One of the many remarkable things about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy/Umbrella movement is the number of times it has started to fade, only to be rejuvenated when its detractors do or say something idiotic and counterproductive. It happened with Beijing’s White Paper on political reform, with murky cyber-attacks on Next Media, with the police’s use of tear gas, with attacks on protestors by inbred-looking New Territories types, and with Chief Executive CY Leung’s declaration that below-median wage-earners are unfit to vote. Even predictable and silly anti-Occupy activity, like the helicopter assault on the Lion Rock banner, or Robert ‘Silent Majority’ Chow’s latest United Front fake-signature campaign, flatter the movement and give it an extra spring in its step.
But the pattern is becoming less pronounced. It is ironic: the authorities’ assaults on the movement become feebler, and Occupy Central’s tendency to flounder comes to the fore. Yesterday, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok showed a crass video portraying pro-democracy protestors as full of ‘hatred and violence’, and Occupy organizers offered to stand down if the government holds a non-binding referendum – overseen by flying pigs – and they plan an exceptionally lame-sounding 87-second period of silence (one for each tear gas canister, apparently). Everyone is exhausted and badly needs to go home and have a good long rest.
But how many times have we thought that? The Chinese or Hong Kong government’s latest shooting-in-foot, backlash-provoking Mega-Stupid can’t be far away.
In time, maybe as the icy Siberian winds sweep south and plunge Hong Kong into its three-week 15-centigrade winter freeze, officials will finally run out of ways to screw things up, and the remaining Umbrella protestors will pack their tents and withdraw. What then?
I was asked this question yesterday and had to come up with an instant, vaguely credible-sounding answer…
See this in the context of several waves of protest in response to poor governance: Article 23 in 2003; various heritage/infrastructure issues in 2005-10; National Education in 2012; and now everything comes to a head with Occupy in 2014 – provoked by a proposed political reform intended to resolve the underlying governance problems. After much foot-dragging, Beijing has accepted a need for change in Hong Kong but has underestimated (or not kept up with) the scale of discontent, especially among the young.
The political reform package for 2016-17 seems almost irrelevant now; it has ‘too little, too late’ stamped all over it. Ditto whether CY Leung stays or goes. The question is how Chairman Xi Jinping fits minor-but-pesky-irritant Hong Kong in with the development of his personality cult, the subjugation of all but correct art/culture/thought, the eradication of corruption/rivals, and China’s transition to a services/consumption-based economy while preserving the Communist one-party state.
A clampdown to punish Hong Kong and force it to obey is out of the question: you would almost literally have to put everyone in chains. So there are two options. One is that, given his capacity for hard work, Xi decides to get the issue off his desk sooner rather than later, and gives the Hong Kong government a clear mission to get its act together, stop serving tycoons only and start winning over hearts and minds – accepting that this means allowing the city a bit more of its own identity and space. I would give this a (let’s say) 30% probability, being the most foolish optimist.
Alternatively, as the Occupy dust settles, local and national leaders think the worst is over, and it’s time for a few Band-Aids. Financial Secretary John Tsang announces monthly coffee and French movie allowances for every household; the Home Affairs Bureau hosts a free Kenny G concert to promote happy healthy harmonious living; Benny Tai and Joshua Wong accept seats on the Official Serious Commission of Inquiry into Why Students Aren’t Happy; and everything seems to go back to normal, to the intense relief of the property tycoons and bureaucrats. And under the surface everyone goes back to getting more and more pissed off, until – probably when the 2016 legislative or 2017 Chief Executive elections are underway – it all blows up again, and it makes 2014 look like a picnic. That gets a 70% probability.
Or something different entirely.