After the worst clashes between protesters and the Hong Kong police since the Cultural Revolution riots of the 1960’s, colder temperatures and chilly rains are bringing a respite to nearly two months of protest in this Chinese city of seven million people.
The conflict between student-led democracy protesters and the Hong Kong government – backed by Beijing -- is sharply polarizing the community and placing individual families with students and youth under considerable stress.
And the Chinese family -- with moms and dads messaging their offspring on the front lines -- is proving to be an important card for the Hong Kong government to play in bringing a halt to the unrest.
In recent days, a bowl of mom’s hot soup is not just a metaphor for home and safety, it’s a potentially powerful weapon in getting demonstrators out of the tent cities set up in key commercial neighborhoods, and back into their homes and classrooms. That at least is the government's hope.
In recent days, student's have effectively shifted their protest strategy, and have gone to the streets, just as it appeared they had lost momentum. By surrounding government buildings, they are seeking to make it clear that it is the Hong Kong government, not the people of the city, they are targeting for criticism. The new strategy is to mollify a Hong Kong public disenchanted with the inconvenience and economic loss to small businesses brought by the "Occupy" or "Umbrella Movement."
Yet in response the government, under pressure from businesses and pro-China groups, has turned back to force to clear the roads and the tents and barricades. In the last 24 hours the police have brought out the long truncheons, and a new and more powerful form of tear gas fired from a mounted gun. They have managed to clear away more than 1,000 protesters seeking to paralyze the government by laying siege to the central government compound and preventing civil servants from getting in.
A number of protesters were hurt, and about two dozen taken into custody, bringing the total arrests for past week to more than 200. Several police officers have hospitalized and others were seen bleeding.
The standoff is now bringing the Hong Kong family into play. Seated in a fast food place near the Admiralty protest zone is a young artist in her early twenties. Her phone receives a text message. It is a text from her mother saying that she has made a fresh pot of soup. Why doesn't her daughter come home? The young woman’s eyes glisten. “She calls me a lot,” she says, with the same message to come home. Others at the table nod. They get similar messages. The artist says her mother is worried. But asked if she will go home, she says, “Not now. It’s too soon.”
At Hong Kong Baptist University’s undergraduate journalism school, a visiting teacher suggests to a roomful of students that a good story would be to find a family where the child is a protester and a parent is a police officer. A young woman shyly raises her hand. “I know one,” she says. “It’s a friend’s family.”
How does this family handle the matter?
The student replies: "The father is a policeman and he told his daughter, ‘I do not approve of Occupy Central and what is happening, and it makes me angry. But you are my daughter, and I love you, so I exempt you from my criticism.’ The girl told her father, ‘I do not like what the police have done, and I am angry at them. But you are my father and I love you, so I exempt you from my criticism.’ So that’s how they manage.”
Despite a week of police clearing barricades around Hong Kong, the main protest area at Admiralty remains largely intact. Nearby skyscrapers are illuminated with twinkling lights showing Santa and his reindeer, and wishing Seasons Greetings. No one is sure what comes next, but the general assumption is that the government will want these prime shopping areas cleared by Christmas.
The protests began in September after Beijing made it clear that it was not prepared to back away from a so-called White Paper on universal suffrage for Hong Kong issued in the summer. While democrats in Hong Kong say that China has long promised full democracy, China's White Paper stated that a small body controlled by Beijing will nominate candidates for chief executive, after which the public can vote on which one it prefers.
The students reject this idea as sham democracy and more than 100,000 people went on the street, though the numbers of those actively involved has declined. The Hong Kong government says Beijing’s word is final, and this where the conflict is stalled.