Nearly a week after Hong Kong students took to the streets to press the government for more democracy, their standoff with the authorities is hardening.
Each day brings larger crowds of protesters to block key traffic arteries in the city, and on Wednesday a student leader threatened that her followers might occupy government buildings in the coming days.
But Beijing is digging its heels in, signaling that it has no intention of meeting – or even discussing – the demonstrators’ demands.
“There is very, very little room for maneuver,” says Claudia Mo, a legislator with the pro-democracy Civic Party. “The leadership in Beijing is adamant that it will not be intimidated by crowds in Hong Kong, but the Hong Kong people are not likely to let this die down just like that. How it will end I have no idea.”
For the time being the central government in Beijing and the local government here appear to have decided to sit out the unrest, in the hope of wearing down the demonstrators. They have withdrawn almost all policemen from the protest areas, where the atmosphere is relaxed. A protracted national holiday means that the strikes blocking streets in four spots around the city will not disrupt much until next Monday.
“The sun rises as usual,” was all Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, Zhao Xiaoming, had to say to reporters Wednesday at a celebration of China’s national day.
But there are no signs that the Chinese government is ready to re-think the way it intends to run the next elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, as the “Occupy Central” movement is demanding.
The government’s plan has “unshakeable legal status and effectiveness,” said an editorial in Wednesday’s People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party.
That plan offers universal suffrage to Hong Kong voters for the first time, but it enshrines procedures to ensure that only candidates enjoying Beijing’s blessing could run for election.
Loose protest leadership
The demonstrators are demanding that the government withdraw this plan, and that the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, should resign.
Even some enthusiastic young protesters acknowledge that Beijing is unlikely to back down. “Most people here are realistic,” says Arthur Lo, a neuroscience student who spent Tuesday night sleeping on the tarmac of the road running past government headquarters.
“They realize that the Communist Party won’t actually step back because it would be a bad precedent for them on the mainland as well,” Mr. Lo explains. “They are definitely not going to change their minds.”
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the protesters might win the resignation of Mr. Leung, who is no more popular among large sectors of Hong Kong’s powerful business class than he is with the students.
But to achieve even this, the students and their allies will have to keep up the pressure; and it is uncertain whether they are sufficiently organized to do that.
The best known student leader, 17 year old Joshua Wong, essentially abdicated his organizing responsibility Wednesday, saying that “from now on people will organize their civil disobedience themselves. I cannot predict…how long we will continue to occupy, because that decision should be taken by citizens.”
“This is very touching, but it’s a bit worrying too,” says Ms. Mo, the Civic Party legislator. “Without organization, crowds can be more easily dispersed or influenced.”
Government supporters expect the crowds to disperse if the protests continue into next week and prove to disrupt the city’s normal life. Polls have found that Hong Kongers are pretty evenly split over the merits of the government’s plans for political reform, and over how they regard the “Occupy Central” movement.
“If this goes on, people may object,” predicts Robert Chow, a founder of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, a group opposed to the protests. Ordinary citizens will lose patience “soon,” he says, and “things will come to a head. They will have to give way if a lot of people tell them to please get off their roads.”
With no clear and decisive leadership, the protesters may find it hard to maintain their momentum, and to step up their action if they decide they need to goad an unresponsive government into acknowledging their demands.
The movement has been driven so far by a loose and overlapping coalition of impatient student leaders, reformist but cautious academics and politicians from the "pan-democrat" camp. None of them have real control over the tens of thousands of mainly young people who have flooded the streets in recent days.
“There are no leaders and nobody has authority to speak for the crowds,” worries Martin Lee, a veteran democracy activist.
That makes it hard to envision negotiations, if both sides decided at some point that negotiations were needed to resolve the crisis. Chan Kin-man, a founder of “Occupy Central,” said Wednesday his organization was ready to talk to the local government but not to Leung.
Ways out of the impasse could be found without either side losing face, suggests Mr. Lee. Leung could announce that in the light of new developments, the report he submitted to Beijing earlier this year, on which the central government based its electoral reform plan, is outdated.
That might allow the Hong Kong authorities to start the reform process anew, he says, and to come up with a system acceptable to all.
“There are possible solutions,” agrees Sebastian Veg, head of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, “but crisis resolution takes some bending on both sides and charismatic figures ready to take risks.” And so far, there is no sign of either.