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Hong Kong’s Protesters: A House Divided

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China Power

Hong Kong’s Protesters: A House Divided

Student groups may have derailed Occupy Central, but Friday’s government talks could be a reset.

Looking at the crowds of protestors in downtown Hong Kong, one might think the fight is not quite over, but the truth is the end came last week when Occupy Central leader Benny Tai handed the reigns over to students by moving the protest’s start date up four days. This allowed the student movement to decentralize the campaign, effectively stealing OC’s momentum and ultimately deflating public support. The question now is whether it will recover.

In a recent article for The Diplomat, Dr. Zhiqun Zhu, who teaches political science and international relations at Bucknell University, provides a lucid account of the legal and historical context of the situation, but claims “both sides deserve praise,” referring to the students and police. He says the police deserve praise for realizing violence would only make matters worse, while the students demonstrated self-restraint. But in fact the police withdrawal was a tactical decision, not an act of moral sensibility, and the students’ lack of self-restraint has proven more costly to the movement than anything else.

The first of October is National Day in China, beginning a weeklong vacation for Chinese and a massive spike in the number of mainlanders visiting Hong Kong. That is why Occupy Central planned to begin its campaign on that day, to send a message to the many thousands of mainlanders who would be visiting during that time, and give them a wake-up call beyond the censored media coverage they were getting back home. OC leaders have been biding their time since 2013, holding deliberations and methodically moving toward this goal.

Then in the days before the protest began, two student groups (the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and Scholarism) organized weeklong student strikes beginning on September 22. When the strikes ended on Friday, protestors followed Scholarism leader Joshua Wong over the fence of Civic Square, where they began destroying the metal barriers around the flag. Police promptly arrived and directed them to leave. Those who refused were arrested, including Wong, and the following day protestors gathered outside government headquarters, where police eventually fired 87 rounds of tear gas.

The students were undisciplined but had superior numbers, and after the police attacks they enjoyed unprecedented public support. These two things drew international attention, and Benny Tai decided to ride the wave and prematurely commenced Occupy Central early Sunday morning – four days before National Day. According to The Straits Times, he later admitted the movement was “out of control,” as protestors moved outside the protest areas. People disagreed over which sites to take, whether to take them, and which directives to follow. In other words, the student movement lacked leadership; and by allowing the movement to overtake its momentum, Occupy Central almost let the whole thing get away.

Protestors then stopped winning sympathy after riot police pulled back, and started attracting animosity when blocked streets proved an inconvenience for people returning to work Monday morning (which wouldn’t have been a problem had the protests started on National Day). Protestors claim the government is maintaining road blocks to help stoke public anger, while police say if they remove the blocks, protestors will simply return. One thing is certain; since last week the number of protestors has fallen significantly, and what remains is a house divided.

In Mong Kok, OC activists and students now stand apart, with the central tent area dominated by radicals such as Civic Passion and the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement (HKAM). This division is a deliberate one, with students and OC leaders separating themselves from radicals in order to maintain a clean public image. And while Beijing has bussed mainland protesters into Hong Kong, and may have hired Triads to violently disrupt recent gatherings, it remains unclear whether the pro-democracy radicals of Mong Kok are actually Beijing stooges, there to undermine the movement by slandering its leaders.

If Friday’s discussions prove fruitless, movement leaders could use this failure as evidence of government intransigence in order to drum up support. Meanwhile it seems many protestors have learned a valuable lesson about not responding to provocation, as they did a week ago. If they can maintain control this time, they might slip the unfortunate nickname “Umbrella Revolution,” a term that draws attention to the conflict, and not the cause.

David Volodzko has provided cultural analyses for various publications including the Washington Monthly,openDemocracy, and 10 Magazine.