Hopefully, the protests in Hong Kong will wind down soon. After a tense start, the Occupy Central movement has diffused to include shopping districts, a decision which may lose it support and unity. A few hundred students patrol the barricades, which the police aren't dismantling. During work hours, Central's open boulevards throng with strolling workers; protesters and police are few.
At some point, somehow, this blockade must end. Perhaps a symbolic concession will be needed, an unpopular CY Leung sacrificed. But after him, Beijing will step up its involvement in the territory's governance. Depending on who you read, 'the kids have already won' or 'Hong Kong will never be the same again'. Others are drawing historical parallels, not just to 1989 but also to previous uprisings which have roiled Chinese civil society.
Talks were scheduled between student leaders and the Government, but have been called off. It's still highly improbable China's National People's Congress will amend its interpretation of Article 45. As Merriden Varrall has written, Beijing has experience dealing with civil disturbance. It almost always prevails. While a compromise is workable (eg. here and here) by introducing greater transparency into the nomination process, Xi Jinping doesn't look the bending type. As Chris Buckley puts it: 'If (he) has ever compromised on issues of political control since he took power nearly two years ago, it has remained a state secret.'
Whatever the outcome, Hong Kong will have to pick itself up and start the recovery process. The movement has highlighted – and inflamed – three stark divides. All are worrying.
First, Hong Kong needs self-examination: why do our young people feel so strongly about democracy? One answer is economics. They are the generation facing the most acute disparity in wealth and opportunity. In the last 20 years, graduate salaries have been virtually static as house prices have tripled. Their future increasingly looks unaffordable and unequal, and they seek a more representative alternative to the territory's oligarchic rule.
But Occupy Central isn't only about inequality, as some pro-Beijing commentators argue. These protesters also rightly care about preserving the independence of the judiciary and the media. And there is a true political dimension to this movement. As I have noted before, young Hong Kongers feel a strong need to assert their identity. They must resolve their concentric circles of belonging, to Hong Kong and to China.
Taiwanese are watching this closely. Snubbing China's reunification dream will anger a motherland which sees itself in a mortal battle against separatism.
Indeed, the second conflict is between Hong Kong and the mainland. If there is sympathy for the students in China, it's hard to find. The censors are in overdrive, and the propaganda is effective. The message from state media has alternated between contempt and condescension. On National Day, the People's Daily issued a steely editorial that some ominously compared with the 28 April 1989 warning that lead to Tiananmen. Most people on Beijing's streets see the protests as misguided, but fortunately they favour dialogue over force. The harsher truth is that most Chinese, fiercely apolitical, probably don't care. Many loathe Hong Kong's 'superiority complex' and resent its ingratitude to the mainland. Beijing has canceled tour groups, a justifiable precaution in the circumstances but also one loaded with symbolism; Chinese tour groups were sent to 'rescue' the city's economy after the 2003 SARS crisis. Longer term, Beijing has many other tools to show its displeasure. Hong Kong remains a privileged entrepot for China, but it is less irreplaceable than it once was.
The third painful rift, widened by Occupy Central, is between China and the West. What some outsiders see as a heroic student struggle is seen by Beijing as subversion, maliciously encouraged and probably abetted by the liberal democracies. There has been ample reference to 'hostile outside forces' and 'black hands'. Some of this is official boilerplate foreigner-blaming, of course, but many Hong Kongers themselves assume American involvement. Their logic is brutally parsimonious: China is America's rival, America supports democracy in China, therefore democracy is intended to weaken China. Western governments have been restrained in their statements; a former Obama adviser called for Hong Kong to be 'realistic', a Thatcher aide praised Hong Kong's 'extensive autonomy'.
Beijing is facing challenges on several fronts — Xinjiang, corruption, reform — while completing a political transition. The Occupy Central protesters are legitimate, if not legal, but they are provocative at a sensitive time, and perhaps are meant to be. They represent Xi Jinping's 'first true crisis'. It should be remembered that the campaign's original aim was to disrupt and damage Hong Kong's economy, so that business would 'pressure' Beijing to accede to its demands. As the metal barricades pile up and the traffic grinds to a stop, it is easy to see mounting economic damage and frustration, but it is hard to believe that our discomfort will intimidate Xi Jinping. Rather, the question is for how long he indulges this well-intentioned rebellion. Let us hope the students have the wisdom to get this one right, and that our collective community will be capable of healing.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user 20141005 Mongkok.