In this Part 1 I covered the democratic issues at stake with the Chief Executive recruitment process and what it means for democracy in China and Hong Kong. This section will look at the Occupy Movement itself a little more closely. There are three primary contexts I will highlight here: energies for the movement, direction action versus protest, and what the protests might realistically yield.
Any observer of Hong Kong is well aware that there are tensions with the mainland, both political and otherwise. We see it in videos and signs saying, “this city is dying.” We see in calling mainlanders ‘locusts.’ We see it in the colonial flag being waved around at giant protests every July 1st. We see it in the massive Tiananmen Vigils every year in Victoria Park. We see it Hong Kongers increasingly identify as that first, Chinese second (or third). To say what I think is then obvious, there is an enormous energy for Occupy Central to tap into. What we cannot gauge right now whether or not they have the experience, expertise, or collective common sense to tap it.
My sense is that they are like all opposition parties: disorganized, reactionary, and relying mostly on their opponents weaknesses. What I claim here is that if Occupy does blow up into something large, it will almost certainly be because of how Beijing and the local SAR government react. The scale of Occupy will be nearly in proportion to how much the powers that be misplay their hands. I think they have already misplayed it because I think many token gestures could have been made much earlier to lighten the political mood. Instead, Beijing has continued what I have elsewhere called ‘tone deafness’ – they do not consider, even a little bit, what their ‘Relevant Organs‘-like speech actually sounds like to outsiders. We see this everywhere from this issue to their dealings with the Philippines over the South China Sea. As Evan Osnos noted, the CCP has essentially given up on soft power.
For Beijing, their smartest course of action would be to mostly ignore Occupy Wall Street after making one or two token gestures to have them save face. They could even just soften the language. Were they to do this I am convinced Occupy would quickly fizzle out, as there wouldn’t be as strong a political center of gravity to pull it together. This might be contrasted with what the worst course of action for the CCP would be. Imagine, for a minute, the PLA coming out of their barracks and positioning themselves in Central. Imagine tanks doing runs around Hong Kong Island to make a display of power. In this opposite end of the spectrum, admittedly unlikely and extreme, I think you would see Occupy grow and swell into something as large as the movements we’ve seen elsewhere in the world recently. I think even the most ‘moderate’ Hong Konger would react to these displays much the same way they did Article 23.
There is a final ‘energy’ worth considering. Occupy Central will have to manage a balancing act of being disruptive, but not too disruptive. My own commute goes through Central. While I am hugely sympathetic to their movement, there is a threshold where those sympathies might tip if they’re simply making my life difficult for what might begin appearing as “no good reason.” At the same time, they must be disruptive enough to be noticed.
Direct Action Versus Protest
I think an underappreciated dynamic of Occupy is how it differs from traditional protest movements. Most would point to David Graeber as the architect of Occupy Central, and Graeber is a fan of direct action. This is actually a major point of debate in the academic left right now. Without getting into the theory of what all this means, I will leave it at a concise analogy, “protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well. Direct action is digging the well and daring them to stop you.”
For the most part, Occupy Central appears to be following the logic of direct action. Rather than asking for a vote about Hong Kong’s political future, they are doing it themselves. They are, in effect, creating democracy in spaces where they think there should be democracy. This is no small feat. This becomes a larger ontological issue: don’t ask, don’t even demand. Just do it. Act ‘as if.’ If you want to show that the Hong Kong SAR government and Beijing lack legitimacy, make them lack legitimacy by showing up in huge numbers in Central and shutting the city down. Show them that ‘grudging consent‘ is being withdrawn.
The principles of direct action seemed to have been proven in recent years. Nobody, five years ago, thought Mubarak would resign due to people simply occupying a square. Yet these same dynamics came into being: doing this actually proved how little power and legitimacy he had if people stopped being afraid, stopped listening to orders, and openly questioned the legitimacy of the regime. Likewise, similar centrifugal energies prevailed – the act of trying to crush the resistance made them stronger and more popular. We witnessed the same thing in Tahrir Square.
Where this leads is that there is reason to believe that Occupy might win this fight if enough people show up to Occupy Central, if it garners enough popular support, if Beijing and the SAR government say and do all the wrong things, and if they Occupiers stay at it long enough. We have all the proof we need that merely staying put, shutting down the center of a city, and bringing out the worst in regimes is sufficient. I will not take a guess as to whether or not this will, indeed, happen. I will only say that it’s a lot more possible than most people imagine.