Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images

Hong Kong street brawl reveals limits of protest leadership

A large but mostly '€œleaderless'€ movement is struggling to control supporters scattered throughout the city

Hong Kong protest leaders watched helplessly from afar as hostile mobs destroyed encampments and attacked demonstrators in Mong Kok, a densely populated working-class neighborhood in the heart of Kowloon. The confused responses among protesters highlighted the lack of a cohesive leadership of a movement that has brought tens of thousands of people onto the street every day over the past week – and the dangers that poses as the battle for the streets escalates.

The Mong Kok pro-democracy demonstrators who found themselves outnumbered on Friday urged one another to stay calm as opponents beat and pushed them to the ground before police managed took control of the situation that evening. Similar scuffles took place in the shopping district of Causeway Bay.

Older residents berated the younger protesters in Mong Kok, but some bystanders chanted, “We support the students!” But others shouted, “Pack up! Go home!” Some of the counter-protesters told Al Jazeera they were angry with the democracy demonstrators for blocking roads and preventing people from going to work.

By Saturday morning, clashes had resumed in several parts of the city. Police said 18 people had been injured, including six police officers, while authorities arrested 19 people, some of whom they said had triad backgrounds – or connections to local organized crime.

It was the worst violence since police fired pepper spray and 87 rounds of tear gas last Sunday in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse crowds blocking major roads near government headquarters.

The movement, which began as a protest demanding elections free from China’s interference, has drawn together a number of distinct factions of students and older activists. But no leaders from any of these groups were in Mong Kok during Friday’s explosive hours-long standoff between protesters and opponents. Their absence underlined the precarious state of the Hong Kong protests, which were initially student-led but appear to be slipping beyond the control of any single leadership group.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) have organized college students in the protests, while younger students are aligned with the protest group Scholarism, founded by Joshua Wong.

In 2012 at the age of 15, Wong had led a successful campaign defeating government plans to introduce patriotic “national education” curriculum into public primary schools. The charismatic teenager with his trademark bowl haircut has since achieved celebrity status among young democrats.

They are joined on the streets by the older activists of Occupy Central, a campaign initiated by Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. It was Tai who last January had first called for a street protest to close down the streets of the city's financial district if China’s decision on electoral reforms did not meet what he called international standards.

When Beijing on Aug. 31 confirmed that voters would be allowed to choose only from a limited roster of candidates chosen by a “nominating committee” made up of pro-Beijing loyalists, tensions quickly escalated.

But Occupy Central, which had planned to launch its occupation protest on Oct. 1, found itself upstaged by the student-led movement that took to the streets last Saturday and quickly drew thousands out in support.

As City University of Hong Kong sociologist Dan Garrett puts it, “Occupy Central was over before it started because it never did occupy the business district and the student movement was already seizing protests sites in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.”

Tai and his group’s co-founders, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, are widely seen as more moderate in comparison to the more hot-headed students, who have elevated the movement’s demands to include the resignation of Hong Kong’s top official, Leung Chun-ying. Aware of having been eclipsed by the younger generation, Chan told Al Jazeera the current demonstrations “resemble” his group’s original plan because it shares a commitment to non-violence.

But even the student leaders, whose bold actions and appetite for confrontations have made them more popular on the street than their cautious older counterparts, are struggling to exercise effective control. Protest areas in Hong Kong are spread over five districts of the city and attended by swathes of people numbering in the tens of thousands during the evenings.  

“I came here on my own to stand up for universal suffrage, fair elections and a better future,” said 37-year-old banker Johnny Mo. “Protesters are diverse with different opinions despite our similar goals. No leader can represent all of us.”

Joshua Wong agrees. “This is a movement for and by the people and not led by any of our groups. Our organizations are just working together to support the protesters,” he told crowds on Thursday.  

During lulls, the lack of top-down leadership works fine, as well-behaved protesters have famously sorted their recycling and done their homework on the streets. But during times of crisis, mass confusion can occur.

During the clashes in Mong Kok, the HKFS, led by 24-year-old literature student Alex Chow, broadcast statements urging protesters to abandon the area and return to the safer main protest site on Hong Kong Island, but to no avail. 

Shortly after the confrontations subsided, the student federation backed out of planned talks with the government, accusing the authorities of allowing violent attacks on peaceful protesters. Leung had announced

late Thursday that he had no intention of heeding a student ultimatum to resign, but that he had appointed his second-in-command to negotiate with student leaders.

Leung’s statement divided the thousands of protesters who were surrounding his office Thursday night. Many debated the value of negotiating with an authority that had made clear he had no intention of heeding student demands. And, in scenes of confusion, some protesters decided to occupy one of the last few remaining east-west thoroughfares on Hong Kong Island, while others tried to pull them back.

HKFS vice secretary Lester Shum pleaded with protesters not to obstruct the dual carriageway, but the small group of rogue demonstrators answered back, "Are you working for the Communist Party?"

“Scholarism and HKFS are still the spiritual leaders of the movement but the movement has no credible leaders,” said Alvin Cheung, a visiting scholar at New York University researching Hong Kong’s democratic struggles.

He saw the lack of clear leadership as dangerous, but blamed the government for creating a potentially turbulent situation.

“When police blocked all routes leading into the main protest at government headquarters last week, this led directly to the occupation of streets and the proliferation of protest sites throughout the city,” Cheung argued.

Reacting to the attacks in Mong Kok, protesters have vowed to continue occupying Hong Kong streets until their demands for free elections are met. But at this point it remains unclear, even in the event of a compromise solution, whether student leaders could actually enforce any decision to halt protests.

As both sides dig in their heels, the brawls in Mong Kok on Friday are unlikely to be the last of the current wave of protests in Hong Kong. 

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