Occupy Central On Its Last Legs

Leaders of Hong Kong’s protest movement are mulling whether to keep going, shift tactics, or retreat after two months of street demonstrations failed to persuade authorities to hold an open election for the city’s leadership in 2017:

The Hong Kong Federation of Students will decide in the next week whether to call on protesters to pull up stakes from camps which straddle some of the Chinese-controlled city’s main thoroughfares and have tried residents’ patience. Chan Kin-man, joint founder of the “Occupy Central” protest movement that has called for the students to pull back, said the federation had a “very major decision” to make. …

Benny Tai, another joint founder of Occupy Central, reiterated calls for students to leave and pondered where the disobedience movement could go next. “Blocking government may be even more powerful than blocking roads,” he wrote in the International New York Times. “Refusal to pay taxes, delaying rent payments by tenants in public housing … along with other such acts of non cooperation, could make governing more inconvenient.”

Whichever way the movement goes from here, Rachel Lu calls this round for Beijing:

Everyone in Hong Kong will probably emerge from the Occupy movement a bit bruised, either physically or mentally, but some in Beijing might be smiling. China’s central government has stood fast on the core issue — that Beijing will vet the slate of nominees for Hong Kong’s chief executive in the 2017 election. Years (if not decades) of “united front” work, a term used by China’s ruling Communist Party to describe efforts to hew non-party elites close to its goals, seem to have paid off. Beijing has proven that it knows how to pull the right levers in Hong Kong to wield considerable influence — all of the local government officials toed the line, tycoons spoke out against the occupation, and grassroots groups staged counterprotests. When one businessman took the position that Leung should resign, he was swiftly removed as a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as a form of discipline and censure.

The ranks of the pro-establishment camp will likely tighten, while the opposition pro-democracy camp is left in disarray amid infighting.

Democracy Is Too Good For You Plebs

After a two-hour meeting between Hong Kong officials and protest leaders made no real progress toward resolving the standoff, the demonstrations continued yesterday, including some 200 protesters marching to the home of the territory’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Many are reportedly outraged over comments Leung made to the foreign press on Monday insisting that open elections were unacceptable because they could give the poor too much of a voice:

In an interview with a small group of journalists from American and European news media organizations, [Leung’s] first with foreign media since the city erupted in demonstrations, he acknowledged that many of the protesters are angry over the lack of social mobility and affordable housing in the city. But he argued that containing populist pressures was an important reason for resisting the protesters’ demands for fully open elections. Instead, he backed Beijing’s position that all candidates to succeed him as chief executive, the top post in the city, must be screened by a “broadly representative” nominating committee appointed by Beijing. That screening, he said, would insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies to address economic inequality instead.

Beinart ties this in with the debate over voter ID laws and early voting in the US, arguing that “Leung’s views about the proper relationship between democracy and economic policy represent a more extreme version of the views supported by many in today’s GOP”:

In 2010, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips observed that “The Founding Fathers … put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote … one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community.”

In 2011, Iowa Representative Steve King made a similar observation, noting approvingly, “There was a time in American history when you had to be a male property owner in order to vote. The reason for that was, because [the Founding Fathers] wanted the people who voted—that set the public policy, that decided on the taxes and the spending—to have some skin in the game. Now we have data out there that shows that 47 percent of American households don’t pay taxes … But many of them are voting. And when they vote, they vote for more government benefits.”

In 2012, Florida House candidate Ted Yoho remarked, “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them, but you used to have to be a property owner to vote.” Yoho went on to win the election.

Philips, King, and Yoho are outliers. Most prominent Republicans would never propose that poor people be denied the franchise. But they support policies that do just that.

Beating New Life Into Occupy Central

Just as Hong Kong’s protest movement seemed to be losing steam, a video of a protester being assaulted by police in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday morning has re-energized the movement:

In footage by local television station TVB, the protester, later identified as Civic Party member Ken Tsang, is escorted by six officers to a dark corner and pushed to the ground, his hands bound in a plastic tie. The government later confirmed there were seven officers involved in the assault, all of whom have now been suspended. In the video, police then punch and kick Tsang while others stand watch, which the reporter narrating the scene has said lasted for about four minutes. …

The video quickly went viral on Facebook, Hong Kong’s social network of choice, with web users launching a so-called “human-flesh search,” using social media to identify those involved in the beating. An Oct. 5 page on Facebook originally used to identify anti-occupy protesters was quickly repurposed to identify abusive police. Some netizens have even condemned police officers as “black cops,” slang meaning they have forfeited their role as public servants, working instead for undefined “dark” forces.

