24 August 2019
Protesters open umbrellas in Harcourt Road on Oct. 28 to mark one-month anniversary of tear gas action by police on students. Photo: Bloomberg
Protesters open umbrellas in Harcourt Road on Oct. 28 to mark one-month anniversary of tear gas action by police on students. Photo: Bloomberg

Why smaller protests are better

The Umbrella Movement is now in an ideal state of dynamic stability in which students can extend or pull back their front line, be responsive and provide feedback to each other and promptly adjust their strategies for a protracted war.

At the height of the ongoing civil disobedience movement, total length of roads occupied exceeded four kilometers thanks to a whole lot of contributing factors including the use of tear gas on students, the police action that galvanized many people who would normally have stood on the sidelines.

As Occupy Central entered its sixth week this Monday, the scale of protest zones is smaller than that in October. From now on the change in the number of demonstrators will follow a pattern of “pulsating equilibrium”: Admiralty and other areas are becoming less crammed with people, but a crowd can be swiftly assembled if there is any emergency or if the protesters want mark an important day.

On Oct. 10 when Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam decided to postpone talks with student representatives, many rallied to the Hong Kong Federation of Students’ call and flocked to Admiralty to express their anger and discontent. Last Tuesday, a sea of people appeared in Harcourt Road and opened umbrellas to mark the tear gas assault by police exactly a month ago.

Smaller but dynamic and stable protest zones are easier to maintain in terms of logistics and can be conductive for a prolonged occupation until next spring when pan-democratic lawmakers veto the sham universal suffrage package in the local legislature.

People can take turns for a brief break and minimize nuisance caused to nearby residents, and, troublemakers from radical pro-government groups may also find it harder to pick a fight.

Previously, many protesters had to juggle their participation with their job, study and family commitments, but now with a more pragmatic strategy, they can arrange their personal affairs in a flexible way.

I believe officials within the SAR government will also be glad to see these developments.

As I noted in my commentary last week, moderate officials within the government are expected to counterbalance the hawkish faction to help shield students from a Tiananmen-like crackdown.

But there must be a prerequisite: the movement itself has to drum up support from the masses. Only then will the government think about the grave consequences of repression.

I had a chat with Occupy co-organizer Benny Tai early this year and at that time I warned him to be prepared for the worst-case scenario of loss of lives as the regime we are faced with is indeed ruthless and will not hesitate to exhaust all hard line approaches.

It’s apparent that if Occupy fails to rope in enough participants, authorities will nip it in the bud. And key organizers will be among the first to be targeted in any crackdown.

A decisive clampdown on a small-scale protest is unlikely to create ripples in the financial and realty sectors and a slack sit-in may even prompt the business sector to take side with the government for a resolute action at just one stroke.

Still, these are all unlikely for the time being given the high morale of protesters, the proven strength and resilience of the movement as well as Hongkongers’ common stance against any further excessive use of force.

It’s also noteworthy that when Beijing is firing on all cylinders to contain the movement, it also has to press many local tycoons, who have been reluctant to join the all-out anti-Occupy battle. The voice from local business sector is much milder compared to the harsh denunciation by Beijing loyalists.

Even after former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa led them to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in an obvious exhortation attempt, many of the key business leaders circumvented the political task and just issued a few empty calls for withdrawal.

It’s safe to say that since these tycoons are not too much bothered by the movement, they will opt to sit on the fence to see how Leung Chun-ying, who is not popular with the business sector anyway, can deal with the crisis.

But Beijing is annoyed with those who are vacillating.

In a rare move, the state-run news agency Xinhua recently carried a report titled ‘Hong Kong tycoons reluctant to take sides amid Occupy turmoil‘ and the article even carried a list of those who are yet to signal their political allegiance by condemning the movement.

Later, Liberal Party leader and lawmaker James Tien was suddenly ousted from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top mainland political advisory body, just because he asked the embattled Leung to step down to break the impasse.

These moves can only backfire with the local business sector being pushed further away from Beijing.

This article appeared on Nov. 3 in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. 

Translation by Frank Chen

– Contact us at [email protected] 


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

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe