Perhaps there was an instant, fleeting moment, where one could have been forgiven for supposing that the Occupy Central democracy movement might have had some success in its fight for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
With massive public support, riot police withdrawn, and an ultimatum presented to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive early last week, it seemed that civil disobedience might truly win the day against authoritarian government. Sadly, the positivity has not endured, and each passing hour sees the Hong Kong authorities and pro-Beijing factions present a more ominous threat to Occupy Central.
One is immediately tempted to draw comparisons to the 1989 democracy protests of Tiananmen Square, but to do so is to falsely understand the present situation. While both movements heavily involved students, it is essential to remember that 25 years of reinforcing central power in a global context has left the People’s Republic of China (PRC) willing to concede little.
Moreover, the 1989 democracy protests have been largely misunderstood by the West – they were largely a movement to bring greater political power to the educated middle class, a far cry from Occupy Central’s appeals for universal suffrage. The more radical nature of the current protests would surely bring greater concerns to a central government, which over the last quarter century has seen very little political liberalisation.
While some have argued that the relative autonomy Hong Kong receives in the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement renders it unlikely that Beijing will violently intervene, it would be deeply foolish to believe that the Communist Party will back down.
Indeed, as the government stated in a white paper in June 2014: “the high degree of autonomy of HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership.” This not only re-emphasises the central authority of the PRC, but also suggests that any challenge to the leadership in Hong Kong is also ultimately a challenge to the Communist Party.
Furthermore, the surge of public support which the Occupy Central movement initially enjoyed has waned, with many Hong Kong residents beginning to resent the disruption that the protests have caused to their everyday lives.
The result has been a divided public, and a popular ‘anti-democratic’ cause which Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities can attack. It has now been possible for the establishment to identify pro-democracy protesters as disturbers of the peace; the HKSAR have described their actions in a recent statement as “illegal, extremely unreasonable and inhumane.” The decrease in public support has allowed the Occupy Central protests to be delegitimised, and any chance of its success seems to be rapidly shrinking.
There is perhaps a glimmer of hope in the fact that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has offered to open a dialogue with the protesters. However, this came only minutes before the deadline the Occupy leaders had given him to resign, giving it the appearance of a strategy to buy time rather than a sincere platform for negotiations.
Beijing will now hope that the drop in public support will starve the democracy protests, allowing the resistance to end with minimal interference; yet, such has been the fervour of Occupy Central, a quiet end may not be on the cards.
If it comes down to either the PRC offering concessions or decisive government intervention in Hong Kong, the latter appears to be the far more likely, albeit more troubling, outcome.