Fading Hong Kong protests still a challenge to China’s image

Statue of a wooden man holding an umbrella, symbol of the pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution", stands defiantly in front of the main Hong Kong government buildings in Admiralty District in Hong Kong, China on Oct. 7, 2014. (Chris Stowers/McClatchy)
Statue of a wooden man holding an umbrella, symbol of the pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution", stands defiantly in front of the main Hong Kong government buildings in Admiralty District in Hong Kong, China on Oct. 7, 2014. (Chris Stowers/McClatchy) McClatchy

China hasn’t said much about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, other than trotting out its state media to describe the protesters as fringe extremists, small in number, causing chaos in one of Asia’s major trading centers.

Now, as the number of core protesters drop from thousands to a few hundred, the question becomes: Is Beijing scoring a propaganda victory?

It hasn’t – at least not yet.

Analysts say that even if Hong Kong’s street activists are getting tired and haven’t gained immediate concessions on their demands, they’ve captured international attention. They’ve also knocked fissures in the armored image that China’s Communist Party wants to project, at home and abroad.

In Taipei, there’s less interest than before in one of Beijing’s goals: having Taiwan eventually reunify with the mainland. In China’s ethnic autonomous regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, there’s increased skepticism that Beijing will ever deliver on its promises.

“All of this stuff (from Beijing) is being rejected in Hong Kong and doesn’t have much resonance elsewhere,” said Sam Crane, a China specialist and political scientist at Williams College in Massachusetts. The protests, and the government response to them, he said, “undermine the image of the party as wise leaders who know what is best for the country.”

Hong Kong has been gripped by mass occupations at three major sites for more than a week. Leaders of students and pro-democracy groups want Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also known as C.Y. Leung, to step down. They have a larger goal of electing his successor by 2017 without Beijing vetting the candidates. China’s leaders have rejected that.

A week ago Sunday, Hong Kong authorities allowed police to use tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters. The result was the demonstrations swelled. That drove the government to back off and wait, allowing time to pass as commuters and businesses became frustrated with the road closures and other disruptions.

The number of true “occupiers” has dropped to a few hundred at the three sites in the last two days. Some protesters are fatigued. Some need to go back to work. Many of the holdouts are disillusioned with attempts by certain student leaders to negotiate with the Hong Kong government.

Joyce Ho, a supporter of the holdouts, showed up in a wheelchair Tuesday at one of the city’s most volatile protest sites, in Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. She said she’d been coming there three days straight and hoped the occupiers wouldn’t give up.

“C.Y. Leung can’t be trusted,” said Ho, who had a disparaging remark about the chief executive written in black ink on her arm. Leung and his people “only listen to China,” she said. “They don’t listen to us.”

At least one U.S. analyst, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, thinks that China’s and Hong Kong’s strategy of waiting it out is smart, from a Beijing perspective. He said the protesters’ effort to pressure them was futile.

Hong Kong residents are “not going to put their lives on hold for a pipe dream,” Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “So (Leung’s) strategy so far of watching and waiting is not stupid.”

Others disagree. Crane said Hong Kong and Beijing might wait out this period and “will try to make propaganda hay” out of the dwindling protests but that they couldn’t predict what the future would bring.

“If Beijing argues the movement has little support, and we have another massive demonstration in a couple of weeks, it would then look pretty foolish,” he said.

Already Hong Kong has changed the lexicon of civil disobedience protests, especially after police used pepper spray on young demonstrators, prompting them to use umbrellas to protect themselves. Originally called Occupy Central, for the original plan to occupy the city’s central business district, the protest is now called the Umbrella Movement or even the Umbrella Revolution.

Some think that latter label goes too far.

“This is not a revolution,” said Francis Moriarty, a veteran Hong Kong journalist and commentator on the politics of the former British colony. Most student leaders have made it clear, he said, that they aren’t aiming to spread their protests to the mainland or even to challenge Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Still, the unscripted nature of the protests, led mostly by young people who take pride in being disciplined and yet leaderless, has been a revelation for many China watchers. “Hong Kong used to have a reputation as a place where people just cared about their families and stayed out of politics,” said Crane. What’s happened recently, he said, has been “transformative.”

It’s also gone viral. In Taiwan, where China has strong economic ties and has been courting the government to build stronger relations, Taipei’s media have closely covered the protests, as well as claims by student leaders that Beijing can’t be trusted with promises.

Chang Jiho, a leader of Taiwan protest movements against China, said Hong Kong had been a disaster for Beijing’s efforts to woo Taipei.

“China is very concerned about how all of this is being played, partly because Taiwan is watching Hong Kong very closely,” said Chang.

He said he wasn’t concerned that protest numbers were dwindling, even if Beijing tried to use the drop for propaganda purposes.

“The protests in Hong Kong have gotten so much international attention,” he said in a telephone interview from Taiwan. “They should be proud. In many ways, we envy what Hong Kong has been able to accomplish.”

The Hong Kong protests are also on the radar of exiles from Tibet and Xinjiang, two of China’s autonomous regions where ethnic peoples chafe under Beijing’s rule. Several have issued statements in support of Hong Kong protesters.

Because of the repercussions, most of China’s Tibetans and Uighurs – the predominant ethnic group in far-west Xinjiang – wouldn’t dare comment about the protests on their versions of social media, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University in New York.

“There’s no chance of copycat incidents in those regions,” said Barnett, noting that many Uighurs and Tibetans have little access to the Internet or radio transmissions. “But people there quietly take note of what is happening . . . and whether there are any weaknesses in the party that could be exploited.”

Barnett said he was surprised that the Chinese state media hadn’t played up the Hong Kong protests more. Chinese readers and viewers have yet to see much of even the darker side of the demonstrations, including photos of clashes between protesters and counter-protesters.

“It seems like a great opportunity for Chinese press in terms of propaganda,” said Barnett. “In China, based on the news people get, it would probably look like chaos.”