Suzanne Sataline was present for the police raid where the video was allegedly taken:

Around two o’clock, a cry arose from the crowd. “Police!” people shouted. The trill of whistles pierced the air. The protesters raced from the tunnel, donning safety goggles and masks. After 10 minutes, a sea of bobbing blue lights drew closer from the road’s western end. Word raced through the crowd. More police were coming from the east. And a cluster of white lights emerged from the walkway along Victoria Harbour. None had helmets — a good sign, I thought. That meant no tear gas. Hundreds of officers, with round riot shields, began pushing the crowd backwards, toward the tunnel. Another contingent pushed protesters in the other direction. Suddenly, the officers coming from the shore amassed a few feet from a group of us in Tamar Park, a small patch of lawn and trees atop the highway tunnel. The officers addressed the crowd over a bullhorn.

“They say we are here illegally,” said Lock Cheung, a freelance videographer. “Police say if they don’t leave, they will use spray.” The crowd hissed. “Gangsters!” Cheung urged us to be careful. The police, he said, “don’t follow any rules anymore.”

In Ben Leung’s opinion, the incident will likely push many fence-sitters onto the demonstrators’ side:

For the neutrals, this episode could well be the tipping point. Yes, the protests themselves had lost momentum over the past 10 days or so. Yes, people are generally fed up or simply bored of the protests and the disruptions caused. But after such a brutal beating—which we know happens all the time behind closed doors at police stations or in panda cars but just never in public—it’s become harder for many to just sit on the fence. Indeed, more people are back out on the streets Wednesday night outside the main police HQ in the Admiralty District, and angrier than ever.

In response to the news, the government quickly revived an offer to hold talks with the protesters:

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government is ready to meet with student leaders as soon as next week, but urged them to be pragmatic, reiterating that Beijing will not change its mind on election restrictions. That raised doubts that the proposed meeting can overcome the vast differences between the two sides. Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students welcomed Leung’s offer but criticized the government for setting preconditions. Many other demonstrators gathered in the main protest zone echoed his view. “I paid attention to what (Leung) said but I couldn’t find anything constructive. He didn’t say anything new and I don’t think it is going to break this deadlock,” said Tong Wing-ho, 26.

Lily Kuo didn’t hear anything too encouraging in Leung’s presser either:

Leung did float one topic that could potentially entice protesters: changing the make-up of the mostly Beijing-appointed nominating committee. “In the second round of consultation, we can still listen to everyone’s views,” he said. “There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee.” The students have insisted that changes to the committee won’t be enough, and have publicly insisted on civic nomination. Although unlikely, the possibility that the committee could be reconfigured, potentially allowing non-Beijing approved candidates to make it onto the ballot, might be enough to tempt some of the protest leaders to make the most of their considerable political leverage—and cut a deal.

Hong Kong Heats Up Again

Demonstrators returned to the streets in droves today after the government abruptly cancelled talks with the protest movement:

Crunch negotiations between protesters and Beijing-backed city officials were slated for Friday, but fell apart Thursday after the government pulled out, blaming student leaders for attempting to escalate demonstrations. The decision deepened the political crisis convulsing the Asian financial hub, with the failure of talks expected to reinvigorate mass rallies that have paralysed parts of the city for nearly two weeks. …

Sunny Lo, a political analyst at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the government was spooked by a promise from pro-democracy lawmakers Thursday to disrupt the workings of the government in the city’s parliament, known locally as LegCo, in a show of support for protesters. “This is not a good sign now. The temperature is rising both inside and outside LegCo,” he told AFP. “If (the) Occupy Central movement drags on for a few more weeks I’m afraid police action would be inevitable. It would just be a matter of time,” he added.

In a roundup of expert opinion on the current situation, George Chen doubts that Occupy Central is coming to an end anytime soon:

By all means, we are now seeing the protest movement becoming a very long-term political struggle in Hong Kong. I’m not talking about two months or three months. You may see fewer protesters blocking the roads by the end of the year but the Occupy Central movement means a new era for Hong Kong — we will see more on-and-off protests, of a large or small scale, around the city, and for different causes. It is unfortunate to see Hong Kong becoming a less happy and more divided society. It’s even more unfortunate to see that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong perhaps haven’t really realized what Occupy Central means for Hong Kong. Simply labeling it an “unlawful” event won’t be helpful at all to end the crisis.

