The Aftermath of the Hong Kong Protests: Everyone Loses

"If Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians, youth and government haven’t won much, neither has Beijing."

The yellow umbrellas are being furled and many—though not yet all—of Hong Kong’s youthful protestors are drifting home or back to school as police pressure increases and public support declines. Their two-month seizure of selected city streets, designed to inject more democracy into the politics of this affluent Chinese city, is winding down with no clear gains. Instead, supine Hong Kong officials have chosen to obey their Beijing masters rather than address concerns of the people they supposedly represent, and have refused to negotiate. This has let them outlast most of the demonstrators, who rallied with great energy, but not much strategy to bring about electoral change. Yet this has done little more than make it harder for Hong Kong to have an administration that is both effective and reasonably popular.

But if winners are hard to find, there is no shortage of losers.

The pan-democratic forces, a loose and leaderless coalition of middle-aged professionals, pro-democracy politicians and students with shifting goals, are the immediate losers; so far, there are no reliable signs that any concessions will be forthcoming. They rallied against a Beijing decision that in 2017 would give Hong Kong its first city-wide election under universal suffrage rules—but only if the central Chinese government can first decide who gets on the ballot. The demonstration was originally organized by veteran politicians under the title “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” as a limited takeover of the main business district to symbolize a public demand for greater local autonomy, as China had promised years ago. Then it was to disperse, perhaps to be revived later if no serious political talks ensued. But police soon responded unwisely with tear gas and pepper spray, causing thousands of angry students—who also have their own social and economic grievances—to flock to the site. Suddenly, the protests grew larger and lasted longer, with yellow umbrellas to protect against tear gas and pepper spray as their main symbol.

But the demonstrations have brought no political change and the general public, though largely favoring a more democratic system, has grown weary of having daily life disrupted. Polls show that most people want the students to disperse, and three key organizers of the original Occupy Central movement have told them to do just that. Some student leaders have said the same, and the remaining demonstrators may do so within days. The best-known student organizer—Joshua Wong—called off his hunger strike after five days.

On Thursday, Hong Kong police—responding to a court order—plan to clear one major site of all demonstrators so a local bus company can resume service. As many as 3,000 officers may be involved; many protesters have already evacuated the area, but a minority may resist with force.

Yet the Hong Kong government has scored no real victory. Led by an unpopular and distrusted chief executive, C.Y. Leung, it has clearly aligned itself with Communist Party officials in Beijing. For example, it called last year for public “consultation” about how Hong Kong should choose officeholders, and got numerous appeals for greater autonomy. But when it summarized these views for Beijing—a required process meant in theory to help shape the center’s policy—it played down calls for increased autonomy and instead forwarded a deliberately misleading account that helped justify China’s decision to control the nominating system. Since then, Chief Executive Leung and his seldom-seen top aides have been widely criticized for failing to exert any serious leadership during what has become Hong Kong’s greatest political crisis in years. Indeed, Leung has spent much time in Beijing and abroad, while handing off containment to the city’s overworked and stressed police force (which, to its credit, has often acted with much restraint).

“[T]he potential for violence remains and …all sides need now more than ever to exercise restraint and to lower tensions,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel R. Russel told a Senate committee last week.

All this has earned the Leung administration even greater public disdain and could bring governance problems later. It has strengthened a prior perception that the government worries less about desires of Hong Kong’s public than about demands of Beijing leaders and the wishes of local tycoons, who generally oppose free elections. (They’re afraid a more populist government would raise taxes and that supporting pro-democrats could harm their mainland investments.) In fact, Leung has stated publicly that giving poor people a greater policy voice via the ballot would be bad for business, while Chinese president Xi Jinping—soon after the protests began—summoned seventy leading Hong Kong businessmen to assure them that preserving their wealth remained a high Communist Party priority.