21 August 2019
A mosaic of umbrellas, symbol of the ongoing student protests in Hong Kong, hangs outside the Central government offices in Admiralty district. Photo: Bloomberg
A mosaic of umbrellas, symbol of the ongoing student protests in Hong Kong, hangs outside the Central government offices in Admiralty district. Photo: Bloomberg

Occupy: Reasons for optimism

Students have been occupying streets for more than a month and the civil disobedience movement has entered a state of dynamic stability in which all participating groups interact to form a vibrant alliance.

Now students can extend or reduce their protest zones, be responsive and provide feedback to each other and promptly adjust their strategies for a protracted war. Unlike prevailing notions that the protests are at an impasse or organizers are split in confusion about how to wrap up the movement, my observation is generally positive.

Apparently, threats are ubiquitous: from motley members of the pro-Beijing groups like Caring Hong Kong Power and Voice of Loving Hong Kong who tend to resort to violence as well as the siege by policemen who are armed to the teeth.

That said, I have reasons to stay optimistic: there are people in the government who advocate a rational approach, and students are also under the police’s de facto “protection” from provocative radicals.

Previously, feuding factions within the territory’s top leadership was locked in a fierce tussle but after hard line stance failed to deter and disperse students, Leung Chun-ying and his aggressive core supporters have lost ground to the pragmatic, old-line officials led by Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary for Administration.

It’s fair to say that Leung and his allies (like Central Policy Unit head Shiu Sin-por and One Country Two Systems Research Institute executive director Cheung Chi-kong) are extreme and reckless. Comparatively, with their benign gesture, Lam and her colleagues — who have been serving in the government since the colonial era — represent the typical rationality of Hong Kong’s business sector.

The territory’s economy is built on financial and realty industries, both of which are highly sensitive and vulnerable to social turmoil. Local business sector is of course not happy with the Occupy move, but if the movement only leads to minor inconveniences like road closures in a few areas, they won’t be too bothered.

In this connection, what really scares them is a Tiananmen-like government-led crackdown which may set off devastating consequences like a massive repatriation of funds and a wave of exit by professionals.

Certainly Lam is fully aware of local tycoons’ concerns and it won’t be way off the mark to say that she is expected to counterbalance the other faction’s hawkish impulsion for a clampdown.

Another key factor is that over the years, lots of mainland money had flowed into Hong Kong’s financial market, including funds from an army of listed state-owned enterprises and numerous private-equity funds operated by princelings of prominent Communist leaders.

Mainland buyers are also active players in the city’s high-end property market. If Hong Kong’s capital and property markets collapse in the face of bloodshed, these Chinese investors stand to lose more than local stakeholders.

That’s why former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa relayed the message once again at a recent news conference that Chinese troops “won’t be mobilized”.

Capital will only flow to a safe harbor to pursue profit. Such principle is universal; and it is irrelevant whether the capital is from China or elsewhere. Hong Kong is lucky to boost a globalized capital market that helps prevent any ruthless indiscretions.

Furthermore, it is also believed that the police’s focus will be shifted from protesters to deterring troublemakers from triads and radical groups.

There have been clashes between protesters and anti-Occupy members but a careful examination can reveal that the anger of protesters differs substantially from that of opposing groups.

The prevailing discontent from student protesters is mainly triggered by the conservative election framework and the whole related political superstructure including the Communist party, National People’s Congress, the SAR government, nomination committee, functional constituencies, etc. The widespread sentiments are also directed at Leung but he is merely the personification of an authoritarian political system.

These grievances can be expressed through peaceful means like banners, slogans and a “Lennon Wall” covered by pro-democracy notes outside the central government complex in Tamar. Hong Kong students have been applauded by the international media for the kind of restraint and politeness that they have exemplified.

By contrast members from the pro-government groups regard the students as traitors defecting to the evil overseas powers. Such hatred and rage cannot be easily soothed. If uncontrolled, these troublemakers may turn the peaceful protests into an orgy of violence.

I guess Lam, who prefers a strategy to wait out the protests, knows too well that the bunch of pro-government radicals can be more of a hindrance than a help (just think about the recent street brawl in Tsim Sha Tsui in which several journalists were brutally shoved and punched when covering a pro-government rally) and thus the police may have to keep an extra eye on these overly enthusiastic anti-Occupy activists rather than protesters.

All of these lead to my judgment that the protests have entered a safe period in which organizers and participants can rethink strategy and consider their next move.

This is a translation of Mr. Joseph Lian’s commentary which appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

Translation by Frank Chen

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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