Kang Yi expects the government’s decision to backfire:

I talked to a few people shortly after the government called off the scheduled meeting. While some of them supported the movement and others claimed to be neutral, they all perceived the government’s move in a negative way, criticizing it for “being hypocritical” and “throwing its weight around.” The government’s flip-flop may incur a strong feeling of aversion among citizens. Also, Carrie Lam may have misjudged the situation by commenting that “the number of protesters has seen a decline.” In an era where the Internet’s public sphere has flourished, online mobilization can be accomplished swiftly. People could come back to the street at any time.

And Allen Carlson advises the demonstrators to bide their time and let the authorities keep making mistakes:

For now, I would tell them to do nothing. If the rug is being as unceremoniously pulled out from beneath the talks as now appears to be the case, it is the Hong Kong government and Beijing that will look to all as incredibly disingenuous, clumsy, and uncompromising. In other words, this has the potential to be a public relations disaster for the government. Anything the protesters do, in terms of taking to the streets, would only, for the time being, undermine the crystal clear nature of such a blundering move. This being said, once the dust settles the protesters will be in a stronger position to make their case to the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the world about the legitimacy of their concerns and misgivings about a government that they no longer trust.

The Bloomberg View editors advocate a compromise:

To get anywhere, both sides have to climb down from their stated positions. Protesters should temper calls for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign; an investigation into payments he received from an Australian company could accomplish that for them. Their central demand — that the Chinese government allow future candidates for chief executive to be nominated directly by the public — is no less a nonstarter. For their part, Hong Kong officials must stop tonelessly insisting upon Beijing’s formula for the elections, which allows for only two to three candidates, each of whom must be approved by a 1,200-member nominating committee that is stacked with Beijing loyalists. The city’s leaders should focus on expanding what little wiggle room this framework allows.

Are The Protesters Really Speaking For The People?


Eric X. Li criticizes Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests for going after the wrong target, arguing that the territory is more democratic today than ever before and that economic stagnation and inequality are the public’s real concerns:

Empirical data demonstrates the nature of public discontent, and it is fundamentally different from what is being portrayed by the protesting activists. Over the past several years, polling conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong has consistently shown that well over 80 percent of Hong Kongers’ top concerns are livelihood and economic issues, with those who are concerned with political problems in the low double digits at the most.

When the Occupy Central movement was gathering steam over the summer, the protesters garnered 800,000 votes in an unofficial poll supporting the movement. Yet less than two months later an anti-Occupy campaign collected 1.3 million signatures (from Hong Kong’s 7 million population) opposing the movement. The same University of Hong Kong program has conducted five public opinion surveys since April 2013, when protesters first began to create the movement. All but one showed that more than half of Hong Kongers opposed it, and support was in the low double digits.

But Alvin Y.H. Cheung emphasizes that the movement is about much more than the economy:

Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.”  Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests. …

The Umbrella Revolution is the result of this. It is a warning of the comprehensive breakdown of confidence in Hong Kong’s governing institutions – it reflects growing public disillusion with the institutional means of making their voices heard.  The momentum of the protests reflects that disenchantment.

Meanwhile, Christian Caryl wonders why the protest leaders’ Christianity hasn’t gotten more press:

This is myopic. In its origins, Christianity is a product of the Middle East, making it just as “western” as Judaism and Islam. Modern-day Christianity is thoroughly global. The Catholic Church may have its headquarters in Rome, but nowadays the vast majority of Catholics live outside of Europe and North America. Evangelical Protestantism is expanding rapidly in Latin America and Africa — and Christians there see themselves as servants of God, not as “agents of the West.”

The same goes for China. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number of Protestant Christians in China at 58 million in 2010 — greater than the number in Brazil (40 million). The scholar Fenggang Yang calculates that China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian country by 2025. Western journalists may not be paying much attention, but that’s one mistake the Chinese Communist Party isn’t about to make. The Party regards religion, and Christianity in particular, as its greatest rival. It’s probably right to do so.

