’s demonstrated intolerance for popular challenges, I continue to anticipate that the ongoing occupations will soon face even harsher attempts to repress them than the relatively modest ones we saw last weekend. Perhaps that won’t happen, though, and if it does, I am optimistic that the larger movement will survive that response and eventually realize its goals, hopefully sooner rather than later.

(Photo: Thousands of protesters gather outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on October 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. By Chris McGrath/Getty Images)