The message came through early last Monday morning. A source close to the Occupy Central leadership had written that the pan-democrats, the student leaders and Occupy Central had jointly agreed to issue a statement calling off the protests should the government agree to negotiations. It was a decision that demonstrated immense goodwill and trust in the government.
After all the government had only recently called off the negotiations it had offered on Oct. 3 when the occupation was less than a week old. The reason cited, that comments made by student leaders for more protestors to join, seemed flimsy and their reaction disproportionate. Similar comments were after all being made on a daily basis, as one would expect from a public protest.
That move closed the door on an early end to the occupation, and the definite (if often over-played) inconvenience it has caused to the public. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated to an increasingly tired and emotional crowd that a government already insensitive to their position could not be trusted to act in good faith. If police overreaction had brought people to the street to make this a mass movement, and the thuggish behavior of the blue ribbon brigade added a radicalism and very personal and emotional pain to what had been a solemn protest, the government’s U-turn only served to undermine what little trust had existed between the two camps.
I read the message with a hope made circumspect by experience. It was what I and many others sympathetic to the movement would want. But I had heard it before. The reasonable heads of the movement agreeing on what is a sensible and popular way forward; the more outlandish demands dropped; and the focus squarely on what has always been the movement’s core demand – that our government listen to and respect not only those voices in Hong Kong it chooses to hear.
As early as Friday Oct. 3 the moderate leadership had considered calling off the occupation. Then news began to arrive of “blue ribbon” thugs assaulting protestors and threatening girls with rape, and the movement changed.
The next day, as I penned my initial plea to the protestors on the street to retire with the moral high ground and if not majority support then certainly with their sympathy, I received another message stating that the occupation would be called off that weekend. But as violence and extreme provocation continued, once-radical and fringe elements found themselves speaking for more of those who chose to remain. Again nothing happened and the protests were to continue.
The threats and provocations that have radicalized the protest must also be understood within the context of Hong Kong society. While there have been comparatively few incidents of physical violence, and those which have happened have been limited, the threat should not be underestimated.
Hong Kong society is both notable for being peaceful and also heavily criminalized. Even triad violence is rarely wanton, but rather symbolic; a limited though often shocking act to give credence to a threatening posture. It was not the few protestors who were assaulted that defines the threat, but that they were wantonly and, crucially, eagerly threatened with beatings and rape. This all occurred as the police stood by, a situation eerily reminiscent of the way triads and some rural villagers demonstrate their power over official authority.
Insults may have been traded by both sides, but a threat came only from one. These were emotional threats. This is a deep hurt that has not been acknowledged.
It came as little surprise that nothing came of Monday’s message. Having lost the chance to call it off early when the leaders could dictate the movement, they are now left with an impossible dilemma: to call off the occupation would leave an embittered and territorial fringe unchecked on the streets; to stay is to watch a once genuinely popular movement become marginalized and slowly fall apart.
More importantly, both these options are bad for Hong Kong. Many have complained that the protests don’t seem to have an end game, but have they been allowed to have one? The government reaction has been to not promote the interests of moderate leadership within the movement but to undermine them. Far from seeking to resolve a dispute through dialogue they have consistently sought to frustrate and demonize it.
The reports that the protests are a CIA conspiracy are absurd, the evidence present so flimsy that even those who broke the story of Edward Snowden don’t bother to invest resources in investigating. These are malicious lies that are deeply disrespectful of both the legitimate concerns that the protests represent and the courage and dedication they have shown. They are also an insult to the people of Hong Kong, questioning our capacity to organize and our generosity and sense of community spirit to support a protest of this magnitude. And yet, the government does not refute these claims.
While confrontation makes the headlines, it is the stories of mutual compassion and humanity that I find most compelling. There are the students who stood in the rain holding out their umbrellas to offer shelter to the police. The policeman who, on the night when subdued protestors were being beaten by some of their colleagues, was heard calmly pleading to the crowd to walk slowly and lent protestors water.
”We are all Hong Kong people,” he was noted as saying. There have been many others on both sides that have shown such common decency; many on the front line who have embraced the situation not for what they are led to believe but for what they see themselves. This is a side the government seems intent on ignoring.
Then there is the elderly man from the pro-Beijing Chao Zhao Association who, when no government representative would meet him, was met in person by student leader Alex Chow. The man presenting the students with a letter from his association and a box of sweets, said (to the embarrassment of his association) that he personally supported the student’s cause, and declared with respect rather than anger that it was time to end the occupation.
In response Alex and several students prostrated themselves before him in a mark of genuine respect and apologized again for the inconvenience. An event that eye witnesses found to be symbolic of the respect that could be allowed to define how both sides engage was instead reported by the local media as an example of the delinquency of the young.
Rather than focus on the mutual respect, the plight of the elderly man was highlighted,his kneeling down presented as an act of frustrated submission, and Alex Chow and the HKFS accused of being heartless. The CE office lack of response was conveniently avoided.
It is in Hong Kong’s interest that the occupations end and order is restored. For this to happen we should focus not on apportioning blame but on finding a solution.
For the protestors it will allow a movement that is in its cause genuinely representative of majority opinion (that our government and Beijing have not been honest in representing the opinions of the majority of HK people and that the framework for electoral reform proposed by the NPCSC should be rejected) to remain popular movement with a significant voice deserving of respect. Having conducting a protest that has set new standards in civil disobedience they owe it to their own efforts to ensure an orderly and peaceful end.
The government must accept that extremism feeds on a culture of blame. By rejecting a more moderate and reasonable mass movement that is representative of genuine concerns the government is only empowering a small and radical fringe. Far from working to restoring order they are creating a situation where they may be genuine disorder. This disorder, unchecked by moderate leadership, threatens chaos at the slightest provocation. This will hurt this city far more than the restrained protests of the past three weeks.
The government, employed and paid to provide leadership, need to do their job, and not fall to the petty politics of the radical elements on both sides of the political divide. They need to stop playing dumb to real nature the protest. They need to be firm, but also sympathetic to the real hurt that these protestors have faced. They need to demonstrate a more honest, and a more human face.
You can no longer crush a movement with force, nor can you slander its reputation into irrelevance. Hong Kong is too documented, its people too connected, for the truth to remain hidden. Instead we must work to allowing the protests to enact an end game that is acceptable to the reasonable majority on both sides. We should not let Hong Kong suffer for the sake of pride.
Evan Fowler is a young Hong Kong-born essayist.