More argy-bargy: Hong Kong heats up again

The Economist, Analects – MASKED men attacked pro-democracy protesters for the second time in as many weeks on the morning of October 13th in Hong Kong’s Admiralty business district. The scuffles prompted bankers walking to work on blockaded thoroughfares to shout out in defence of the young demonstrators.

Just as in earlier attacks on protesters in the residential neighbourhood of Mong Kok, on the other side of Hong Kong harbour, the young men picked fights and removed protesters’ barricades. This time the strife took place in the shadow of major banks’ headquarters, including the towering Bank of China building.

Society is divided and patience is wearing thin among small-business owners and workers as the “Occupy Hong Kong” demonstrations enter their third week. The stand-off in the financial district continued for hours after police whisked the masked men away, as older people arrived on the scene to berate protesters and demand that they “open the road”.

A cavalcade of taxi drivers, angered by loss of business, drove up to the barricades and honked their horns, accusing student protesters of “chilling out in tents” while the working class struggle to make a living. Earlier in the morning a group of about a hundred peoplesurrounded the office of the pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, delaying the delivery of newspapers for hours.

Police separated the two sides and arrested at least three people for assault and possession of weapons, before guiding counter-protesters away from the banking district as activists jeered: “You can collect your money now,” and chanted: “Give us real universal suffrage!”.

Hong Kong police had removed some barricades from protest sites early on Monday, prompting complaints by many protesters that they had made it easier for counter-demonstrators to move in. A leading pro-democracy group, Occupy Central, issued a statement urging police to “prevent certain people from damaging the peaceful occupy movement, and avoid any suspicion that the government may be trying to use the masses to attack the masses”. But some opponents accuse activists of maligning them. “We are just ordinary citizens. Could all of us be triad gangsters? Some of us support the students’ demands but the way they’ve blocked major roads all over the city is extremely selfish,” says one counter-protester.

Demonstrators have been calling on the government to re-schedule talks with student leaders which it cancelled last week. The government has paid little heed. Most senior officials were in the mainland city of Guangzhou over the weekend, holding meetings with leaders from nine Chinese provinces to discuss regional economic integration.

Undeterred by the government’s cold-shoulder, the charismatic student leader Joshua Wong, who turned 18 on Monday, last Friday told a crowd: “If short-term protests won’t work, there will be long-term protests… There is no losing.”  

Protesters were busy during the afternoon reinforcing and building up new barricades in all three of their main protest sites—Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay—bracing for a feared onslaught by counter-demonstrators during the night. Police, meanwhile,told a press conference that they planned to remove roadblocks in the financial district and would use a “minimum” of force if necessary. 

“C.Y.” Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive, gave a rare television interview on October 12th in which he said the demonstrations were “out of control” but were likely to end soon. Mr Leung said the protesters had “zero chance” of getting China’s ruling Communist Party to change its plans for elections for the position of chief executive in 2007. The plans, which were announced in late August, triggered the recent unrest. They included giving the party’s supporters in Hong Kong what would amount to a veto over the choice of candidates.

Protesters responded angrily to Mr Leung’s remarks. “In fact, it is our government that is out of control—a government that fires tear-gas at unarmed citizens and unilaterally terminated dialogue with the students,” the three main activist groups said in a joint statement.

In what looked like a change of tactic, having previously preferred to deal only with the Hong Kong government, student groups issued an open letter on October 11th to China’s president, Xi Jinping, urging him to consider political reforms in the semi-autonomous territory. “If the central government is confident, it should not be afraid to let Hong Kong people elect their own chief executive,” the letter said. 

On the evening of October 13th thousands of protesters were massing again. A speaker led one group in singing protest songs while other students, worried that protracted demonstrating would affect their grades, did their homework on the streets. But most protesters seemed to have lost hope for a satisfactory outcome. “We are just holding out until we get cleared away eventually,” said a young protester. “But even if there are no protests any more how can Hong Kong be governed when the people have lost all faith in leaders and the central government’s commitments to us?”

(Picture credit: AFP)

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