Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The 79-day ‘Occupy Central Movement’ (OCM) shaped the current political situation in Hong Kong. By general consensus, the movement led to a polarised society. People adopted distinct political positions that tore through civic society and even families. You are blue or yellow. The wounds it left are deep. Unfortunately, these wounds remain unhealed.
From the outset, the movement was misunderstood and misinterpreted as a cohesive entity. Instead, a fragmented beast, devoid of form and that was its greatness weakness. The media portrayed OCM as a movement with a distinct purpose and direction. The truth was far more complicated. The diversity of the many subgroups, pursuing conflicting agendas led to its break-up. And despite attempts, the participants have since failed to rally anything equal.
The genesis of OCM was in the protest movements that evolved in the US; Occupy Wall Street and such. The concept of mass civil disobedience is not new. Used with varying degrees of success it is usually tied to a non-violence approach. Or at least, it starts with a non-violence approach.
In January 2013, Associate Professor Benny Tai proposed a civil disobedience movement. He sought to put pressure on the government in the drive for universal suffrage. On 27th March 2013, the Occupy Central Movement (OCM) was formally launched. Tai, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and Professor Chan Kin-man are nominally the leaders. They had the backing of student groups and pro-democratic parties.
There is a common consensus that the original authors of the OCM soon lost control of the movement. Indeed, it is arguable that control was never there. Many felt this was always inevitable. The lack of cohesion in the component groups around a central figure was telling. Even the initiation of the occupation, during the early hours of 28th September 2014, was forced upon Tai. Students asserted that “he was failing to seize the moment.” From that point on Tai became peripheral. Various student groups, activists and pro-democracy organisations took the lead. It is debatable that what started as a pro-democracy campaign morphed into a movement about social issues.
From the outset, critics of OCM cited that history has shown such movements can spin out of control. Scholars of protest and public order all agree that occupy movements are a risky strategy.
Experience has shown that segmentation erodes the foundations. Sub-groups, branches and fractions form. Then break up. All this leads to less and less uniformity of action. Moreover, the fact that the protesters believe they have the moral high ground, makes them intransigent. They blind themselves to the reality of impending failure. Plus, and this is important, over time fatigue creeps in. Waning interest dissipates the initial fervour.
It is important to understand the motivations of the current crop of protesters. In particular, the young Hong Kongers. There is considerable research in this area, including on Hong Kong youth. As with all generations, they believe that this is their moment. A critical time when they must act or nothing will change. Participation is cathartic and even therapeutic as they experience a life defining moment. They assert that they have right on their side, thus the ethical authority to act. In this narrative, the older generation created this mess. Thus, the elders have no authority to restrain the young. Being psychologically prepared for a struggle they will act with the group. Nonetheless, being individualistic they may opt to do their own thing.
These sentiments are somewhat universal in youth social movements. Similar things were observed in the French student's uprisings of the 1960s and anti-Vietnam War protests in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. So, Hong Kong is not unique in experiencing this phenomenon.
To further add to this mix, the pro-democrats believe mass protest will force concessions from Beijing. They cite Article 23 as the key example. In their folklore, the massive protest of 1st July 2003, caused Beijing to withdraw Article 23. An estimated 500,000 people took to the streets that day. Thus the pro-democrats supported OCM, although that support was not unequivocal.
Even before it started, a few scholars asserted Occupy Central was already a success. They argued it got the attention of Beijing. It caused agitation amongst the business community and the government had to prepare. It also shaped the debate on democracy by providing a threat of action. All this achieved with the smallest of effort on the organisers part.
In the latter part of 2013 and early 2014, some scholars took the position that the threat of OCM was a legitimate tool. They felt it could move negotiations along. Conversely, they also asserted it should not happen. As the outcome is unknown it could be disastrous. The recent Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan indicated a good outcome. This occupation and related activity went on for 24 days. Violence did not spread as the protesters sought to keep matters peaceful. Although occasional clashes with the Police did occur, these were never serious.
One thing all the scholars agree on is the actions of the government, in particular, the Police, have a bearing on the outcome. Police actions or lack of action often dictate the pace of events. This was to prove true with OCM.
Police preparations for OCM focused on dealing with large numbers of passive resistors. The Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) had some experience in this area. Yet, the proposed scale of OCM was daunting. The Police envisaged the deployment of thousands of officers for protracted periods. Besides, officers needed to train or re-train in the techniques for such a scenario.
The HKPF is unique amongst modern Police forces that it retains the ability to mobilise the whole organisation in a matter of hours. This is a legacy of the colonial era. Under mobilisation protocols, officers join platoons and companies. Each has undergone training to fight riots and deal with public disorder. These procedures served Hong Kong during unsettled times. Most notable in 1957, the 1966 and 1967. The Vietnamese disturbances and such events as the World Trade Organisation meeting in 2005 also tested the system. The Police Tactical Unit forms the backbone of the mobilisation. But the system involves most units. The tried and tested logistics of mobilising work well.
