Regardless of what the end game is, Beijing cannot ignore the pro-democracy protests that have given the people of Hong Kong their voice.
The fast moving events over the past week in Hong Kong have taken even the most astute political observers of the city by surprise.
The week started with class boycotts by hundreds of university students, followed by the unexpected launch of the long-awaited Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement.
For a week, the Hong Kong public was treated to street theatre and passionate speeches pushing for a seemingly impossible dream: Beijing’s blessing for universal suffrage that would give citizens of the autonomous region a fair chance to elect its chief executive, the head of the city’s government.
The movement received a boost on Saturday afternoon when police shot tear gas into the crowd engaging in peaceful protests. The unprecedented attack touched a raw nerve in the city, provoking even the apathetic to take to the streets.
In 2005, tear gas was directed at South Korean farmers at World Trade Organisation protests. It hadn’t been used by the city police on citizens since the communist-backed riots in 1967 (under British rule).
On Monday, the second day of the massive street protests, an estimated 150,000 people were blocking major commercial districts and commuter hubs. The government was forced to pull back the riot police.
Officials also announced a delay in implementing Beijing’s restricted form of universal suffrage, denounced as a sham by its detractors.
The modest concessions have not appeased the masses who are now calling for the head of Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive. They also want to dump Beijing’s plans for political reform in Hong Kong.
So what is the end game? The Leung government has effectively lost control of the streets as the police force is outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. In many neighbourhoods, groups of young men and women have built makeshift barricades at key intersections and entrances to the subway. There were no police in sight to stop them.
Riot police stand on guard outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters.Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac
For the past two days, the “occupiers”, mostly young men and women, planted themselves on city streets, sharing water and war stories under the umbrellas that have become symbols of the peaceful urban uprising.
People were extraordinarily cordial and inclusive. On one street corner, a group of deaf people offering support in sign languages received a warm round of applause. Yet amid the sense of excitement and liberation, the threat of tear gas was never far away.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, Benny Tai, one of the three key leaders of the Occupy Central movement, admitted that the group had lost control of the movement, at least for now.
For the first time in Hong Kong’s history, hundreds of thousands of people are coordinating themselves with little direction from government or institutions. It is a classic case of the unorganised coming together with the help of technology, as described by Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody.
Protesters have been using social media to share information and developments about the protest and, most importantly, to coordinate action, such as mobilising supplies of water and umbrellas. Beijing now needs to understand the aspirations of a new generation and the way they work.
Yet the Chinese government still has a few options. It could send in the army, the PLA, in the name of restoring public order and retaking the city’s streets.
President Xi Jinping’s tough stance towards political reform in Hong Kong is consistent with his record of tightening up ideological control on the mainland.
Under Xi, China has developed a master narrative that frames the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong as the work of evil “foreign forces” trying to undermine the sovereignty of China.
The Chinese national flag (with the Hong Kong flag on the left), seen after it was hoisted upside-down by protesters. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters
Or Beijing could offer the protesters a truce by ordering Leung to step down. Regardless of his politics leanings, Leung must go for having mismanaged the response to the protests and allowing the confrontation to escalate.
But such a concession will only give Beijing a reprieve. The people of Hong Kong have asked for greater freedom. Beijing is understandably worried about the spill-over effect of the democratisation of Hong Kong. Since the massive protests began,
Beijing has blocked Instagram, the social media app for sharing pictures. It has also stepped up censoring pictures on WeChat, a popular home-grown app (instead demonstrators are using an app called FireChat).
For Hong Kong, there’s no going back. The struggle for democracy has restored the city to international consciousness, reminding the world that Hong Kong is not just a city of high finance and outrageous real estate prices.
It is also a city with dreams, for which its people are willing to take risks and make sacrifices.