Peter Rutland scrutinizes the movement through the lens of nationalism and identity politics:

Since Hong Kong joined the People’s Republic 17 years ago, young people have been taught Mandarin in school (in contrast to the Cantonese spoken by most residents of Hong Kong) and have had much more direct exposure to Mainlanders, who travel to Hong Kong as tourists in huge numbers. This experience seems to be reinforcing the sense that Hong Kong citizens have a distinct identity and not just a different political system. In recent years polling data have shown a steady rise among those who see themselves first and foremost as “Hong Kong citizens” rather than as Chinese. As one demonstrator, Ashley Au, recently told a journalist: “We don’t feel like we’re a part of China, and I don’t feel Chinese.” This fact is now colliding with frustration over Beijing’s efforts to tamp down the space for political participation.

And Anne Applebaum mulls Beijing’s impulse to paint the protests as part of an American conspiracy:

To the truly authoritarian mind, “spontaneity” is impossible. The state can and should control all organizations. There is no such thing as a self-organized crowd. If people are sleeping in tents in Hong Kong’s central business district or Kiev’s Maidan, somebody must be paying them and directing them, and if it isn’t our state, then it must be someone else’s. I don’t know whether those who talk like this necessarily believe it (for the record, I’m guessing Vladimir Putin does but Hong Kong’s leaders don’t). The vision of foreign conspiracy is self-serving: If there is a foreign power directing the protest, then the government can legitimately destroy it. The conspiracy narrative has an explanatory purpose, too. If the Hong Kong protests are an American plot, then mainland Chinese can safely ignore it.

Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.

(Photo: A pro-democracy protester takes part in a protest in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on October 6, 2014. Exhausted demonstrators debated the next step in their pro-democracy campaign as their numbers dwindled after a week of rallies, and the city returned to work despite road closures and traffic gridlock. By Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

“Government Thugs” On The Attack

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

Some of Hong Kong’s protest camps were assaulted today, not by police, but by groups of “anti-occupiers”, mostly men, who said they were fed up with blocked roads and wanted the demonstrators to disperse:

The protesters said the attackers were pro-government gangs, and several of the groups leading the protest issued a joint statement warning that they would call off proposed negotiations with the government “if the government does not immediately prevent the organized attacks.” A week after the pro-democracy protests started at a student rally, the movement showed increasing strains on Friday from both external blows and from internal discord and exhaustion, even before the attacks began. …

As skies darkened and rain fell, a couple of dozen men stormed the encampment in the middle of Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare usually packed with traffic and shoppers. The men pushed and pummeled the protesters, grabbed the scaffolding of canopies and pulled until the tents collapsed in heaps.

Lily Kuo and Heather Timmons report from the scene:

Some anti-occupiers insisted that they had not been paid to be there. Lau Lee Keung who lives in the New Territories said he was there because the occupation in Mongkok disrupted his commute home from the airport where he works.”I came on my own. No one paid me,” he said, showing Quartz his Hong Kong identity card to prove that he had not been sent from mainland China to protest. “I support the Hong Kong government,” said 51 year old Cheung Chiu Wan, who also showed his Hong Kong identity card.

Other residents didn’t believe the protest movement in Mongkok disrupted their daily lives as much as the anti-occupiers said. “It’s actually nice. The air is fresh,” said David Chen, 35, who works at law firm nearby, referring to the lack of traffic.

Ben Leung has more on the state of affairs:

There are, of course, inevitable doubts about where some of the anti-protest protesters come from. Some are genuinely aggrieved by the disruption caused to the transport system. “Wanting democracy is fine—just don’t affect the rest of us!” said one of them. Others point to the “silent” majority who had never taken part in the protest to demonstrate that the little anti-protest movement is “not alone.” Others seemed to be performing bombastic recitals of their grievances as if they were ill-trained actors or undercover agents.  And these kinds of people—thugs, mercenaries, undercover agents, and paid informants—are exactly the kind of provocateurs that pro-democracy activists say they fear will bring on real chaos.

Kaveh Waddell, meanwhile, wonders whether the protest movement’s commitment to nonviolence and orderliness hasn’t somehow undercut their message:

Taken to an extreme, nonviolence can have the same effect on media coverage as physical confrontation. Just like it might have been if the protests were characterized by clashes, Hong Kong media coverage has been focused on demonstrators’ tactics. Instead of showing burning tires and rock-throwing, however, stories like this one from the BBC described “things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest“: students who sat in the street to complete their homework, demonstrators who posted apologies on makeshift barricades for inconveniencing commuters, and complete compliance with a sign that asked protesters to keep off a neatly trimmed grassy plaza. In this and other stories, the movements’ goals are relegated to a footnote or aren’t mentioned at all.

