South China Morning Post
Gary Cheung and Jeffie Lam
The civil-disobedience movement demanding true democracy has gone far beyond what was originally planned – and there’s no end in sight
It’s been a month that has shaken Hong Kong. The city changed forever when, at 1.45am on September 28, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting declared the start of the long-anticipated civil-disobedience campaign as crowds gathered to back students arrested at the end of a week-long class boycott.
The massive protests have paralysed streets and sparked unprecedented passion for democracy. The heavy use of pepper spray and the firing of 87 tear-gas canisters by police seemed to encourage rather than repel the protesters. The occupation spread beyond the area around government headquarters in Admiralty to Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, with a brief mini-occupation of Tsim Sha Tsui.
Instantly drawing massive overseas media interest, dramatic scenes of protesters wielding umbrellas and filling streets usually packed with cars and buses brought Hong Kong’s democracy movement firmly to the world’s attention.
Yet one month on, there is no end in sight. Tensions between the government and its critics have only escalated and threaten to tear the community apart.
The protests have gone far beyond the scope envisioned by Occupy’s co-founders. That it has veered dramatically from the script and created a virtually leaderless movement has raised concerns that the situation could spiral out of control.
Tai’s original plan was to mobilise 10,000 people to block roads in the city’s financial heart if the local and central governments created a system for the 2017 chief executive election that did not allow a “genuine” choice of candidates. He pledged to keep the campaign away from residential districts to avoid damaging people’s livelihoods.
The original plan was to gather on Chater Road in Central on October 1, the National Day holiday, and stay in place for about three days. Tai told Bloomberg on September 2 that the organisers would act on a date that “would cause the minimal damage to Hong Kong’s economy”.
A group headed by Occupy co-founder the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming had applied for a rally in an area of Chater Road closed to traffic on Sundays and public holidays on October 1 and 2, and to use Chater Garden from October 1 to 3. Informed sources within the Occupy movement said its co-founders had informed top government officials about their plan beforehand.
But the plans went out of the window on September 26, when members of the Federation of Students and school pupil-led protest group Scholarism – irate after they were turfed out of Tamar Park in favour of a pro-Beijing rally – barged into a forecourt at government headquarters. The area, known as Civic Square, had been a popular protest venue until it was fenced off.
Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong Chi-fung and several federation leaders were arrested, prompting people from all walks of life to rally in support of them, with Tai, Chu and co-organiser Dr Chan Kin-man among them.
After initially rejecting the idea of an immediate start to their campaign, the three organisers came under pressure from student activists and agreed that what Tai called the “era of civil disobedience” had begun.
From its inception, the civil-disobedience movement veered from the Occupy Central script – after all, it was Admiralty not Central that was occupied.
Organisers were stunned when almost three-quarters of the people already taking part in the sit-in left after the announcement. “Some people did not want the movement to be led by Occupy Central,” Chan said. Noting that 80 per cent of protesters flocking to Admiralty were young people, Occupy leaders positioned themselves as facilitators and “service leaders” of the student-led movement. “Recognising that we were part of the movement, we asked Occupy volunteers to take our logo off their uniforms,” Chan said.
Yet the shift in leadership from Occupy to the student leaders left the protests less organised than planned and meant decisions required lengthy discussion between representatives of the Federation of Students, Scholarism and Occupy.
As that historic Sunday continued, Occupy organisers suggested that protesters retreat amid safety concerns. Leaders from many parts of the social and political spectrum, including former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang and the city’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, urged the protesters to leave to avoid confrontation. Police warned that “robust and firm” action could be taken in the event of violence.
But the federation believed it was inappropriate to disperse before the government made any concession. Occupy leaders were convinced by their argument.
Former Democratic Party lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong said the Hong Kong government should learn from the protests. “It should engage in sincere dialogue with students and other sectors in future to prevent a repeat of such a stunning campaign,” he said. While he praised the movement as an inspiration, Cheung admitted Hong Kong society had paid a heavy price for the campaign, which had unavoidably torn the community.