Will Hong Kong's Protest Movement Falter?

Hong Kong scene

Photo courtesy of University of Southern California

Will Hong Kong's Protest Movement Falter?
| published November 26, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Police and security teams in Hong Kong have begun a street-level campaign to disperse throngs of demonstrators and remove or demolish barricades and other protest structures in some downtown neighborhoods, including Mong Kok. As police slowly clear the streets—some of which have been blocked or disrupted for months—they are also making arrests. Among those arrested are a handful of protest movement leaders, dissenters, and one local legislator.

Though police have so far not made any major attempts to clear the core downtown areas known as Central and Admiralty—which are located in the heart of the financial and tourist districts—many observers and some protest movement leaders suspect that this new police action is a prelude to a wider campaign to eradicate all vestiges of demonstration by the movement generally known as Occupy Central.

The police and some government officials have said the crucial goal is to clear important streets and traffic areas, including major pedestrian thoroughfares. But many dedicated protesters, after peacefully yielding some ground to police, have simply picked up their bags and barricades and relocated to other areas. The tactic is known as “mobile occupation,” and is designed to thwart police efforts to fully shutdown the demonstrations.

The current police and law enforcement actions were triggered by recent court rulings, which came down in favor of issues of public safety, transportation and commerce. The courts ruled that police had the power to clear certain areas—using multiple layers of law enforcement—in order to reopen full use of mass transit and commercial activities.

Widely popular across much of Hong Kong over the last months, the protest movement has suffered during the last weeks as interest has diminished and the numbers of demonstrators have decreased. Also, public opinion polls conducted by several Hong Kong media outlets and political organizations show that many Hong Kong residents have lost interest in the Occupy movement. In some cases, these polls indicate, people just want a return to normalcy. A recent poll conducted by Hong Kong University found that more than 80% of those questioned wanted to see the demonstrations end and the streets cleared.

Though the public has been generally supportive of the movement, and though there has been widespread outrage at the use of tear gas and batons on students, many residents told the pollsters that they saw little positive outcome from continued demonstrations. And in an ironic but perhaps predictable twist (compare these scenes to similar scenes in Ferguson, Missouri in the U.S.), police in Hong Kong must also contend with the hundreds of reporters and photojournalists who have crowded into side areas and buffer zones which separate police from demonstrators, or those areas which have been cleared for vehicular or pedestrian traffic. Police have reported that in some protest areas the number of photographers and news crews outnumber the demonstrators.

The Mong Kok area is a seen as a sort of test case for the police. Mong Kok, unlike the Admiralty and Central areas, is a lower-middle-class neighborhood with a higher street crime rate than other areas of Hong Kong. It’s problems include gambling, prostitution, and petty theft, and its harsher economic conditions and crowding have made it a favorable area for the protest movement to gain traction. But if police can fully clear Mong Kok of demonstrations, most observers feel law enforcement will turn its complete attention to clearing areas closer to the financial district.

Related Thursday Review articles:

What Now for Hong Kong’s Occupy Central?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 19, 2014.

Hong Kong’s Economy May Suffer From Political Chaos; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 18, 2014.