Hong Kong’s protests: Chipping away

From the print edition, The Economist –  MORE than two weeks after failing to shift pro-democracy protesters with tear gas and pepper spray, police in Hong Kong have begun to step up pressure on the demonstrators to abandon their street barricades. Their tactics, which range from more pepper spray to the dismantling of bamboo fortifications with chainsaws, have done little to persuade a determined core of several hundred protesters from keeping up their occupation of several main roads. Rhetoric both from Hong Kong’s government as well as from Beijing suggests the authorities’ patience is wearing thin.

Before dawn on October 15th police armed with batons tried to evict one group of protesters from an underpass in Hong Kong’s business district. It was their most forceful attempt to disperse demonstrators since the unrest began in late September. They succeeded in their mission after dragging protesters away and arresting dozens of them. But support for the sputtering movement may have been rekindled by footage that was broadcast on local television showing an arrested man being taken to a dark corner by plainclothes police who then appeared to beat and kick him. Police say the seven officers involved have been suspended from their duties.

The protesters want the central government to revoke a decision announced in August that would, in effect, give the Communist Party in Beijing a veto over who can stand for election as leader of the partly self-governing territory when the next polls are held in 2017. They also want Hong Kong’s present leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. Having cancelled planned talks with the demonstrators on October 9th, the government now says they remain a possibility. A senior official said on October 15th that a “well-respected middleman” was in touch with protesters. But Mr Leung insists that Beijing will not change its mind about screening candidates. He told a local television station that his resignation would not help.

The language used by officials in Beijing has been increasingly shrill. A front-page commentary in the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said the protests were “doomed to fail”. It repeated words used earlier by a member of the ruling Politburo, Wang Yang, who said the demonstrators were trying to stage a “colour revolution”—a reference to upheavals in countries such as Ukraine and Egypt in recent years. Such terminology suggests officials in Beijing see the protests as a challenge to the party itself.

Some Hong Kong residents clearly resent the disruption. On October 13th a group of several dozen masked men attacked a pro-democracy camp in the banking district, tearing down tents and manhandling students. Several taxi drivers drove up to the barricades and honked their horns in a vain effort to persuade demonstrators to get off the road. (Worried about protesters’ blockades, Mr Leung cancelled an appearance he was due to make on October 16th in the legislature.)

Global Times, a Beijing newspaper that usually reflects the official line, said the protest movement would “not stamp its name in history, but only leave a stink that lasts 10,000 years.” Demonstrators, worried by their much-reduced numbers and largely resigned to the Communist Party’s intransigence, would be pleased if their efforts were to cause the central government such prolonged discomfort.

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