The protests that have gripped Hong Kong's streets — and the world’s attention — for the past 10 days appear to be coming to an end, with neither a tragic Tiananmen Square–style denouement nor any significant changes to the city’s political status quo. But that hardly counts the student-led movement for direct democracy in Hong Kong as a failure.
Hong Kong’s Occupy protests ought to have surprised no one familiar with the city’s political dynamics. Political protests have been a feature of life in Hong Kong almost from the moment Britain handed the city back to Chinese control in 1997.
In the early days, the crowds numbered a few dozen. They complained about the territory's first Beijing-appointed chief executive in the postcolonial period, Tung Chee-hwa, whom they deemed a puppet of the Chinese leadership. By the summer of 2000, turnout had climbed to about a few thousand protesters.
In 2003, some 700,000 angry people hit the streets, demanding Tung’s resignation and the withdrawal of a proposed change to Hong Kong’s Basic Law that would have curtailed civil liberties. The controversial legislation was abandoned, but Tung remained in office two more years.
The past week’s events may have finally buried the stereotype — useful to those most invested in the status quo — of Hong Kong’s residents as apathetic and apolitical, dedicated only to enriching themselves in the gleaming, laissez-faire global financial hub.
Guessing what China's leaders think is an exercise in reading tea leaves, but the scale of the Occupy Hong Kong demonstrations will likely have surprised most officials. It’s no secret that plenty of Chinese Communist Party members work and live in Hong Kong and that the party’s United Front Work Department (tasked with overseas intelligence gathering and building relationships) operates in the city. If the agency’s operatives failed to predict the storm that broke two weeks ago, that’s likely a result of party apparatchiks’ spending too much time hobnobbing with the city’s tycoons in skyscrapers and shopping at Gucci and not enough with their ears to the ground.
It’s hard to imagine any party operative hanging out with 15-year-old Hong Kong high school students, taking assiduous notes for transmission back to Beijing. But it was precisely the city’s youths who shut down traffic in the city’s financial district. That cohort’s role and numbers in these protests have made Occupy Hong Kong a children’s revolution.
The protest has fizzled — not the worst outcome for the pro-democracy camp, given that a repeat of the Tiananmen Square killings was always a possibility. Even if the authorities don’t intend to offer any serious concessions in the promised talks with student leaders that have helped persuade them to scale down the demonstrations, a peaceful outcome to the protest would effectively mean they succeeded in carving open unprecedented space for nonviolent civil disobedience in a territory that remains part of Beijing’s domain.
As George Chen, a Yale world fellow and the author of books on China and Hong Kong says, “The fact that Beijing didn’t move quickly with tanks and the military into Hong Kong’s Central district shows that the Chinese leadership does not view it as just another mainland Chinese city.”
The loose alliance of Occupy Central, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and members of Scholarism, led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong, will have a tough time wrangling any concessions from the Hong Kong government. And Beijing shows no signs it will ever relinquish its insistence on vetting all candidates for chief executive.
Still, Hong Kong’s robust civil society, spirited free media, educated population and political parties make it ripe for electoral reform and democracy. Even after the protest ends, for Hong Kong’s discontents, the fight goes on. China will be quick to call the movement a failure, but protest organizers say turnout was beyond anything they ever imagined.
Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch agrees. “We can’t just evaluate the success of the current protests with whether Beijing is willing to concede. We need a different measure here. These protesters are young — most are under age 30 — and they’ll be around. By pushing back against these protests instead of listening carefully to the people and reaching some kind of compromise, the Hong Kong and Beijing governments have created a long-term governance issue on their hands.”
Bao Tong, an adviser to China’s ousted former Premier Zhao Ziyang who showed sympathy for student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, says it best: “The seeds have already been sown, and they need time to lie fallow. No great task can be achieved all at once. They all need some time to gestate … . Take a break, for the sake of future room to grow. For tomorrow.”