Hong Kong: Best and Worst-Case Scenarios

With the Occupy Central campaign having entered the fourth day with the protests still alive, the movement has now gone in a new direction, transformed into what is being called the “Umbrella Revolution,” a name that transcends the “Occupy” phenomenon and gives it a broader identity. So what are the scenarios that we can expect to play out from here?

The police appear to have learned their lesson, at least temporarily, and have allowed the widening protest to shut down streets in various parts of the city. Despite that, the early and unwarranted police violence has given the movement a name and an identity – the use of umbrellas to deflect tear gas on Sunday night. That is considerably broader than Occupy Central could ever hope be.

Certain trends are becoming clearer. It would appear that Occupy Central has now transformed into a more grass-roots movement that is loosely led and manned by students rather than directly by Occupy leader Professor Benny Tai and his close associates.

The demonstrations have been peaceful, with many of the participants describing a “carnival or party-like” atmosphere at Admiralty, Central, Mongkok or Causeway Bay. “There is not a single policeman in sight in some of these areas for most of today,” one said. Another said there is not a single scrap of waste paper floating around, nobody is stepping on the grass at the cenotaph, the War I memorial in the middle of the Central district.

But today begins the October 1 Chinese National Day holiday, a day of patriotic fervor marking the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. It is unsure how seriously Beijing will take the Umbrella Movement’s insults after students called October 1 the “deadline” for Beijing to back down on democracy. Protest numbers are expected to far surpass anything we have seen so far. If the police continue to maintain their cool – and the mainland authorities allow Hong Kong to handle the events as they have said they would do – so that there are no major clashes, the protests are likely to peak.

Steve Vickers, head of Steve Vickers Associates, a specialist risk mitigation and security consulting company that serves corporations, high net-worth individuals and insurance companies around the world, has done a detailed assessment of the situation. SVA, as the firm is known, is optimistic that the situation will resolve itself over the next few days.

“We do not… believe that the bottom-most levels of our threat matrix are likely at present,” the SVA report said. “As to the final - worst-case - scenario, while several pro-Beijing politicians have toyed with the idea of mainland Chinese intervention, we assess that such a scenario is unlikely, although if it actually came to pass this would present a major threat to business and to Hong Kong’s autonomy and reputation.”

SVA listed the possible risk scenarios as follows, from the least damaging to the most impactful:

  • Extended, yet poorly coordinated, demonstrations that are successfully sustained and which cause local disruption and greater nuisance. While the actual impact would be locale-dependent, the government/security services would need to increase their response(s) in kind. This scenario may become increasingly likely if the numbers of protestors start to dwindle after the expected peak of the of October 1-2 and no major clashes ensue.

  • Multiple, well-coordinated, demonstrations held at key chokepoints/locations that cause noticeable and sustained disruption to public transportation and other infrastructure. Civil disobedience on this scale would trigger decisive police action, most likely resulting in the arrest of Occupy Central organizers and other student leaders.

  • From a practical standpoint this means that even with the arrest of organizers and suspected leaders, the movement could sustain itself, much in the way outlined under the first scenario, as independent groups of protesters, well versed in the overall goals of the movement and having learned the lessons of the last few days on the front-lines, continue effective and disruptive civil disobedience at key choke points.

  • Violent action may possibly be taken by splinter groups or agitators associated with, or claiming to be associated with Occupy Central; this could trigger escalated police action and increase the possibility of police and demonstrator clashes. This possibility was illustrated when, on the evening of September 29 two instances of provocation in Mongkok, which included a car that dangerously drove through the protest area, and a reported attempt to take over a truck that was being used by the protestors as a barricade. These incidents highlight the reality that the longer the protestors remain on the street, the more likely that incidents will occur; either between protestors and those with counter agendas, or simply clashes with members of the general public, many of whom are not sympathetic to the movement.

  • If the situation degenerates to this point, then any perceived over-reaction by the police will run the real risk of escalating a downward spiral of antagonism between the protestors and the security forces. SVA observed this phenomenon on the evening of September 28, when early reports of police use of teargas most likely drew in more demonstrators, including some who had not planned to take part in demonstrations. This perception is ironic given that the use of CS gas is, in reality, a far lesser degree of force than police-on-demonstrator clashes that would result in physical injuries.

  • Police action aside, any substantial escalation in confrontation will also increase the risk that civilian-on-civilian violence breaks out as supporters and detractors of Occupy Central confront each other, which might lead to:

  • Riots breaking out which could provide either the real need and/or pretext for hard intervention by the security services;

  • Finally, if the situation became too intense for the Hong Kong Police to control, a state of emergency could be declared, Chinese National Law might be applied, and the People’s Liberation Army could potentially be deployed;

  • Critical in this regard, over the next 48 hours, will be whether the forces aligned with the Anti-Occupy Central movements take to the streets in very large numbers, which could greatly increase the chances for group-on-group clashes, especially if agitators are active.

As SVA points out, the bottom three risk scenarios are the most unlikely. The protesters have been extremely careful to remain lawful. Both sides, it appears, want it to remain that way.

There is the final question of whether the Umbrella Movement is going to prevail. Given the mindset in Beijing, and the hardening attitude of President Xi Jinping, that seems impossible. It is going to take patience on the part of the authorities to allow the situation to fizzle slowly and the pressure to subside.