Zack Beauchamp interviews Erica Chenoweth on how the protesters could prevail:

There’s a common misconception that non-violent movements win by showing the other side the light: in this case, persuading Hong Kong and mainland officials that Hong Kong really deserves democracy. That’s wrong. “The pressure works by imposing enough costs on their opponents that there are loyalty shifts,” Chenoweth explains. “The people on whom that the opponent relies on to implement its power locally change their mind about whether it’s a good idea” to go along with the repressive program. … Chenoweth thinks that, if the pressure stays on, Hong Kong and mainland elites may end up deciding that handing the protestors a partial victory makes more sense than dispersing them with a full-on, Tiananmen-style crackdown.

And William Pesek points out that China’s already tarnished reputation in the region is on the line here:

Even China’s Asian neighbors — many of whom, like Vietnam, don’t spend much time worrying about human rights — haven’t forgotten 1989. That legacy explains why China’s strengthening economic relationships aren’t translating into genuine soft power across the region. In one recent survey of elites in 11 Asia-Pacific nations, more than 60 percent thought China was having a negative impact on regional stability. …

In that sense, China has more to lose from another Tiananmen than Hong Kong’s 7 million people do. Any move by Xi to crack down on students would be carried live on BBC, CNN and networks in Taiwan, where the mainland is trying to curry favor. It would have the vast majority of Asian governments edging closer to Washington as the U.S. seeks to shore up its position in Asia.

Perhaps that’s why they’re counting on the “anti-occupiers” to crack down for them.

(Photo: Local residents and pro-government supporters scream at pro-democracy protesters on October 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Fights broke out between local residents and pro government supporters when they attempted to force pro-democracy activists from their protest site. By Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Ripples From Kowloon Bay?

As Beijing worries over the Hong Kong protests emboldening democrats and separatists in the hotspots of China’s periphery, Isaac Stone Fish interviews a leading Uighur independence activist about how she views the past week’s events:

According to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the movement for Uighur rights, the ideals of the Hong Kong movement are already influencing the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. “Because of the brutality and wrongfulness of the Chinese government, the Uighur people have concluded that their only option is independence,” she said in a Sept. 30 interview with Foreign Policy. The protests in Hong Kong “are very inspiring” to Xinjiang, she said. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group who make up roughly 43 percent of the population in Xinjiang, think that “if Hong Kong wins, it will benefit Uighurs as well, and then the Uighurs can strengthen their own movement.” …

“I saw what happened in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” she said, referring to protests in Taipei this spring, and “I wished” that Xinjiang could also have Western journalists reporting there. “Our people can’t do what the Hong Kong people are doing because they’re getting killed by the Chinese government,” and there are no outsiders to observe it.

Alexa Olesen looks to Macau, the former Portuguese colony and current gambling mecca just up the coast from Hong Kong with a somewhat similar governing arrangement. For now, at least, a battle for democracy doesn’t seem to be in the cards there:

[O]ver the past year or so, Macau has seen the emergence of an aggressive labor movement fond of protests and strikes and the stirrings of a political opposition with democratic ambitions. It remains to be seen how Hong Kong’s experience — massive protests over many days that police have tried to beat back with pepper spray and tear gas — will color those developments. What’s clear is that Macau is watching intently. …

Is Macau ripe for a Hong Kong-style Umbrella Revolution? Alex Choi, an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Macao, told FP that while the territory’s labor movement gathered steam, he doesn’t expect them to shift their focus from better wages to universal suffrage any time soon. Choi said it would be “a big jump” to go from labor issues to “a fight for democracy and against Beijing.” So far, he said, the labor movement hasn’t appeared eager to take that leap.

Taiwan, of course, is not part of China, but Beijing would like it to be, and so Taipei is also keeping a watchful eye on the Hong Kong standoff. Taiwanese activist Lin Fei-Fan explains why:

The main goal of the “one country, two systems” policy by which China governs Hong Kong is to provide a template for Taiwan, but the developments of recent years clearly show China placing increasingly tight restrictions on Hong Kong’s self-governance. It’s not just that China has reneged on its promise that Hong Kong’s system would remain “unchanged for 50 years.” A more serious problem is that conflicts within Hong Kong society have proliferated. The wealth disparity there cannot be solved via existing structures, and the huge influx of mainland tourists, as well as mainlanders who become Hong Kong residents, have also created even more social problems. Taiwan faces similar concerns. We have seen that Taiwan and the Chinese government have signed a number of trade agreements exposing Taiwan to industrial outsourcing, falling salaries, increases in the disparity between rich and poor, national security risks, and other crises.

