by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 500PX/CC

NOW APPROACHING a month’s duration, the series of protests which have rocked Hong Kong since late September have seen a series of events in the past week including attempts at negotiation between students and government, the breakdown of negotiations, continued police violence, and growing public sentiment against occupiers. But we have seen this before.

Yet in some way, as events in Hong Kong continue to be chaotic, there is some sense that the movement has reached a certain phase, from which there has not been significant development. While events in Hong Kong continue to unfold, the movement does not seem to be proceeding in the direction where unprecedented developments continue to happening. It has been more than once that negotiations between the students and government has been made, then broken down, police violence has been an ongoing issue, as is occasionally having to endure the sometimes physical assaults of anti-occupation forces.

Indeed, negotiations this past Tuesday proved hardly conclusive, and just earlier today occupiers have endured another assault. There will no doubt be a response from occupiers, which may bring many onto the streets. Yet these are not new developments.

The movement cannot run on indefinitely. The threat of increasing public dissatisfaction with protestors is a very real one. As with any social movement, the movement faces the issue of internal exhaustion. Finally, as Hong Kong has become just another regular item in the news, the eyes of international media are increasing looking elsewhere.

Growing Public Dissatisfaction

IT WOULD APPEAR that some Hong Kong residents are getting tired of the disruption the occupation encampments pose to their everyday lives. If this problem has already reared its head in the recent past, it certainly will in the future.

It is certainly true that attempts to forcibly evict occupation protestors seem to have come in some cases from triad groups, possibly paid off by business or government interests to use force against protestors. In such cases, accusations that the police are just looking the other way may be true and, indeed, violence against protestors also comes from the police. Violence used by police against protestors, in fact, only seems to be on the uptick, with assaults on not only protestors, but on journalists and media with some accusations of deliberate targeting.

But it would appear that the outrage that the attacks of police and gangsters upon protestors, the possibility of collusion, or even blatantly false propaganda smears upon protestors, is not enough to stave off the growth of dissatisfaction from the public. While accusations followed from initial assaults that anti-occupation forces were just paid-off lackeys, some not even actual residents of Hong Kong, at this point the rise of anti-occupation forces cannot be said to be something which comes from mere “astro-turfing.” That is to say, anti-occupation sentiment is a genuine force among certain sectors of the Hong Kong populace. Are Hong Kong people simply heartless? Or, as stereotype has long suggested, Hong Kong people care most about their economic interests above all else, and never mind “democracy”?


Man injured after conflict between occupiers and anti-occupation forces seeking to remove barriers in Mong Kok on Wednesday. Reportedly, anti-occupation forces included the Taxi Drivers and Operators Association. Photo credit: 鐘定池 , 記者Paul

The actions of Occupy Central’s leaders have long been guided by the overriding, even paralyzing fear of alienating residents of Hong Kong who would resist the disruption any protest movement would pose to Hong Kong’s economy. But even as that has led them to try and steer a course aimed at offending as few parties as possible, it may be that what they were right about the possibility of alienating Hong Kong’s often capricious public.

Yet it may not even be that complicated. Hong Kong’s everyday people, after all, have to make a living in order to feed their families, and where the protest movement poses a threat to that, they may be less than happy. It is to be noted, within anti-occupation groups, there are an increasing number who state their support or at least sympathy towards the aims of protestors, but wish for the occupation to end.

And when any movement goes on for too long, it is harder to maintain public sympathy. Indeed, one remembers that the safely dead Occupy Wall Street only became a mythicized, romanticized part of the American public discourse long after the last residents of Zuccotti Park were driven out and long after it had become a tiresome thing to many residents of New York City.

Internal Tensions, Once More

WHAT THE HARD-PRESSED circumstances of the movement have brought to the forefront now are the internal tensions within the Hong Kong democracy movement. They have long existed, but become effaced within the flare-up of the series of events after September.

As is also almost always a universal characteristic of protest movements, the issue at hand is how “soft” or “hard” a stance to take. Commentators previously leveraged on the difference between adult leaders of Occupy Central who sought a moderate line and more confrontational student protestors, whether of Scholarism or the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), the differences in orientation between these groups is now harder to parse out. Even as it is the students who can be said to be responsible for bringing about the current civic uprising through their spontaneous attempted occupation of government headquarters, after the current set of events spiraled out of control, it is that students hitched their wagons to a more moderate line akin to that maintained by Occupy Central.

A “harder” stance can be evidenced, for example, in the Mong Kok occupation which is recently the epicenter of conflict between protestors and police. An attempted clearing of the grounds of police in the early hours of Friday morning that led to a renewed influx of protestors on-site later that day. The site was later reclaimed on Saturday by protestors from police. But the Mong Kok occupation, more geographically distant from the Admiralty, Central, and government headquarters, has steered its own path for some time, rejecting the authority of student leaders and Occupy Central. Part of it may be Mong Kok’s as a more working-class neighborhood relative to other occupations, the higher age demographic of the Mong Kok occupation, or that Mong Kok was the original site of triad attacks against the occupation encampments. 

