Are Hong Kong’s Protests Out Of Steam?

This morning, the city awoke to sparser crowds of demonstrators in the streets and uncertainty about what happens next:

Schools reopened and civil servants returned to work Monday morning after protesters Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.10.37 PMcleared the area outside the city’s government headquarters, a focal point of the demonstrations that started the previous weekend. Crowds also thinned markedly at the two other protest sites, and traffic flowed again through many roads that had been blocked.

The subdued scenes left many wondering whether the movement, which has been free-forming and largely spontaneous, had run its course — or whether the students have a clear strategy about what to do next. Early talks between the government and the students have started, but many disagreements remain. Students say they will walk away from the talks as soon as the government uses force to clear away the remaining protesters.

Alex Ogle, an AFP photographer, captured the above photo with the caption:

ghost town hong kong, sunday morning, haven’t seen this area of occupation site so empty all week

Heather Timmons is also on the ground:

Protesters cleared a corridor through the blockades outside one entrance to the government’s headquarters building on Sunday night, after protest leaders and government representatives agreed to meet for the first time. On Monday morning, makeshift tents and supply centers still dotted a main highway in the center of town, and protesters were sprawled in the middle of key roads as government employees filed in to work.

“We’re going to see how the government reacts,” said one 19-year old protester at the entrance, who said his surname name was Lui, sitting near the cleared corridor. Because of the corridor, government employees “can go back to work, and other citizens won’t blame us,” he said. Lui said he and the scant dozen protesters sitting near him had decided to clear the corridor themselves, rather than acting on specific directions from student leaders or Occupy Central, the groups that started the protests. “We don’t know what direction this is headed, and we don’t know what to do next,” he said, so his group was acting on its own.

Hannah Beech also sees the protest movement winding down:

As the workweek began in Hong Kong and traffic snarled because of the protest roadblocks, patience from a sector of ordinary citizens may wear thin. Already, some Hong Kong residents were quietly criticizing the continuing shutdown of major business and tourist areas. “Of course I support more democracy for Hong Kong and am not opposed to [the protesters’] ideals,” said a woman surnamed Liu, who came with her 11-year-old son to look at the occupied site in Mongkok district. “But we need to eat, to do business. How can we do that when they take over the streets?”

Whatever happens, Hong Kong’s political consciousness has been awakened. Emily Lau, a veteran local legislator, jokes that she’s been labeled “a head-banger” for her decades of pro-democracy work. “It’s very invigorating to have such a spontaneous, peaceful movement full of young people,” she says. “Once people have been shown their power they will know how to use it again and again.”

Friday’s violence, which continued late into the night, may also have put a damper on the protests. Ben Leung listens to how Hong Kongers are talking about the attacks, in which the city’s infamous organized crime syndicates (the “triads”) are believed to have been involved:

Over dinner, an elderly waitress at a nearby restaurant thought the timing of the attack was suspicious. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung refuses to quit, and the next day this happens, she said: “The two events are linked. Whoever did this are not human – they must be the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] from China; Hong Kong people don’t do these things to one another!” But what everyone is talking about is what role the notorious triads played in Friday’s violence.

The question was put to the police at a press conference on Friday night. “None,” said spokesman Kong Man-keung, “and to say we allow them to operate is grossly inaccurate.” He claimed there was no evident to support the rumors. But hours later, shortly after 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the police issued a statement saying 19 people had been arrested, and of those at least eight are reportred to have links to the triads.

William Pesek argues that it’s time for the protesters “to face reality and plot an endgame”:

Why not parlay what’s been achieved so far into meaningful concessions from the government? These could include access to affordable housing and education, efforts to redress inequality, improved public services and a genuine framework for political reform and engagement with Beijing. The first direct talks between the protest leaders and government officials began Sunday night. Now, leaders should demand to plead their case directly to Leung.

Critics will say such concessions have nothing to do with democracy — and thus would render the protests futile. But any movement toward egalitarianism in oligarched Hong Kong would be a vital step toward genuine representation. By winning an accommodation or two from China, student leaders like 17-year-old Joshua Wong can demonstrate that they gave Goliath a good fight and achieved something substantial.

While Hong Kong’s protest leaders have appreciated the international attention being heaped upon their movement, Ishaan Tharoor observes that they’re less appreciative of its portrayal:

They are sensitive to how the protests are being received both by other Hong Kongers as well as authorities in the mainland. China’s rulers do not countenance such challenges to the status quo; the Hong Kong public, meanwhile, isn’t interested in prolonged, destabilizing upheaval either. The idea of a “revolution” on China’s doorstep may play well before the lenses of the international media, but it does not help the students, who are seeking reform and practical political gains.

“This is not a color revolution,” Lester Shum, the deputy leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, referring to the generic term used for transformative political movements elsewhere. “This is a citizens’ fight for democracy.”

Larison recalls that we’ve made this category error before, to ill effect:

When the Green movement protests began in Iran, there was a strong desire among many in the West to see those protests as a complete rejection of the regime and as an opportunity to bring the regime down, and they dubbed this “the Green Revolution.”

This mistaken belief was broadcast far and wide for months. Hard-liners in the regime also perceived–or claimed to perceive–the protests as a “color revolution,” which they understood to mean that the protests were sponsored and fomented by foreign powers aimed at the destruction the regime. The destruction of the regime was never going to happen, but the point is that this wasn’t what the protesters were seeking. It did the regime a favor that it didn’t need and shouldn’t have been given to suggest otherwise. Many Westerners took an interest in the Green movement because they wanted it to be a regime-changing revolutionary force, and then lost interest in the Iranian opposition when the latter failed to share their preoccupations. For the same reasons, Western coverage of the protests in Hong Kong shouldn’t try to turn them into something that they’re not.