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Hong Kongers at odds over tactics

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 26, 2014

As police continue to clear the barricades of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, analyst Leo Shin tells DW that while exhaustion may force some protesters to retreat, they will undoubtedly return to the streets.

Demonstranten und Barrikaden in Hong Kong 18.10.2014
Image: Reuters/Liau Chung-ren

On November 26, authorities cleared part of a main road blocked for two months by a pro-democracy sit-in in Mong Kok, a district of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The move was part of a two-day operation in which more than 100 people were arrested, including two student leaders: Joshua Wong, leader of the group Scholarism, and Lester Shum, deputy secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, according to social media and news reports.

Scuffles had broken out between the officials and the protesters the night before as bailiffs assisted the police in removing the barricades and tents set up by the demonstrators in the densely populated shopping district.

The protesters are angry at Beijing's refusal to allow genuine universal suffrage in the city in 2017 and have staged protests occupying major traffic arteries of the former British colony.

Analysts believe the arrests of the student leaders could reinvigorate the protest
movement, which has been losing steam, according to recent polls. More than 80 percent of 513 people surveyed last week by Hong Kong University (HKU) researchers said the protesters should go home.

Leo K. Shin, University of British Columbia
Shin: 'A smaller group of protesters will no doubt return'Image: University of British Columbia

Professor Leo K. Shin, Hong Kong expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada, says in a DW interview he expects that there will be a period of retreat with many returning home, invigorated by the camaraderie but disheartened by the lack of progress. However, he adds, people will no doubt be back on the streets.

DW: How would you describe the approach currently followed by the Hong Kong authorities?

Leo Shin: For a while now, the Hong Kong government has made it clear that it will not ask the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to set aside the electoral framework the latter had laid down for the Special Administrative Region - a stand that is in direct opposition to the core demand of the protesters.

At the same time, with the exception of the use of tear gas during the first week of the protests and the occasional skirmishes since then, the Hong Kong police had practiced relative restraint, at least until the recent flare-up.

Since it has become clear to government officials that further dialogues with student leaders are unlikely to produce any breakthrough, the authorities have been biding their time to find the most opportune moment to clear the streets. Now that the APEC summit held in Beijing is over, the moment seems to have arrived.

Do you believe the Hong Kong government will ultimately succeed in clearing all protest sites?

A smaller group of protesters will no doubt return - and those who return, for whatever reasons, will be more determined to resist and to disrupt the normalcy the authorities desire.

Has the protest movement lost a lot of popular support?

One needs to make a distinction here. No doubt, given the prolonged occupation of the streets and the lack of any meaningful progress, some who might have been neutral at the start of the protest might now be against it.

But the poll by HKU also indicated that the percentage of people who agreed with the core demand of the protesters had remained relatively constant over time - about 33 percent, which was about the same as that of those who opposed. So what the polls really showed was that more and more supporters of the protest believed that the protesters need to retreat, regroup, and reflect on the next steps.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam recently said the government was open to resuming dialogue with the Federation of Students, one of the main groups leading the activist movement. What do you make of these talks in general?

What she said was that the government was open to further dialogues with student representatives if the Federation of Students was willing to drop the demand that the decision by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress be set aside. The government will soon launch the second phase of the consultation process regarding the electoral arrangements for the 2017 election.

Obviously, it would like to be able to claim at the end of the process that there has been broad public participation. Carrie Lam and her fellow bureaucrats might actually believe that one could still come up with an arrangement whereby the nominating committee of 1200 people - as it is stipulated in the NPC framework - could be made to reflect as closely as possible the will of the public.

But China is highly unlikely to give up control of the nomination process. And student leaders and the democratic lawmakers are unlikely to participate in what they see as a sham consultation.

Given the apparent loss of public support, how do you expect the protest movement to continue in the coming months?

The loss of support is over the tactics, not the goals, of the protest. The Federation of Students has vowed to push on, but I think people in Hong Kong - and even supporters of the protest - are exhausted. There will be a period of retreat; a smaller group of protestors might remain on the streets, but many will return home, invigorated by the camaraderie but disheartened by the lack of progress. People will no doubt be back on the streets.

APEC Gipfel Xi Jinping Rede 11.11.2014
'China is highly unlikely to give up control of the nomination process' says ShinImage: Reuters/G. Chai Hin

Is there any support for the Hong Kong protesters to be found on the Chinese mainland?

Yes, but people who are supportive are quickly silenced.

What approach towards the protesters do you see Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities taking in the coming months?

The Chinese government will likely continue to deny the protesters access to China or any form of recognition. The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, will likely make use of the court and whatever legislative means it could muster to stymie the opposition. Hong Kong is in for a rough ride, I'm afraid.

Leo K. Shin, a native of Hong Kong, is a historian of China at the University of British Columba, Vancouver, Canada.