Should Washington “Speak Out” On Hong Kong?

Pace the WaPo editorial board, Larison doesn’t want the US to involve itself in the standoff, which he calls “exactly the sort of tense, potentially explosive situation in another country that the administration shouldn’t be talking about publicly”:

It would be appropriate for the administration to convey its concerns to Beijing through diplomatic channels, and perhaps they have already been doing this, but there is absolutely no need for public declarations or “explicit support” for the protesters. How could that benefit the protesters? The Post doesn’t even pretend that it would. As ever, the desire to have our government “speak out” in support of foreign protesters trumps all other considerations. It’s not as if Beijing will react well to be warned by Washington about how it conducts its own affairs. We know very well that the Chinese government reacts angrily to any hint of foreign interference in their internal politics. Indeed, there are few governments in the world less likely to respond well to statements from U.S. officials about its internal affairs than the Chinese government.

Before meeting with John Kerry yesterday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Washington to back off and respect Chinese sovereignty. There is also a conspiracy theory, encouraged in the pro-Beijing press, that the protest movement is an American plot. David Wertime situates this theory within the context of negative reactions to the demonstrations on the mainland:

A vocal but not negligible minority genuinely believes that foreign forces are behind recent events. A widely circulating article, originally penned in June and republished Oct. 1 on 163.com, a major news portal, ably summarizes the attitude of some Chinese conservatives toward Hong Kong. The accusation-packed piece, called “Who really is the black hand behind Hong Kong independence?” begins, “Recently, gangdu – Chinese for Hong Kong separatists, who do not appear to actually be a driving force behind the current protests — “have been happily making trouble, and behind it is an America hoping to push [the movement] to its height.” It goes on to name a great many bogeymen: Paul Wolfowitz, the National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros, and the CIA. The article accuses the West of making “cultural products” in a “war of ideals” that it then foists on unsuspecting overseas populations. The goal, the article declares, is to then “stimulate Taiwanese independence, Xinjiang independence, and Tibetan independence” to cause “multiple troubles for China, making China unable to pay attention to its great power struggle with the United States.”

Noting that Russian state television is also on board with this theory, Bershidsky compares it to similar mutterings about the massive protests in Moscow in 2012 and the Euromaidan revolution in Kiev:

The problem with the U.S. conspiracy theory is that it’s impossible to buy if, like me, you experienced the Moscow and Kiev demonstrations first hand. The leaders were weak and non-essential. The protests would have gone on without them. If not through the leaders, how could any puppeteer exert influence? People took to the streets because they felt cheated, and in every case the deception was real. In Moscow, Putin’s party blatantly stole a parliamentary election. In Kiev, the president reneged on his promise to sign a trade pact that would have put Ukraine on a path toward European integration. In Hong Kong, a plan to vet candidates for the city’s chief executive nullified Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage.

The U.S. neither perpetrated the deceptions nor opened people’s eyes to them. People aren’t as dumb as authoritarian leaders think. The creation of symbols, organization against common ills and the desire to keep protest camps clean are instinctive and universal. They require no more conspiracy or outside influence than a swarm of bees does to organize a new hive.

Leung Stalls

As the midnight deadline set by demonstrators for him to resign approached, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to step down but pledged to hold talks between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and the protestors:

Leung praised the Hong Kong police and the SAR government for their restraint. He said that the protests would continue to be tolerated as long as protestors do no attempt to occupy important government buildings, such as the police headquarters and the chief executive’s office. Leung said that he did not want a confrontation between police and protestors, and urged protestors not to advance on the police cordons. When asked about reports that the Hong Kong police are armed with rubber bullets, Leung emphasized that the police will continue to exercise restraint. Still, he also urged to protestors to end their occupation of the city center.

Though Leung offered the protestors a dialogue with Carrie Lam, there still seems to be little to no room for compromise. Leung insisted repeatedly that the dialogue and the ultimate solution must follow Hong Kong’s Basic Law and work within the framework of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) decision on Hong Kong’s elections. Following these two guidelines is the only way to have universal suffrage in 2017, Leung told reporters. The protestors have already indicated they are not willing to accept the NPSC decision, which would  see all candidates for chief executive be nominated  by a Beijing-friendly committee.

