Saturday, 4 October 2014

Hong Kong: A Time to Talk

The students and Occupy Central have made their point in a self-disciplined and dignified way, spreading their message of democracy far beyond Central. It is now time for them to clean up the occupation sites, go home and resume talks with the government.

Yesterday and last night the occupation in Mong Kok was attacked by opponents of the protests, producing the first crop of injuries and arrests. At the same time, divisions are emerging in the occupation camp as a few people become impatient for stronger action. The protests are beginning to have a significant negative impact on the lives of ordinary people in Hong Kong and on the SAR's economy.

On Thursday night, the government accepted the Federation of Students' request to initiate talks. Although the government's hands remain tied by the NPCSC decision, and CY Leung regrettably did not himself offer to participate personally in the dialogue, this is an offer that the students were right to accept. Unfortunately, but also quite understandably, they have decided to break off talks while the demonstrations are under attack.

It is useless to speculate on the identity of the attackers. The triads are active in Kowloon, extracting protection money from local shopkeepers, so it would not be surprising if they were involved -- they need to keep business going, and, unlike the protesters, they have no qualms about violence. The people shouting patriotic slogans may or may not be organised by the DAB, but even if they are not, it is worth remembering that the DAB is the most effective and disciplined grass-roots political force in Hong Kong and in the long run it is better that it be part of the solution than part of the problem. And of course there are many people who have been hindered going about their everyday business who would like to see the encampments removed.

The police are always in the firing line, whether they deserve to be or not. Only last Sunday, they were being criticised (rightly) for repeatedly using tear gas on peaceful demonstrators. Since then, they have (rightly) been praised for keeping away and allowing the demonstrations to police themselves. Now the occupation activists are criticising them for not intervening heavily to protect the demonstrations from the new surge of anti-occupation violence. Maybe they were a little too light-handed yesterday, but it does look like they are trying to strike a reasonable balance. They should be encouraged to continue doing this, but at the end of the day the police are not the problem and the police should not be made scapegoats.

Last week, every day the protesters held their ground was a small victory. They showed that, even with fragmented and uncertain leadership, they could behave in a civilised, restrained, rational way, keep their environment clean and avoid provocations.

The situation is now reversed. Every day the occupation continues, it presents a target to those that want to damage their cause and for impatient people within their own ranks. While the demonstrators have put up posters proclaiming self-restraint and peace, no such self-limitation has been announced by their opponents, who may include the usual crowd of ruffians and street thugs you will find in any city in the world.

There is a time to put up a fight; this is not it. Even if the occupiers do not initiate violence, any defensive or retaliatory violence will be used to tarnish their image. As all the Chinese sages would advise in this situation, it is now time to avoid, not engage in, conflict.

Last week, public sympathy was aroused by the tear gas. I have heard from people who were affected, or whose children were affected, including by tear gas fired into groups that were not part of the demonstrators but were merely onlookers. Many of us were drawn to the Admiralty occupation in sympathy with those who were hurt there. As business resumed on Monday, people working in the area provided water and food to the demonstrators.

But now that the demonstration enters its second week the public mood is starting to swing the other way as people increasingly want to return to normal life, which they can not do while so many buses are not running and major thoroughfares remain blocked.

The demonstrators themselves are starting to thin out. Many will be back at work on Monday. Those that are left might be insufficient to continue routine tasks, including rubbish collection. There is a risk that the occupation sites will become untidy and dirty. If the authorities then decide to clear the demonstrators by force, this may then look to the public like a welcome clean-up operation.

So this is a perfect time for the democracy movement to declare an orderly and dignified withdrawal, holding their heads and their banners high. A strong force of volunteers should first be organised to clean the demonstration site so that not a single plastic bottle or piece of paper is left for the media to photograph.

The movement will then have to work hard at uniting around a representative leadership that will be empowered to resume talks with the government with maximum public support.

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