I can not keep quiet about this situation.
The tear gas attacks on peaceful demonstrators last Sunday were outrageous. Since then, I have attended the occupation stretching from Admiralty to Central and taken some photographs, all of which are on my Facebook timeline which you can see by clicking here. I am adding to these pictures every day, so please come back often to see how things are developing.
The demonstrations, and the demonstrators, are admirable. The numbers involved are far higher than the trivial estimates in the local and international media. I can not count so many people, but I have seen many crowds of this kind, both in Hong Kong and in other parts of the world, and this is now far beyond the tens of thousands. Yet the self-discipline is better than in most of the other demonstrations I have witnessed elsewhere. The youngsters (as striking students have clearly taken over from supposedly more mature democracy activists) are keeping the occupied area clean, they have brought their homework with them, the slogans are moderate ("Go on, Hong Kong!", "Genuine universal suffrage"), and the atmosphere is so relaxed that slogan posters have appeared saying that this is not a carnival but a political protest.
Now that so many decent young people have been mobilised to give their time, comfort, labour, food and whatever they have to offer, it is only right that we ask: where is this going. how will it end?
The trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a leader you can address this question to.
The veteran Martin Lee came to have a look, said the Hong Kong people had always supported him (as if the demonstrations were organised by his fan club) and promptly left. Benny Tai, who has been "organising" Occupy Central since the middle of last year, seems to have dropped from attention as the demonstrations have been taken over by a horde of striking students, who don't want to be led by the nose. The students have produced Joshua Wong, the leader of Scholarism, whose stature has risen after he was first arrested and then spat out by the authorities on Sunday, and again on Wednesday when he led a silent protest against the National Day celebration. But at 17 years of age he is not a seasoned veteran. So far, he has done well, but in dealing with more experienced opponents on the government side his tender years may let him down.
I am writing this now because a section of the protestors has announced an ultimatum to the government that will expire by the end of today. The problem with ultimatums (OK, ultimata, if you prefer) is that although they are supposed to force the hand of your opponent, they actually tie you down first. Also, it is important to think about the balance of forces before throwing down the gauntlet.
Look at what the government did last Sunday. The first decision, to use tear gas against protesters, was counterproductive. It brought many more people (including me) on to the streets. The second decision was far more intelligent: to withdraw the riot police from the streets entirely. Since then, there has been no more violence. By pulling back, the government left it to the demonstrators to organise themselves in a way that would not alienate the public.
If the demonstrators now threaten to take what will effectively be violent action, i.e. breaking into government offices (which will presumably be protected, so can only be broken into by the use of force), they will lose public support and may lose more than that.
The demands posed in the ultimatum, that CY Leung step down and the NPCSC decision on the next Chief Executive election be withdrawn, can not be conceded by the government immediately, though they might be the subject of discussions or consultations later on. And the government can not be seen to allow protesters to break into government offices. Why? Because although the "one country, two systems" rule is still in force, the Basic Law allows it to be overridden if the Hong Kong government loses control, which is what any one of these concessions could be interpreted to signify by the Chinese government. In that case, the People's Liberation Army could intervene, citing, as is usual practice whether true or not, an invitation by the Hong Kong government.
The risk of a violent confrontation leading to injury and/or death after the ultimatum expires is difficult to calculate, but it is not zero. So the sensible thing is to let the ultimatum drop.
Ideally, a respected figure from the democratic camp should step up and say all this. They should then thank the demonstrators for their efforts and announce an orderly withdrawal.
Once the streets are clear, probably next Monday, they can then go back to the government and agree on a timetable for talks. We have shown, they should say, that we are supported by a large section, perhaps a majority, of Hong Kong people who want a genuine system of universal suffrage for the election of a Chief Executive in 2017. If China does not accept this and insists on the NPCSC formula for 2017, the democrats in Legco might do best not to oppose this, or the 2017 CE election will be another "small circle" selection by a 1,200-strong committee of Beijing nominees. Sure, the NPCSC way means that only 2 or 3 "safe" candidates may run, but this leaves open the possibility of moderate democrats standing for office. If one is nominated and accepted by a majority of the committee, he or she can campaign on a platform that includes a more open candidate selection process for subsequent CE elections. If a popular politician who promised to do this is rejected by the committee, the demonstrations will almost certainly resume.
In a perfect world, the overwhelming support for a fully democratic system that is being shown on the streets of Hong Kong right now would result in agreement on establishing such a system. But this is the real world. The priority now is for the pro-democracy movement to pull itself together, develop leadership and find ways to project its power that are both peaceable and effective.