As time goes on, more people in general have been questioning of the authority of both student leaders and Occupy Central. While many questioned the apparent conservatism of Occupy Central from the beginning, that dissatisfaction against the students’ line has increased. And this is a new development; students were thought of as being more radical previously.

But dissatisfaction against the moderate course that students have steered hand-in-hand with Occupy Central may still come from involved organizers, rather than a public at large which identifies the movement with Occupy Central, Scholarism, and the HKFS. Accordingly, an optimal outcome would be the emergence of critical discussion about the aimed for ends of the movement rather than what tears the movement apart. Or a shared consensus that allows for productive disagreements within the movement.

Are the world’s eyes elsewhere?

LASTLY, IT IS simply true that Hong Kong is less on the front page of international media. Or if it remains in the news, people are paying much less attention to it. An incident of plainclothes police ganging up and beating a handcuffed protestors earlier this week put the Hong Kong protests back in the public eye for a brief while.

Yet most major news outlets with the capacity to provide live updates on events on the ground have ceased doing so, even in regards to their China bureaus, for whom this was previously hailed as one of the largest stories to come along in years. That is all too typical of the news cycle, perhaps. Or it may be just be difficult to compete in the news with the worldwide hysteria over the Ebola virus in the present.

However, it may also be true that if that negotiations with the government have been opened then fallen apart several times, and violence against protestors is an ongoing thing, nothing significantly new has happened in the movement for some time. By contrast, repetitions of the same set of events have just occurred several times—pending contingent events, this may be continue to happen until the movement ends one way or another.

Possible Ends?

WHILE THE “NEGOTIATION” that took place last Tuesday between government officials and representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students did not quite go anywhere, to the immediate criticism of activists, it is in fact very possible that a future conducting of negotiations with the government will provide the endpoint for the movement. Certainly, the first time around, the opening of negotiations between student leaders and Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, led to a drop in numbers for the movement, although the amount of protestors resurged when those negotiations broke down.

Whether or not such negotiations are “successful” in the broader view of the things may still lead to a decline in numbers that will ultimately put the movement to an end. Any negotiation which ultimately comes to some resolution will be declared a victory for both sides, and exhausted protestors may be willing to seize upon any endpoint to return home and rest—even if they might later regret prematurely ending the movement. Though the jury is still out, it is possible that it may prove better than the movement slowly atrophying in the face of a mixture of public indifference and growing dissatisfaction against the movement. Who can say until then?

It is somewhat doubtful that it will be the anti-occupation forces that ultimately dissolve the movement, for one is struck by the means by which it is occupiers who set the tone of discourse. When anti-occupation forces put on blue ribbons and demonstrate, they are co-opting the symbols of the Hong Kong democracy movement—namely, the yellow ribbon which has become an emblem of the “Umbrella Revolution.” When anti-occupation protestors feature in international media, it is as a news item relation to the democracy protest movement, but not as its own news item. And in time, they will be forgotten. One is reminded of the now-forgotten “Carnation Movement” counter-protest which emerged from pro-KMT elements in Taiwan to counter the Sunflower Movement this past spring.

However, one remembers the long-lived nature of the original 2011-2012 Occupy Central, which lasted for eleven months from October 2011 to September 2012; even as near the end, it was almost forgotten. That is certainly another possibility of how an end might take shape, even as that didn’t prevent the Occupy Central name for being appropriated for another round of protests as this year has evidenced.

Regardless of whether the movement ends with concrete results achieved or not, as time passes and the memory of the movement is less fresh, the “Umbrella Revolution” will become mythicized and romanticized to provide inspiration for future uprisings in Hong Kong—though it is also a question as to whether such uprisings will prove successful or not. One is reminded of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement once more in regards to that, with the incomplete resolution of then-proceedings, demanding for a “Sunflower Movement 2.0” to begin almost immediately after the first movement ended. As Hong Kong’s struggle will not be finished until the 2017 election of Chief Executive actually happens and may not even be finished until far afterwards, very probably it will be the same in this case.

To be sure, though one can expect there to be a demand for an “Umbrella Revolution 2.0”, the question is whether it will actually appear. Certainly, to date, no “Sunflower Movement 2.0” has appeared.

Following the end of a movement is certainly a great deal of exhaustion, though moments of rest may be necessary to convert the spontaneous outgrowths of a social movement into more institutionalized structures that can help prepare the next round of unexpected uprising. On the other hand, when such institutionalization swings too much in the direction of over-formalization, the energy that the movement possessed would be lost. A more fundamental question is, whether such exhaustion can be overcome to begin with.

In the case of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, the movement at least saw the formation of new organizations out of the new leaders and faces that emerged from the movement, but as the high-profile actors of the Hong Kong protests have largely been known figures and previously known organizations, it remains to be seen what new possibilities that the protests have given rise to. Yet it would have been foolish to expect the issue to be one that could have been settled all at once. Hong Kong’s struggle will have to continue, perhaps for many years to come.

Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) is an M.A. student at Columbia University, a freelance writer on politics and social activism, and an occasional translator. He is formerly a resident of Taipei, Taiwan.

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