Hong Kong Sets Out to Furl the Umbrella

With Hong Kong’s police finally beginning to clear away demonstrators after two months of occupation of some of the city’s busiest streets, the situation surrounding the occupation zone is becoming volatile, particularly given competing factions and weak leadership on all sides.

Both the government and the Occupy leadership have mismanaged the situation, with government leaders seemingly paralyzed and unable to act, and with the original leadership of the Occupy movement having lost control to student leaders, who in turn have lost control to violent agitators.

In a damning report by SVA, the Hong Kong-based country risk firm, “Failure to bring the occupation to a close has resulted in a state of affairs whereby court injunctions are triggering an escalating and frankly not winnable situation on the ground.”

In SVA’s assessment, “rather than an ad hoc response to events and a decision to operate behind the bailiffs, a much better strategy in any clean out of the Mongkok occupation zone would be an up-front and clearly signposted police-led action. The present strategy ties the police’s hands and, if prolonged, may tire the police to the point where the forces’ response becomes dull and unresponsive.

Overnight, police arrested scores of demonstrators in the Mongkok area while, in a development that had to be a shock to morale, seven officers themselves were arrested for beating a protester severely in an Oct. 15 incident that polarized public opinion against the authorities.

Certainly the movement has been in stalemate for weeks and has done little but get on the nerves of people trying to go about their own business. The immediate goal – to win the right for common citizens to nominate their candidate for chief executive – was never achievable once Beijing had put its foot down in September with its ukase that in effect China – more properly the Communist Party—would pick the candidates for the next races. Dictatorships cannot back away from decisions or risk the whole edifice. It is telling that James Tien, the former leader of the pro-Beijing Labor Party, had the good sense to tell Beijing that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was incompetent – only to be kicked off the People’s Political Consultative Conference by Beijing.

“As a result of poor leadership on both sides, we now have a situation where several opposing factions are facing off against each other in an increasing state of disarray, confusion – and growing anger,” SVA said. “The only group keeping this untenable situation from slipping towards chaos is a police force that is increasingly stretched, tired and demoralized.

So where do we go from here? The government appears ready to continue to do nothing, refraining from any decisions and “letting the courts, police and bailiffs – institutions on which blame can later be laid if necessary – bumble towards some sort of solution, SVA says.

The government has remained effectively inactive and unwilling to engage politically with either the demonstrators or even the public, leaving little or no incentive for the radicals who have taken control of the movement to back down, which means the stalemate could continue, contributing to rising levels of anger.

“The growing leadership vacuum is depleting common sense and practicality on both sides of this debate, also leaving space for agitators to aggravate the situation,” according to the SVA report. “Any such provocation increases the chances that the police will get sucked further into the fray, prospectively resulting in images of violence.”

That has already occurred, with Facebook and other social media awash in pictures of protesters being dragged away, raising the possibility that more people on both sides would come to the streets to support their respective sides.

The situation, SVA said, “seems to be descending into one of ‘leadership by osmosis,’ which could result in the occupation and attempts to oppose it lasting longer and causing more damage than would have been the case if effective leadership had been shown. This supine stance risks needlessly aggravating the situation.

Having gone a fair distance in clearing out the protesters in Mongkok, the authorities will now have to turn their attention to a much bigger job, cleaning out a far larger and more entrenched crowd in the Admiralty area where the government offices are located.

“In the interim, the police continue to hold the line, but the strains on the individual officers are intensifying,” the SVA report notes. “Now that orders have been given to clear some sections of the occupation zones, tired and overworked police officers must rectify a situation that their political masters should instead tackle.

Agitators from both sides have again become active participants and leaders in their own right.

“This set of circumstances holds real potential for serious problems, as diehards on both sides realize that an increasingly strained police force, especially if its will is measured against perceived government weakness, and few incentives to compromise, mean that now is the time to act more forcibly.”

It is growing increasingly probable that an attack similar to the one last week on the legislative council could occur.

“Whatever the reasons behind such violent activity, however, the result would be to intensify divisions and make an already complex confrontation even harder to resolve.

In the more immediate future, if circumstances dictate that the police have to move forcibly against either the protesters and/or their opponents, then considerable disruption and the widespread use of force, including the deployment of pepper spray, CS smoke, projectiles and other Internal Security equipment, must be anticipated, the SVA report notes.

“Staff and the general public have become accustomed to the peaceful nature of the Occupy movement over the past weeks and may not now fully comprehend the implications of a full crackdown or of an Internal Security situation, albeit limited, should this develop.”