They captured the world’s attention and defied skeptics who doubted they could stand up to Beijing for long. Now, after 52 days, the students and other pro-democracy protesters who have occupied Hong Kong streets can’t seem to agree how to marshal a strategic retreat.
They’re tired, divided and increasingly an irritant to the public. Many want to end this phase of their protest peaceably, while others seem determined to clash with police, who face public pressure to clear them from the streets – with force if necessary.
That clearance could come any day now, especially after Wednesday, when a splinter group of demonstrators used a metal barricade to break into the Legislative Council building in downtown Hong Kong about 1 a.m.
Police used batons and pepper spray to prevent what appeared to be an attempt to occupy the legislative chambers. Three officers were reportedly injured. Six protesters were arrested.
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A lawmaker sympathetic to the protests, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, attempted to prevent the break-in, as did several street activists, according to people who witnessed it. The lack of cohesion is clearly wearing on protest leaders, who’ve stressed that their street camps are peaceful acts of civil disobedience.
“We don’t understand the point” of the break-in, Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters Wednesday. But he added that some protesters feel they have no alternative since the government has been unresponsive so far.
In a statement, the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace – made up of older democratic activists in alliance with student protesters – was less conditional in condemning the break-in.
“The Umbrella Movement emphasizes non-violent civil disobedience and the bearing of criminal responsibility,” the group said in a statement. The action in the early hours “used forced to damage public property, without heed to the safety of those present.”
By Wednesday night, the atmosphere had calmed considerably at the Legislative Council chambers in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district. Workmen could be seen repairing a large shattered window. Few police were visible, and young protesters sat outside their tents chatting, studying and cleaning up the site – as they have for weeks.
Yet protesters were bracing for a police response, possibly as soon as Thursday. That was particularly true at the protest site in the busy Mong Kok district on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.
At the request of a bus company, a court has ordered protesters to end their occupation of roads in the district, which is a thriving shopping center. The court’s order has been posted and published in a local newspaper, the final legal steps required before bailiffs and police act to enforce it.
The South China Morning Post, citing an unnamed police official, reported Wednesday that authorities may start clearing the Mong Kok protest site by Thursday. At least 3,000 police officers, more than a 10th of the city’s force, could be involved in the operation, according to the newspaper.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has a long history of street activism and mass demonstrations, but the Umbrella Movement protests – named for the “brollies” protesters have used to shield themselves from pepper spray – are the biggest in the territory since it was returned to China in 1997.
The handover agreement promised Hong Kong it would retain “a high degree of autonomy” from the mainland, and Beijing has since agreed to let residents vote for a chief executive in 2017. But protesters say China is reneging on those pledges by requiring that candidates for office be vetted first by a committee loyal to Beijing.
Tens of thousands of protesters and sympathizers took to the streets in late September, after police used tear gas on a small number of students. Yet as the occupations have continued, merchants, cabbies and local businesses have complained. In the latest city poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 67 percent surveyed said protesters should end their street occupation immediately.
In a commentary Tuesday in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, one of the city’s democracy leaders said protesters should act on the poll’s findings.
“If the Occupy movement has already stirred up considerable social grievances, it signals that the disruption it caused might have exceeded the (acceptable) level and thus (protesters) should change their methods of struggle,” wrote Chan Kin-man, a sociologist, according to a translation of his commentary reported by the Morning Post.
Some student leaders seem open to a strategic retreat, but they readily acknowledge there are varying opinions among protesters, both in their goals and methods. In Mong Kok, a group called Civic Passion has urged more aggressive street actions and openly distances itself both from student groups and their allies.
Many street activists argue they shouldn’t give up territory until Hong Kong authorities makes real concessions to ensure a democratic election in 2017. A delegation of students attempted to visit Beijing last week, in a long-shot effort to meet with Chinese leaders. They were stopped at Hong Kong’s airport and not allowed to board a plane.
If police try to clear the Mong Kok and Admiralty sites, they will have to uproot hundreds of tents and their occupants. At Admiralty, there also are elaborate “study stations” for the students, libraries, cellphone charging stations, recycling centers and an ever-changing array of protest art.
Efforts to digitally archive the art – ranging from paintings to sculptures made of yellow origami umbrellas – are already underway.
Although mainly made up of Hong Kong students and recent graduates, the occupation sites also have attracted an eclectic mix of people from all over.
On Wednesday night, a Canadian named Feng Gao wandered through the Admiralty protest site, carrying a sign board for the “Stigmergy Society.” The term refers to the social organization of anthills, in which coordination isn’t achieved by a formal leadership structure but by independent action among those with shared goals.
“This protest is like an ant hill,” said Gao, standing amid a sea of tents. “There are no leaders. We just take action.”
And what happens if police clear away the Hong Kong ant hill?
“It will regroup,” he said. “That is the nature of this.”