The recent protests in Hong Kong have created a public relations landmine for government officials. Though the name of the protests keeps shifting - Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement, the Umbrella Revolution - the events on the ground have left leaders scrambling to contain the protesters and prevent a further escalation of events.
Falling smack in the middle of National Week, a Chinese holiday between Oct. 1 and Oct. 7, the timing could not have been worse for Beijing. Many Chinese travel during this time, and Hong Kong is a coveted destination. A complete news blackout was impossible, as officials turned instead to urging mainlanders not to travel to Hong Kong because of the unrest.
Blocking access in the international city was also not an option, though Chinese influence over media outlets in Hong Kong is growing. Instead, editorialists at the major Chinese papers took to condemning the actions of the Hong Kong students. Public opinion continues to constrain the government’s response to the protests.
Though some speculated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might be brought in if the situation continued to deteriorate, it now seems unlikely that Beijing will exercise this option. Calling in the PLA is well within China’s administrative power, but it could create an even greater backlash. The Xi Jinping administration is likely reluctant to get dragged into another Tiananmen-style confrontation.
With Beijing unwilling to crack down and unable to back down for fear of admitting political defeat, the local Hong Kong government is bearing the brunt of protest management. On the political side this means trying to create a dialogue with protest leaders without ceding much ground. On the logistical side, the local police are managing the protesters who continue to block major streets and sections of the city.
Police response has been highly controversial. The decision on Sept. 28 to use tear gas was widely denounced, as was their reported failure to protect protesters who were violently assaulted on Oct. 3 by thugs with ties to organized crime. Members of the police leadership have come forward to defend their actions in detail, providing some clues about the extent to which local leaders, not higher ups in Beijing, are driving decisions.
The senior superintendent who made the call to use tear gas spoke to a reporter from the South China Morning Post about his decision, explaining his concern that increasingly aggressive protesters along the police cordon would break the line and cause a dangerous crush of people. This may sound unlikely or self-serving, but it is a well-known worry to police officers and people with knowledge of protest response elsewhere. One researcher currently on the ground, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of his research, explains that he has yet to see the police use force without provocation.
A YouTube video shows one example of how these confrontations progress:
Provocation or not, the use of tear gas and pepper spray against unarmed civilians shows a forceful side of the government that tests the boundaries of permissible state action. The Hong Kong researcher reports that the officers he has observed appear conscious that they are being observed and potentially filmed by both journalists and citizens. The police themselves have video crews on the ground and are collecting visual documentation they can later use as evidence in their defense.
There is little doubt that internal policy changes will be made as a result of the current protests, and it is likely those changes will seek to minimize confrontation. One unlikely model for protester-police interaction comes from the Falun Dafa, an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Communist Party that regularly stages protests in Hong Kong. Like the student protesters, Falun Dafa supporters were protesting on Oct. 1, but unlike the students, this was a gathering in which protesters appeared to work with the police. Officers even stopped traffic for the marchers – a stark contrast with the student protests taking place along the same route.
But cooperative protest may not be what the students want. Protest leaders are refusing to budge on their demands for the removal of Hong Kong's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and the protection and expansion of democracy in this Special Administration Region of China. An overview of the development of political protest in Hong Kong appears in part 2 of this post, on Hong Kong's protest tradition.