BEIJING, China — Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have entered their third month, with protesters in parkas and toques now camped under Christmas lights.
But while some vow to step up confrontations with police, protest leaders are planning a strategic retreat. They see this as the best option for the movement’s future.
On Wednesday the three founders of the Occupy Central movement surrendered to police along with dozens of supporters. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and academics Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man declared their involvement in street protests that started Sept. 28, which flouted public order laws. Police released them without charge.
The day before their surrender, the older men made a tearful appeal to students, urging them to retreat for the sake of their safety. Occupy Central had first announced plans to paralyze the business district of the semi-autonomous city to push for full democracy two years ago, but the more moderate group has since been overshadowed by charismatic student leaders and crowds mostly comprised of student protesters.
If the protests had gone according to the original plans of Occupy Central, which called for a three-day campout and minimal disruption to residential neighborhoods, the movement would have likely quickly fizzled out.
Now, however, after tens of thousands rallied during the height of protests in the summer, the occupations lack the public support needed to continue. An overwhelming majority of the Hong Kong public wants the protests to end.
If student leaders do not change their strategy and distance themselves from a radical minority of protesters who insist on violent escalation, they risk widespread condemnation.
Clashes last week saw both sides losing control, with police and demonstrators caught on camera screaming and hitting each other in rage. The protesters’ struggle to hold onto one of three protest sites in the city resulted in arrests of over two hundred people and culminated in a chaotic brawl near government headquarters on Monday that sent a protester and a suspected undercover police officer to the hospital.
Hong Kong’s leader is currently picked by a committee of 1,200 people. The demonstrators are seeking the public nomination and election of the territory’s next chief executive in 2017, but Beijing in August said it retained the right to screen candidates through a loyalist committee. The Chinese government has all along stayed firm in its position that the occupation protests are “illegal.”
Hong Kong’s High Court ruled last month that protesters have created a public nuisance, and police and bailiffs can remove barricades from sections of main protest sites. Those who obstruct the court order could be arrested and held for 48 hours.
The student leaders of the protests had initially responded to calls for retreat with defiance. Joshua Wong, the head of student activism group Scholarism, started a hunger strike Monday even as the other leading student group admitted the weekend’s actions were a failure.
Scholarism members are understandably reluctant to give in. Two years ago, the group’s persistence in street protests had succeeded in blocking the government from introducing patriotic education classes in schools, which they had attacked as pro-Beijing propaganda.
Yet student leaders have announced they too are now considering a retreat. The Hong Kong Federation of Students told reporters Thursday they would make a decision within a week on whether to evacuate the remaining protest sites. Wong said Scholarism would cooperate with the federation. Even if the students refuse to budge, police are expected to move soon to enforce a new court order to clear a large swathe of the main protest site outside government buildings.
As the protests eventually end, the responsibility to advance the movement’s goals will fall on a loose alliance of pro-democracy politicians. They hold enough seats in the local legislature to veto Beijing’s controversial plan for the next elections. But if they veto, the city will not have another chance to hold an election through universal suffrage until 2022.
Legislators can also turn to filibustering as a means of protest, or resign en masse to force a referendum as they did in 2010, but that is unlikely to endear them to the weary public. If legislators can make any progress on political reform, it would likely involve striking compromises with Beijing to lower the bar for screening of candidates in the 2017 elections.
In August, Lester Shum, a senior student activist, told a huge rally: “People tell us there is no hope, so what is the point of protesting? I think that because we are taking action despite the lack of hope, that there is hope for Hong Kong.”
After months on the streets without results, it is unclear whether young protesters have the patience to wage a lengthy struggle that would likely lead only to incremental steps toward greater democracy.