Hong Kong protests have produced no real winners

The demonstrators have failed to win concessions but the authorities have failed to stifle demands for democracy

Pro-democracy protesters sleep at a tunnel blocked by protesters near the office of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong. Photograph: Reuters

Pro-democracy protesters sleep at a tunnel blocked by protesters near the office of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong. Photograph: Reuters


After more than two months of protests on the streets and clashes with police that have resulted in more than 200 arrests and multiple injuries, there appear to be no real winners from Hong Kong’s umbrella movement.

Not the demonstrators - who have failed to win the concessions for which they have fought so persistently - nor the authorities, who have veered between aggressive intervention and simply waiting out the occupation.

Chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s suggestion that police had been very tolerant but would now take “resolute action” suggested that officials do not feel they need to wait indefinitely: opinion polls show the public want an end to the protests. It appears unlikely that even violent police action will produce the kind of backlash that brought tens of thousands on to the streets in support of students in the early days.

The mood at the main protest site at Admiralty appeared despondent today, though many said they were determined to stay.

A 30-year-old protester, who gave her name only as Elizabeth, said: “You cannot find a single person here that does not feel tired. I have been here since September; imagine how tired I am. But I will stay on, to support the students, and wait for us to take a collective decision on what to do next.”

Hillary Lai (24) said: “I fear we are going to be cleared out eventually, as it nearly happened last night.

“We have done a lot, and raised a lot of awareness in people, but it is a fact that we have achieved little that is concrete. The police keep hitting us and the government keeps ignoring us. But if we get cleared out we can come out again: demonstrate, occupy again. We cannot give up.”

Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham, said events seemed to be going the government’s way.

“But if I was CY Leung, I would not be quite that comfortable yet,” he added.

Even if police or bailiffs clear the main occupation zone around government offices at Admiralty, the overnight battles nearby and the ongoing scuffles in Mong Kok - where the protest area was cleared last week - suggest the movement,which takes its name from the umbrellas used to protect protesters from pepper spray, may not disappear any time soon.

But it is increasingly fractured. The scholars who initially suggested the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement stepped back long ago, making it clear that they believed it was time to adopt new tactics. They are expected to hand themselves in to police on Friday.

There are also divisions between increasingly radical elements and the original student leaders, who have guided but never controlled the movement. While protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, some demonstrators charged police lines and hurled missiles at officers on Sunday night.

Police lashed out with batons and a powerful pepper spray solution, leaving protesters bloodied and in pain, and dragged people to the ground as they arrested them. A statement from the Hong Kong Federation of Students urged people to adhere to the principle of peaceful action, to encourage broad support, avoid triggering more police violence and ensure that Beijing could not use accusations of violence to damage the movement’s image.

“Courage does not necessarily need to be shown via physical clashes. Being sober-minded, restrained, accurate and peaceful, taking care of each other and taking responsible actions are all shows of true courage,” it said.

Michael Davis at Hong Kong University said the attempt to escalate the protests on Sunday night - student leaders called for the occupation of government buildings, unsuccessfully - might reflect the pressure from more radical elements not to simply withdraw.

“Protest leaders have wanted to diversify their strategy, but there are a lot of people that do not,” he said.

Politicians and sympathetic intellectuals have also suggested it is time to withdraw and try alternatives such as boycotts and marches as events call for them.

“Public opinion is against the occupation - but it’s not against democracy,” Mr Davis added.

“While people are fed up with the protests, if the government was simply to suppress them and go about its business without any change, I think the public would be disgusted.”

He added: “All [officials]do is represent Beijing to the community - not the community to Hong Kong? They could help Beijing find avenues to climb down.”

But Beijing has no desire for such a compromise; opening up the nominations process, as protesters demand, would mean facing the risk of a pan-democrat candidate.

Mr Tsang said the underlying problem was irresolvable.

“What we are seeing is a complete dislocation between what younger generations in Hong Kong want and what the Chinese government is able to tolerate and the special administrative region’s government is willing and able to deliver,” he said.

But he said that the government might be able to offer some changes to the nominations process - for example, improving the representativeness and accountability of the committee overseeing it - which would help to satisfy the public, though not the protesters.

“Maybe the government will be successful in clearing the streets in the next few days, but this will not clear away the problem,” warned Gladys Li, senior counsel at the Hong Kong Bar and a founding member of the Civic party.

“Frustration is only going to increase since the demand for democracy has been building up in our community for many, many years; it predates even the handover.”

The Guardian