Occupy Central still insists that Leung must step aside in order to break the impasse. Melinda Liu argues that a negotiated outcome is still possible, if only President Xi Jinping will allow it:

In fact, there is some room to maneuver for both sides. Although Hong Kong residents are unlikely to get the precise sort of direct vote protesters are demanding, the composition of the election committee that vets nominees, the number of nominees and the use of secret balloting could be open to negotiation. There’s also a possibility that Leung may be cashiered eventually, though if that happens before 2017 his successor will be chosen the same way he was.

The question is whether Xi can afford to project an image of weakness by permitting such negotiations and considering even minor compromises. The demonstrations that are paralyzing Hong Kong’s Central district today have as many dissimilarities with Tiananmen Square in 1989 as they have parallels. And the world has changed dramatically, as has China. But in the end the outcome may ride on the same question that so frightened the Communist Party mandarins back then: whether the leader in charge of the world’s largest authoritarian nation can stomach an uprising of democracy for very long.

Srdja Popovic and Tori Porell praise the protest movement’s organization, orderliness, and focus:

Although it may seem obvious that a protest movement must win popular support to combat oppression, it is no easy feat, and something we have seen movements in dozens of countries fail to accomplish. The staunch adherence to nonviolence Occupy Central has demonstrated takes preparation, training, and discipline—a combination that’s very rare for many movements. Most of the time, organizers aren’t prepared to handle the crowds that surge into the streets, and with no way to maintain calm and cohesion, too many movements have been derailed by a few thrown rocks or smashed storefronts. Governments seize on the smallest acts of disorder or violence as excuses to crack down. However, Occupy Central’s organizers seem to have come prepared. By issuing the manual and attempting to train their activists, they have maintained a united front and warded off the pitfalls that plague too many social movements.

But Richard C. Bush fears that this won’t last:

The unity and leadership of the opposition camp is a matter for concern. The New York Times had a good article this morning on the amorphous, loosely led character of the movement (“Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly”). Those who are seeking more democracy than Beijing is willing to grant are quite “democratic” within their ranks. The pro-democracy camp has suffered serious fragmentation over the last two decades, to its own detriment. This is a cause for serious concern. The beginning of the current crisis began when one faction of the pro-democracy camp decided on Friday evening to independently undertake action that was more radical than other factions preferred.

Chris Beam spots some hostility toward mainland Chinese around the edges of the movement, which could hurt its image:

Occupy Central organizers have done their best to distance themselves from the anti-mainland movement and keep the focus on election reform and universal suffrage. … But pro-democracy ideas and anti-mainland sentiment can be difficult to tease apart in Hong Kong. Many protesters want autonomy for Hong Kong in order to boost policies that will mitigate the influence of mainland Chinese on the island. For example, they support liming the number of properties that mainlanders can buy in Hong Kong and tightening visa regulations. (Ironically, the much-denounced chief executive C.Y. Leung has promoted some of these policies.) Of course, defensive policy positions easily blur with personal feelings toward mainland Chinese.

On the other hand, James Palmer argues that “Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China”, and that “might be what scares the authorities so much”:

The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland. … Hong Kong preserves hobby clubs, literary societies, family associations, clan ties and ancestral temples that once made up the fabric of Chinese society. In mainland cities, the once-vast variety of regional cultures and traditions has been wracked twice over; first by Maoist persecution and then by waves of migration and materialism. Most of all, the Hong Kong protests themselves are part of a great Chinese tradition, not only of peasant revolt and popular uprising, but of the student demonstrations that made China’s 20th century, from the protests of 4 May 1919 onwards. The Chinese public have never been the complacent sheep or communal masses of some westerners’ imagination, but an active, powerful force.

Overall, Jeffrey Wasserstrom is pessimistic about China’s political future:

Alas, what we have seen is Beijing leaping from a lack of self-confidence straight to a projection of arrogance. It is more insistent than ever on joining the global order only on its own terms. The party used to legitimate its rule by promising a China more equal than the country had ever been, run by an organization less corrupt than its predecessors. Now, flagrant inequalities and bountiful instances of corruption are exposed regularly.

So what rationale is left? Well, only a strong state can protect the nation’s interest in a chaotic world, the party line goes. And the current sorry state of the wider geopolitical world makes harping on this theme easier than it should be for Beijing. A cloak of counterterrorism hides state-waged terrors chillingly resonant of Cultural Revolution. The Hong Kong protesters are voices of freedom. When we look back on the demonstrations in 10 years, will we hear the song of China’s trajectory? Or will it be an elegiac tune that only makes us wistful for what China could have been?

Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.