Matt Shiavenza sent me some questions about the end of this phase of Occupy Hong Kong / Umbrella Movement. I decided to share my fairly long answers. I’ll have post on the last 24 hours of Admiralty up soon, written in the same vein as my Letter from Mong Kok.
1. Why do you think the Hong Kong (and Chinese) government waited until now to fully dismantle the protest infrastructure? Has there been a turning point lately?
This runs into the teleological. There’s no one answer to ‘why now’ except to look at the entirety of events. The most simple answer is that the government – specifically the police – lacked the capacity to take down the Occupation. There’s a night we now call Battle of Mong Kok I where they sent basically as many police as they could to Mong Kok, 9000 people showed up in response, and the Occupation of Mong Kok wound up being literally 5-6x bigger than it was before.
The police came back almost a month later for the Battle of Mong Kok II. They were more organized than they had been before – they were also more ruthless. Police set up a situation on Shan Tung street where protestors flooded in to clash, had a last stand, and became worn out. It was brutal. There were also some extremely violent incidences in the backstreets of Mong Kok at the same time. It was, in lot of ways, a fake battle – police weren’t really trying to take Nathan that night. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, they were able to walk onto Nathan road the next morning and Occupiers just melted away. They escalated, Occupiers took the bait, and simply got beat into submission.
This was the first loss the Movement really suffered. Until that point it had been the police retreating. This created a dynamic where people in Admiralty – HKFS and Scholarism – felt compelled to act. Admiralty at this point had become quite stale. Police hadn’t really contested anything in awhile, Occupiers had talked down or backed away from others who tried to escalate. All these dynamics pushed Joshua Wong and HKFS up against a wall, and they made the decision to escalate.
In a somewhat strange move, Joshua Wong called people to Admiralty but didn’t tell anyone what the plan was. The plan was to block government buildings (people assumed as much). At the moment he announced, people moved. The ‘plan’ didn’t go well because it wasn’t shared, Occupiers wound up on a street that Wong didn’t intend them to be on, and it led to a massive – and extremely violent – rout on Sunday night two weeks ago. It was total chaos for about an hour. Police came into Tamar Park, which had always been considered a safe zone, and used pepper spray and batons liberally. We’re to understand that the sent ‘Flying Tigers’ anti-terrorism units from the airport to the front lines – Hong Kong’s special forces, basically. Almost everyone there that night thought the police could have overrun the main Admiralty camp if they wanted to. Police were vengeful and mean – Alex Hofford has an incredible photo of a cop smiling sadistically as the pepper spray was unleashed.
So it brings us to today. Mong Kok had fallen. The escalation on Lung Wo led to a major defeat. Admiralty felt extremely vulnerable and everyone knew the police now had the capacity – both organizationally and psychologically (sustained violence against youth is difficult – to take Admiralty whenever they wanted to. Benny Tai and the ‘Occupy Central’ Trio told everyone to go home. It was already 70 days and Beijing and CY hadn’t budged an inch. And by that point, people wanted to reel this in. There’s more to fight for later down the road. As a sign that went up last night said, “it’s only the beginning.”
2. Do you expect the main groups (Scholarism, Occupy Central, HKFS) to survive the end of the protests? Will they combine forces? Regroup? What will happen to them?
HKFS is old (1950s), so of course. Scholarism will evolve. Joshua Wong is already older than the age-group it was meant to target originally. Wong himself isn’t going anywhere, despite some front liners being upset at his bad planning on Lung Wo. I’m convinced Occupy Central was never really a group – it was just three men who got a lot of media attention. They’ve been completely discredited and the Trio were notable absences today at the sit-in of the core group that basically offered themselves up for arrest today. Here’s the thing – Occupy Central never actually agreed with the strategy of the Umbrella Movement.
3. Where do you expect public opinion regarding PRC influence in Hong Kong to go?
You have to look at this demographically. HKUPOP has a survey showing that only around 20% of 19-29 year olds wanted a retreat from Occupy a few weeks ago. It was the exact opposite proportion for 29-39 year olds. These kids are never going to cooperate with the CCP.
4. (Related) Were the protests in Hong Kong a long-term strategic disaster for Beijing?
I was recently reading the Wikileaks cables from 2008 on the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong. At that time, the understanding was clear that the NPC had decided that there would be universal suffrage in 2017 and that LegCo would decide how to implement it, with the NPC then approving it or not. Somehow that got completely upended and LegCo was given instructions on what they should vote for. Where I’m going with this is that the White Paper and 8/31 decision were unnecessary provocations. Xi Jinping, or this NPC, picked a fight with Hong Kong that Hu JIntao avoided.
What Beijing has done in Hong Kong has been to completely discredit the pro-establishment camp. I would argue the Umbrella Movement radicalized them more than it radicalized youth. They speak like Party members now. All of their media outlets – including SCMP – have had their editorial cores exposed and its not been pretty. What Beijing has in Hong Kong right now is basically a society-wide work-to-rule strike. They get what they want on paper, but almost nobody is following their directions anymore than they have to. They get to keep 8/31 and CY Leung and all the toxicity that comes with it.
5. Now that the protests appear to be over, will the HK government offer additional concessions? Or is this naive?
Maybe. If CY Leung loses his job, it might be in the next month or two. There might be some token reforms to the Election Committee. We might even hear stronger claims about 2022. But there’s no trust anymore. Perhaps the most meaningful prospect for reform is how much Beijing has backed themselves into a corner. 8/31 will not pass LegCo and they’ve said ‘this or nothing.’ That’s going to be a difficult hand to give the DAB – to go back to voters and say they can deliver no 2017 reforms at all because Hong Kong deserves punishment.
Indeed, this is only the beginning.