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How Hong Kong’s democracy protesters overplayed their hand

Enough is enough. EPA/Alex Hofford

Time is running out for Hong Kong’s protest movement. Beijing’s last shred of patience has worn thin; police have cleared one of the protest zones in the commercial neighbourhood of Mong Kok, arresting two leading student activists.

The action comes a fortnight after Chinese president Xi Jinping, in a joint press conference with Barack Obama on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, declared the Occupy Central group “an illegal movement”. His words left no doubt that Hong Kong’s anti-riot police would sweep away the remaining sit-ins once the world’s dignitaries had left the Chinese capital.

But the biggest blow to protesters was a recent University of a Hong Kong survey, which found that the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens apparently think enough is enough: 83% are eager for the Occupy Central protests to end.

This dramatic loss of popular support could be extremely damaging for protest groups who try to remobilise the masses for similar shows of defiance further down the line, as they surely will.

So as far as this round of unrest goes, we are now moving decisively into the final act. As post mortems begin to address why the revolt has fizzled out, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement activists may well come to regret overplaying their hand.

Too far, too fast?

The movement’s members won admiration around the world. But they might have found more scope for extracting concessions on universal suffrage from Beijing had they toned down some of their more radical demands, like the call for the resignation of Hong Kong’s current chief executive, CY Leung.

Such demands moved the debate away, at least in Beijing’s eyes, from the core issue of popular say in the choice of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. Instead Beijing came to see the Umbrella Movement as a challenge to its sovereignty over the former colony – an independence movement in the making.

This perception has been extremely damaging to the activists’ calls for change. In fact, there’s much more to the protestors’ grievances than anti-Beijing sentiment, and Hong Kong’s history makes that perfectly logical.

Hong Kong has been showered with Chinese cash and favours since the handover in 1997, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis – and yet Hong Kong has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. As in London, a property bubble has priced out most middle-income earners and first-time buyers from the housing market.

The Occupy Central campaign has matured over the last two years partly through trade union activism to curb migration from mainland China, which has dampened wages for unskilled local workers. It’s also given voice to protests against property and infrastructure developments set to benefit the local plutocracy.

All this frustration and resentment at Hong Kong’s accelerated evolution has clouded and confused the protest leaders’ main cause: the right to genuine universal suffrage.

Toxic nostalgia

It was also unwise for protesters to let a sense of nostalgia for British colonial rule creep into their movement. This is a red rag to a bull as far as China goes, particularly when we consider that Hong Kong’s 1990s transformation from back-street textile sweatshop to financial mecca owed a great deal to China’s “open-door” economic policy.

It has also given China ammunition for its persistent claim that foreign governments, Britain included of course, are stoking the rebellion through their funding of local NGOs, which in turn are backing Hong Kong’s trade union movement. A recent BBC report controversially suggested that a few of the key Umbrella activists received training in Oslo two years ago on how to protest effectively – a report that Beijing no doubt views as vindication of their suspicions.

China’s leaders quickly spotted an uneasy overlap between the new strand of local patriotism professed by some Hong Kong protesters, and former Taiwanese premier Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to rinse Taiwan of its Chinese heritage – a policy that almost sparked a disastrous war across the Taiwan Strait.

Given that Hong Kong under British rule was hardly a paragon of democratic transparency, until the 1970s at least, it should surprise no-one that the Chinese government finds nostalgia for the colonial era so deeply irritating.

In fact, before Murray MacLehose, British governor of the territory between 1971 and 1982, turned the colony’s fortunes around and cemented the rule of law, Hong Kong’s civil service and police force were widely considered corrupt. It wasn’t until 1974 that Chinese became the official language and ethnic Chinese residents were appointed to senior posts in the civil service.

Ultimately, Beijing’s elite finds it unthinkable that any Hong Konger could think life was better under colonial rule, making it even less likely to offer any concessions. This is why a decision by breakaway groups within the protest movement to tactically push the envelope beyond the technicalities of universal suffrage appears to have backfired.

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