Benny Tai has gotten what he wanted. A leader of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, Tai said last month he welcomed the prospect of police using tear gas against protesters. Yesterday, the police obliged, firing first pepper spray and then tear gas at thousands of students and other Hong Kong people demonstrating in front of the government headquarters. The tear gas had little impact: Crowds quickly regrouped and today the demonstrators are not only occupying the major thoroughfare in the financial district, they have expanded their protests to other parts of the city.
What happens next? Today, crowds are smaller as many Hong Kong people have gone back to work, but protests continue in Central and other parts of town. “Only when the government makes a substantial response, then we will advise people to retreat,” Chan Kin-man, an Occupy Central leader, told Bloomberg News. As the standoff continues, here are several points to keep in mind.
This is not Taiwan. In late March, Taiwanese students infuriated by President Ma Ying-jeou’s plan to tie the island’s economy closer to the mainland stormed the legislature. The protests, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, spread to other government offices and large street demonstrations. The occupation of the legislature lasted a humiliating 24 days before the government finally convinced students it would put the proposed services agreement with China on hold until lawmakers could pass new rules restricting Ma’s ability to craft deals.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying seems determined to avoid enduring similar embarrassment. After a weeklong boycott of classes, students gathered at the government headquarters on the edge of Hong Kong Island’s Central district. When police arrested some of them over the weekend, people sympathetic to their cause started heading for the massive building and park along the waterfront. But rather than let them all in—and risk a repeat of the Sunflower protests in Taipei—Hong Kong’s police restricted access. With no way to get inside, the people occupied the street, Queensway, one of the busiest roads in the city. (Unlike Shanghai, Hong Kong didn’t change the names of its streets after the city’s return to the motherland. So there’s still a King’s Road, a Queen’s Road, a Victoria Street, etc.) Had the police allowed the protesters into the government complex, the crowd would have been large but it wouldn’t have been as disruptive.
This is not 2003. The students and the pro-democracy activists behind Occupy Central can take inspiration from the giant protest in the summer of 2003. On July 1 that year, some 500,000 Hong Kong people took to the streets to protest plans by then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to impose harsh new security laws. As BusinessWeek reported then, the protest was orderly, a “kid-glove uprising” in which Hong Kong people marched “peacefully, even respectfully” while police “never took their batons from their belts.”
There was no violence, and the leadership in Beijing seemed to be listening: In March 2005, Tung announced his resignation for “health reasons.” Recently Tung became an independent director of Jack Ma’s Alibaba (BABA), the e-commerce powerhouse that last week had its huge initial public offering in New York.
Forcing out Tung was fairly easy for the Chinese government. After initially bungling Hong Kong’s response to the SARS epidemic in 2003, he was already unpopular when the people took to the streets in July of that year. And China’s leaders hadn’t gotten publicly involved with the SARS response or the proposed security laws. That, coupled with the peaceful nature of the demonstration, meant China’s leaders could afford to get rid of Tung after a respectable amount of time.
Today, however, the Chinese government has very publicly intervened in the Hong Kong fight: first with its controversial white paper asserting locals had a “confused or lopsided” understanding of Hong Kong’s autonomy, later with its decree that any candidates running for chief executive in 2017 must first win majority approval by a pro-Beijing nomination committee of 1,200 people. That makes it virtually impossible for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government to make any concessions.
This is not the mainland. The pro-democracy protests come at a time when relations between Hong Kong and its mainland masters are at their worst since the 1997 handover. As Chinese tourists have flocked to the city, they’ve helped fuel a boom among retailers selling products that consumers from the mainland want, everything from gold jewelry to infant formula. That’s also fueled resentment among locals, who blame the visitors for rising housing prices, crowded subways, and shop closures. This spring, there was an uproar online after a couple from the mainland allowed their toddler to urinate on a busy sidewalk in Kowloon, prompting verbal attacks from irate locals.