Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations have petered out. With the exception of a few protest encampments and blockaded streets, life has mostly returned to normal in this bustling Asian metropolis. It's a far cry from the heady days last week when the world's attention fixed on the hundreds of thousands joining in the occupation of the heart of the city center.
A slow process of talks with the local government seems about to begin, and critics of the protesters have grown noisier. But does that mean the protesters — many of whom were college and high school students — have lost? Here are some reasons why the protests may have failed, and why they have not.
4 REASONS THE PROTESTS FAILED
The protesters won next to nothing
Despite all their labors — the rallies convened, the rain squalls endured, the water bottles distributed, the hours spent on the hard asphalt of some of Hong Kong's main roads — the students did not achieve any of their central demands. Hong Kong's top leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, remains in office and is showing no sign of voluntarily stepping down. The pro-democracy camp's quest to win genuine universal suffrage from Beijing appears, as it perhaps always did, a hopeful aspiration with little chance of being realized. The student organizations that mobilized the protest are now attempting to hold talks with Hong Kong's government in a bid to show their supporters some tangible success, but it's unclear how much they'll be able to gain from it.
The restraint and patience of the authorities
The main catalyst of the protests was the overreaction of Hong Kong's government and police: first in briefly detaining 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong on Sept. 26 and, two days later, firing 87 rounds of tear gas on protesters near Hong Kong's government headquarters. This heavy-handed action galvanized a critical mass of Hong Kongers and immediately placed the events in the former British colonyy in an unwelcome historical frame: that of Beijing's 1989 crackdown on student democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
But in the days thereafter, as the protests swelled and angry crowds gathered in front of police barricades, the authorities behaved with calm and patience. (It's unclear to what extent Hong Kong police were involved, if at all, in the violence directed at protesters on Friday by suspected "triad" elements.) Hong Kong's government ceded some of the city's busiest streets to the protesters and did not follow through on threats to clear out the occupied areas. It opted to wait out the protesters, many of whom were bound to return to their jobs and classes by the end of last week's holiday period. The patience of the authorities eclipsed the sheer willpower of the pro-democracy camp.
A lack of leadership
Hong Kong's protest movement, like many of the recent uprisings that have captured the world's imagination, was characterized by its decentralized nature. The student leaders chased by reporters insisted that they had little control over the tens of thousands occupying Hong Kong's streets. There were no clear hierarchical chains of command. And there was no focal figurehead around whose moral authority the protesters could rally.
Frequently last week, protesters complained of not knowing what they were working toward each day of the occupation; others said they would not follow various directives and entreaties of student leaders if they disagreed with them. Leadership matters — not just for the sake of building a movement, but also to give it credibility and momentum. The latter, at least, seemed to fade quickly on the streets of occupied Hong Kong.
Loss of popular support
The protests closed some of Hong Kong's central arteries, snarling the city's traffic, shutting down tram lines and scrambling the commutes of hundreds of thousands of ordinary residents. In the packed commercial neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, student occupations came up against frustrated locals, many of whom had no qualms with the students' political convictions but resented the harm done to their livelihoods. Once it became clear that the police would not initiate any sort of heavy-handed crackdown, the protesters had to fight an uphill battle to retain public sympathy. "People are getting tired of the inconvenience," one protester told me Saturday night. "We're going to have to leave soon."
4 REASONS THEY DID NOT FAIL
The protesters have the moral high ground
In the face of Beijing, run by some of the world's most ruthless politicians, and a local government largely seen as detached and incompetent, it was easy to be charmed by the protesters. They were rallying for democratic rights they believed are owed to their city — not the chaotic overthrow of the status quo. Their cause was marked by an astonishing self-discipline and collective ethic, best exemplified in the protesters' remarkable efforts to clean the occupation site, care for one another's well-being and even recycle. Moreover, they practiced non-violent civil disobedience, raising their hands as a mark of peacefulness even at moments of intense provocation.
The protests were not going to loosen Beijing's authoritarian grip over Hong Kong in the space of one week. But they did illustrate how tight and cruel that grip can be.
The occupation laid down a marker
In the eyes of many outsiders, Hong Kong is not a necessarily "political" place. It is defined by its hustle and bustle, its jet-setting, cosmopolitan banker elites, its tales of rags-to-riches fortunes. The city is a no-nonsense, free-wheeling global entrepot. It's about commerce, not politics. That was the philosophy that governed British colonial rule in the territory and which was continued after the 1997 handover to China.
The protests were a shock to the system. Hong Kong sees marches and vigils every year, including when thousands commemorate the June 4 anniversary of the events at Tiananmen. But the events of last week were unprecedented: protesters didn't just march, but seized territory and shut down parts of the city. It turned into a landmark episode in Hong Kong's political history. And it will have real effects: Even if he survives the protests, it's possible Chief Executive Leung — now unpopular among Hong Kong's oligarchic elites as well as Beijing's disappointed politicos — may be compelled to resign not long from now.
The protests politicized a new generation
The most memorable protest leader is 17-year-old Joshua Wong, a spindly waif of a teenager who looks like his natural place still belongs before an Xbox, not the barricades in front of a top official's office. As he resisted reporters' attempts to hail his own achievements, he seemed to epitomize the sense of purpose voiced by many in Hong Kong's new protest generation. "I'm organizing," he explained to WorldViews last week, "because thirty years from now, I don't want my own kid to be on the streets, fighting for democracy."
Everywhere you looked at the height of the protests, you saw young students chanting, singing songs, passing around supplies, swapping stories, painting banners, and sharing the moment together. The events of the past week will live long in their minds. "We are here together to be with each other," said Serena Lee, 22. "We know this will be a long war."
The underlying problems will not go away
And they'll have plenty of ammunition in the years and decades to come. Hong Kong's rowdy media and sophisticated civil society will not be so easily bent by Beijing's agenda. Moreover, the protests weren't just animated by the issue of elections and democracy. The students were also launching scathing attacks on the administration of their own city, a celebrated capital of global finance that happens also be one of the most unequal societies on the planet. The systemic problems that are coming to the fore in Hong Kong — the poverty gap, the impossibility for many to own property — will be difficult to tackle. Hong Kong's new army of dissidents will know when to fight their next battles.