With National Day on October 1, today is of crucial importance for Occupy Central.
Already, the standoff between protesters and the authorities is reaching a critical point as both sides have staked out a hard-line. Indeed, on Tuesday the Occupy leaders promised to continue and even expand the protests if CY Leung does not resign.
This puts the Hong Kong and Chinese governments in a very unprecedented position. The protesters have galvanized global opinion through the umbrella movement hashtag on Twitter, as well as withstanding teargas and pepper spray over the weekend. The orderly manner in which the occupation is being conducted also makes it nearly impossible for city or mainland authorities to label the protesters as radicals, mobs, or troublemakers. A crackdown would not only be a PR debacle for the Chinese government, but could also lead to severe economic fallout for Hong Kong and China’s economic development in general.
Yet rational arguments might not apply in this situation. The enormous loss of face for the Hong Kong government and the Beijing leadership cannot be underestimated. The firework display for the 65 Anniversary of the National Day has already been called off. Furthermore, both governments have labeled the demonstrations as illegal and said that there is therefore no room for further negotiations.
The situation and context is fundamentally different from other recent instances in which mass protests in Hong Kong achieved their political objectives – including the 2003 and 2004 mass rallies against the anti-subversion law, and the 2012 student protest against the planned national education curriculum.
In 2003, the protests forced the anti-subversion laws to be shelved indefinitely because of a split within the government regime that made passing the law impossible. The second mass demonstration against the laws the next year followed the 2004 Legislative Council elections and Hu Jintao’s consolidation of power. As such, Hu felt secure enough to oust Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who was close to the faction of Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. CY Leung is part of the same faction, and his relationship with Xi Jinping is cold at best. Xi is unimpressed with Leung’s performance in Hong Kong so far, and was particularly upset with the Hong Kong leader’s decision in 2012 to drop the national education curriculum in the face of mass protests.
On the mainland, Xi has firmly dealt with rivalling factions and further constrained political expression. Which begs the question: would Xi be prepared to sacrifice Leung for the sake of stability? Leung’s support is largely based on the left-wing patriotic forces in Hong Kong. The Liaison Office helped him significantly in getting his position, but it is fair to assume that they would have helped his rival Henry Tang equally as much if Beijing so ordered. Leung also lacks the support of the city’s powerful business elite who have sided with Tang and recently met with Xi in Beijing.
It is clear that Beijing does not care much about Hong Kong public opinion. Leung is less popular than any of his predecessors but there are no upcoming elections to worry about, and with his close connection to the Communist Party he is also ideologically a convenient choice. Still, if Leung does not leave and a crackdown is unlikely, what does the government do to restore order?
So far not much. The Hong Kong administration has only vaguely suggested that the consultation period on the new election regulations could be extended. Yet the consultation would be confined to the narrow framework provided by the National People’s Congress, which was the reason for the demonstrations in the first place. Furthermore past government consultations on constitutional reforms have been severely criticized by pan-democrats as biased and meaningless. The overall timeline for the tabling of the election reform package in the Legislative Council will also not change. By early 2015 the reform has to be voted on in order to be implemented for the 2017 Elections. Thus a longer consultation time will give less time for legislators to debate.
Finally, who is in a position to negotiate for the protesters? The moderate pan-democratic camp has been discredited by its decision to discuss constitutional reform with Beijing in 2010. They achieved little and were punished for their position in following elections. Yet more radical and confrontational politicians did not manage to force the government to change any of its controversial policies in recent years. Political parties and politicians are largely absent from the frontlines of the umbrella movement, yet the leaders of the movement lack cohesion.
The student strike was organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, a more radical student organisation which evolved out of the 2012 anti-national education protests. The Occupy Central movement is composed of different groups devoted to principles of deliberative democracy, most of which are headed by senior scholars with little practical experience in social movement actions. Occupy Central had originally planned a small scale sit-in on a closed road on a public holiday. Even the students organizations themselves do not necessarily agree on tactics and goals.
And how long can the protest still last? Many participants initially thought that leaving after the National Day holiday would be good timing, allowing them to make their point while avoiding a long drawn end or worse risking the eruption of violence. Concerns have been raised that, following the Taiwanese model, triad members as agents provocateurs could infiltrate the movement and any violence could be used as a pretext for a forcefully clearing the streets. Yet, without any government concessions at all and the dynamics of the movements shifting further and further away from compromise and negotiations Hong Kong might really enter the “era of disobedience,” materialized into some forms of permanent protest and occupation.
The alternative would be an irrational move by the authorities ahead of an important public holiday to avoid further loss of face. Then the pictures circulated by protesters of students dancing on Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been a bad omen.
Dr. Malte Philipp Kaeding is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey. His research on democratisation, identities, social movements and international relations has a geographical focus on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and the PR China. He is a member of the Hong Kong Transition Project.