And so the protest in Hong Kong ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. Yesterday, the last protest site in Causeway Bay was cleared, effectively terminating the occupation of public spaces by protesters belonging to the ‘Umbrella Movement’. Last Thursday, the police had already removed the barricades at the main protest site in Admiralty, arresting over 200 people. According to reports, the protesters allowed the police to take them away without putting up resistance and, so far, no backlash has occurred.
The struggle had begun in September, when angry citizens took to the streets to vent their dissatisfaction at the electoral law which will regulate the 2017 election. The current system does not support authentic universal suffrage – which is supposedly guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law – and leaves pro-Mainland parties with a large amount of influence. Besides the electoral reform a number of reasons have pushed Hongkongers to the streets: excessive rents, economic anxiety, inequality and the influence of the Mainland on the city all played a role in fomenting the crisis.
After almost three months of confrontation, the winners in the battle for Hong Kong politics are the two governments involved: the city administration and the central government in Beijing. They have not conceded reforms, made commitments or even tried to appear accommodating – in fact, CY Leung, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and the occupiers’ chief target went so far as to say that changing the electoral law would be dangerous as poor people would have a larger share of power.
The fact that authorities won comes as no surprise: many of the protesters themselves believed that the Occupy Movement did not stand a chance against Beijing’s unmovable stance on political reform. Just as important, however, is the fact that protests have ended without a major clash with the police. A crackdown on umbrella-wielding citizens would have smeared China’s image, especially as Beijing is promoting the country’s ‘peaceful rise’ and the idea of a harmonious society around the world.
Violence would have also compromised the relationship between the mainland and Taiwan, where problems are already brewing for China’s policymakers. In March, students occupied the country’s parliament to protest against a trade agreement which was supposed to deepen ties with the People’s Republic. Local elections held in November saw a major victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), forcing pro-mainland President Ma Ying-jeou to resign as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang.
Authorities chose instead to bide their time while turning a deaf ear to activists and preventing any possible foreign involvement in the city’s affairs. The most relevant case in this regard was the decision to forbid Sir Richard Ottoway, chairman of the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, from entering Hong Kong. The Committee is conducting an inquiry into the UK’s relations with Hong Kong three decades after the Joint Declaration which handed the colony back to China.
So far, the tactic has worked. The protest had been losing steam for a while before the police moved in to remove the barricades. In a survey conducted in November by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 55 percent of the interviewees answered that they were against the movement and 82.9 percent responded they would prefer the protest to end. Even publisher Jimmy Lai, the pro-Occupy owner of ‘Apple Daily’, called for a strategic retreat, warning that occupiers should not “exhaust the goodwill of the people”.
However, as much as the Occupy movement in its current form might have lost public support, it would be naive to believe that the political confrontation is over. Electoral reform has not been approved, or even seriously discussed, and all the issues that the protesters worry about have not been addressed. In such conditions, tensions could easily flare up again, and occupiers have already tried alternative ways of demonstrating. These include shopping tours during which protesters turn up to buy few things and chant slogans. To put it in a way that will certainly sound familiar to the Communist Party, one could paraphrase one of Marx’s most famous lines: “A specter is haunting Hong Kong – the specter of Occupy.”