Will Hong Kong protests bring democracy?

By Julian del Prado

(Chris Stowers/McClatchy)
(Chris Stowers/McClatchy)

It would appear that student protesters in Hong Kong are managing to outmaneuver the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying. Tensions were undoubtedly high following the announcement by Leung that police were authorized to take “all actions necessary” to reopen classes on Monday and end civil disruption.

It certainly didn’t help that Beijing had thrown its full support behind Leung only recently through state-run media. This intimidating combination led me to believe that the protesters would cut their losses and end their demonstrations entirely, especially in light of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

However, the deadline has now passed, and as of Monday morning, no protesters have been harmed or arrested. Student protesters have largely gone to class and have lifted barricades in the Central business district to allow civil servants to go to work. The civil unrest that Leung denounced and the “chaos” that Chinese state media described is gone. The protests, however, remain visible in Central and Mong Kok, with apparent plans to regroup at a later time.

Although the Hong Kong protests are certainly reviled by the Communist Party in China, the circumstances surrounding them are vastly different than those of Tiananmen. Tiananmen itself is a huge contributor to those circumstances, as a China immersed in foreign trade recalls the solitude which followed the 1989 crackdown.

Furthermore, it can still be said that the one country, two systems approach taken in Hong Kong is bound to encounter speed bumps. It is hard to imagine that the promise of a unified system and culture somewhere down the line could be thrown out in favor of the hatred and division that another crackdown would cause.

Having said that, it hardly makes sense to allow schools to stay closed for the duration of a protest of this magnitude, which requires extensive negotiation and nuance if both parties involved are to be satisfied. Ultimately, the stakes are just too high for China to waste its time suppressing students.

Perhaps this explains why the strategy of Leung and Beijing seems to be a snub campaign in the newspaper and the threat of “all actions necessary” in the event that the protesters stop citizens from living their lives normally. But no actions were necessary, and even citizens working for the government being protested are returning to their normal lives. Now, the question is what Leung and the government in Beijing will have to say about the protesters, who appear to be in it for the long haul.

For their part, the protesters in Hong Kong seem to have superior maneuvering when it comes to the media and public presence. Although China’s government has repeatedly stressed that these protests are a domestic affair (so other governments should butt out), the protesters have received expansive coverage abroad.

Furthermore, the ideal of choosing one’s own representative is close to the heart of Western audiences. In stark contrast to the Chinese state media, Western media shows the students cleaning up after their protests and asking for negotiations with someone other than Leung. The praise Leung receives in China is outnumbered by floods of videos and stories from the protests.

Occupy Central has quickly become a common name in the news as a civil disobedience campaign, and the passing of Monday’s recent deadline without police intervention suggests that Hong Kong’s government is having to quickly readjust its policy. If the protesters continue to keep the international spotlight on themselves, a new form of activism may be forming wherein participants of protests don’t need to engage a government actor directly to disrupt society.

By channeling social media successfully, a protest group can very suddenly amass a horde of members anywhere they are needed to gain the attention of international news and social media. Once the spotlight is on them, they don’t need nearly as many individuals out in the open, as participants can instead focus their energy on perpetuating the flow of media to their cause online.

The Chinese government and the protesters in Hong Kong are at a fundamental impasse. While China’s Communist Party seeks to unify under a single party, the protesters want representation based on their own preferences. These differences are not reconcilable in my opinion, as I don’t think a country can claim its system to be adequate while a glaring exception exists which does better than many provinces in the system. But if these protesters can use the media, which is uniquely available to them in China, to circumvent a government crackdown, then we will be seeing a truly new form of protesting.

Julian del Prado can be reached at [email protected].