As China prepares to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, Hong Kong is in the process of attempting to overthrow that very same political and social order. Already into day three of the Occupy Central campaign, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protestors continue to hold Hong Kong city centre at a standstill, forcing bank branches to close in the downtown area to close and prompting Hong Kong stocks to fall 1.9 percent in the campaign’s first day. All the while the authorities keep their distance.
The aim of the Occupy Central campaign is to bring about political reform by shutting down Hong Kong’s financial district. Although the campaign previously lacked public backing, the police’s excessive use of force in dispersing protestors over the weekend, with tear gas and pepper spray, has urged tens of thousands of protestors on to the city’s streets in support of the movement. Now occupying key districts of the downtown area with angered and determined protestors behind their cause, Beijing cannot afford to tolerate the campaign for a sustained period and must decide on a course of action. Protest organizers issued Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung with an ultimatum Tuesday, saying he has until October 1 to respond to meet their demands and step down.
“At this time, the authorities are re-thinking their options. They realise it is counter-productive to take a hard-line approach [as they did during the weekend] against the protestors,” said Joseph Chang, a political-science professor at City University in Hong Kong and convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of democratic parties supporting Occupy Central.
(LIVE UPDATES: Hong Kong pro-democracy protests continue)
The use of force in quenching the movement would not only be a PR disaster for the Communist Party internationally – drawing comparisons with the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 – but would likely instigate more public support and further cement opposition against Beijing and the Hong Kong police.
“People acted spontaneously [on the weekend when joining the protests]. They were not following the call from pro-democracy party leaders, but were angry by what they saw from the police and took to the streets themselves to vent,” said Chang, who was also detained for 12 hours by police for protesting, which he could be later prosecuted for.
If the use of force is an unlikely deterrent against the civil disobedience movement, then Beijing’s remaining options in reclaiming the city centre seem limited. The authorities can hold out and hope the movement runs out of steam over the coming days, with many suspecting that Hong Kong workers are not willing to lose their jobs for the cause.
However, the students announced Monday that they have extended their class boycott indefinitely, and the Occupy Central campaign has being preparing for the occupation for some time, arranging food supplies, portaloos and electrical power outlets. This would suggest that the occupy movement could be a prolonged affair, and crowds were growing again on Hong Kong’s streets on Tuesday afternoon.
Another option, and the least likely, is that Beijing will negotiate with the protestors, grant them their demands for the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s, and possibly allow Hong Kong the power the elect its own candidates for the 2017 election as previously promised. But the Communist Party yielding to the demands of mass protests, which are illegal in mainland China, would be an act of weakness that an already fragile and deeply insecure party would never permit.
Only hours away from the National Day on October 1, the holiday in Hong Kong is expected to bring more supporters to the streets which will only reinforce the pro-democracy movement and further back Beijing into a corner, where they could be forced to lash out.