Tamed by Beijing

The death knell for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution was sounded even as the movement entered December. The final days saw Beijing play its hand well, through the careful application of minimal force and strategic patience.

Sean Fox
13 December 2014
"We will be back" slogan at Admiralty. Demotix/Jason Langley. All rights reserved.

"We will be back" slogan at Admiralty. Demotix/Jason Langley. All rights reserved.The final act in the Umbrella Revolution was fitting: the High Court granted injunctions to businesses who claimed the protests were harming their commercial interests. On Thursday, bailiffs moved in to clear barricades, followed by police, who arrested some 200 protesters and quickly dismantled the remains of the Occupy Central camp. By Friday traffic was flowing smoothly again through central Hong Kong.

Beijing has played its hand well by applying minimal force and strategic patience in order to wear down protesters and undermine public support for their action. Police behaviour, although occasionally aggressive, had been scaled down to brief clashes by early December. There have been no obvious restrictions on media coverage or information flows in Hong Kong, in stark contrast to the clumsy TV censorship and internet filtering just over the border in mainland China. In the throbbing, sparkling temples of consumption that line Nathan Road in Kowloon, the Christmas shopping season is in full swing; the clubs and bars around the Mid-Levels are buzzing in the evening. Life carries on in Hong Kong, although metro use has surged by as much as 20 percent on some lines due to the disruption to downtown traffic caused by the Occupy camp.

It is precisely this disruption and inconvenience to residents that Beijing has been banking on. A recent opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University indicated that 80 percent of residents were keen to see the occupation end. Prominent business leaders have publically condemned the protest action. This was later echoed by even Benny Tai, one of the original founders of the Occupy Central movement, who called for the remaining protesters to leave before violence erupted again.

It is not entirely clear what Beijing’s long-term vision is for this capitalist cosmopolis, but it may be something like a Singapore-style settlement: economic and social liberalism under an authoritarian political regime. Will Hong Kong residents accept this arrangement?

It is a possibility. Hong Kong is a deeply enterprising city that thrives on commerce and consumption. Anything that threatens the business environment is likely to be unpopular. Benny Tai notes that “older generations prioritize economic security and social order.” In their eyes, the Chinese government has provided a stable context for commerce, and the protesters are destabilising the profitable status quo.

However, according to Benny Tai, the comparatively privileged younger generation “focus much more on self-expression, sustainability, fairness and justice.” Joshua Wong, the precocious 18-year-old student activist who remained as one of the default leaders of the last protesters, exemplifies this latter constituency. He is fiercely idealistic and unlikely to be cowed by the Chinese government or more seasoned democracy campaigners. But he may be something of an exception, rather than representative of his generation.

There is general agreement that the sentiment behind Occupy Central is about more than democratic rights. It is also about gaping inequalities, which threaten the material aspirations of the young and the perceived security of the older generations. In this context, the right to choose one’s leaders may be seen to be a means for addressing socio-economic imbalance. But if some of the key concerns underpinning this sentiment – the rising cost of housing in the city, for example – were effectively addressed through public policy and expenditure, broad-based demands for democratic representation could conceivably fade, leaving a handful of determined activists to choose between defeat and radical action.

The Umbrella Revolution may well have run its course for now. But in the long term, Hong Kong’s residents will almost certainly be forced to confront again the question that the Chinese government is tacitly posing: what price are you willing to pay to assert your right to representative government? 

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