Once serious disorder breaks out the Hong Kong Police response is a textbook ‘platoon-attack’. This is taught to all officers. In essence, you create distance between yourself and the hostile elements. Then you proceed to advance in a controlled, but determined manner. The aim is dispersal rather than arrest. CS smoke helps create the distance. CS grenades deal with close-in hostile crowds. Then CS projectiles for keeping the crowd at a distance. The option to use baton rounds is also available, although in the past three decades CS has proved its worth. But, once you start using CS you have to follow through until the crowd disperses.
I’m not going to get involved in a lengthy discourse on the ethical merits or otherwise of using CS. It is nasty stuff. It has an immediate impact on the individual by causing them to stop what they're doing and withdraw. All I would say is that once disorder breaks out, CS is a lesser degree of force than a blow to the head or body with a baton. Unbiased members of the medical community, who weigh up the issues in a scientific manner, agree with that assessment.
When CS was used on 28th September 2014, the follow-up sweep halted and the crowd was not dispersed. This was to have profound consequences. Moreover, a moratorium on CS use appears to have been in place since. Again, this was to have ramifications. It changed well-established, tried and tested rules of engagement. The Police suddenly found themselves without all the options in their playbook.
It is worth stating at this point that a Police response alone could have blunted or overcome OCM. But what is evident is that Police action had a direct bearing on events. At times it fed the movement by creating public sympathy. Nonetheless, over time the Police response did become more nuanced. Lessons were learnt and re-learnt.
The Events - “No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy”
A trial run for OCM took place after the annual 1st July rally. The march passed off without major incidents. At the end of the march, protesters sit down in Chater Road. The police take a soft line. They tolerated the blockage until the protesters refuse to go during the early morning of 2nd July. A cordon was then secured around the crowd, arrests made, people removed and then bailed. The protesters did not resist arrest as each side weighed the other.
As expected, such removal actions are time-consuming and need lots of Police officers. As such, the quick reopening of roads is not possible by applying this method. Moreover, given that the occupiers want to be arrested, it is questionable whether detaining action is the best option. It is likely to take months before charges can be laid or heard in Court. The deterrent effect of arrest and the impact of sentencing may not occur for some time.
So, what are the alternatives for the Police? Dispersal using force is a tactical option. The application of blunt force by batons. Lesser degrees of force such as CS, pepper sprays or water cannon are all possible. These do work on a tactical level by dispersing crowds. But, you lose the PR battle if the force is viewed as disproportionate.
The tone for events was also set by event related to the north-east New Territories development plan. Violent protests in the weeks leading to OCM shaped perceptions. An attempt was made to storm the Legislative building. Police resorted to pepper spray to contain the situation.
On 31st August 2014, the 10th Session of the National Peoples Congress set the parameters for the CE election in 2017. This shut the door on the demands of the OCM supporters for greater participation in the process.
Phase 1: First Engagement
At about 1030 pm on 26th September, students forced entry to Civic Square outside the Central Government Offices (CGO). They occupied the square. Led by Joshua WONG, they climbed the fence. After many attempts to persuade the students to leave, on 27th September at about 0045 hrs, Police started clearing the square. A formal announcement that the gathering is illegal caused some students to leave. Others ignored the warnings with 78 persons arrested. At about the same time, students sought to force entry to the government offices. Police resorted to pepper spray to hold them back.
Crowds continued to gather at the CGO. Benny Tai received repeated criticism from the students that he was failing to act. They felt the moment had arrived for action. On 28th September, at 0130 hrs, Tai declared the start of the occupation. He did this after TV footage emerged of students haranguing him to show leadership.
Throughout the day crowds gathered. Cordon lines came under attack by repeated charging. On the evening of 28th September, the Police cordon lines came under sustained attack. Some had homemade shields and weapons. At about 6 pm CS smoke was fired at the junction of Tin Mei Avenue and Harcourt Court Road. This proved a pivotal moment.
Police immediately commenced a sweeping action that saw 87 rounds of CS smoke fired. This action was successful in pushing back the protesters. Although the sweep halted for reasons unknown. With 89 protesters under arrest, 41 casualties were reported including 12 Police officers.
The use of CS boosted support for the occupiers. Many perceived that the Police had over-reacted to a group of peaceful students. Yet, much of the violence used against the Police that warranted the use of CS was not covered in the media. Whilst the slowness of the Police in justifying their actions fed sentiment in favour of the protesters.
Phase 2: Stalemate and Posturing
Following these opening moves, the movement settled to a protracted period of occupation. The main locations at Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok areas. At various times conflict with the Police arose as the occupiers sought to escalate their action. On 3rd October, anti-OCM protesters confronted occupiers in Mongkok and Causeway Bay. Some violence occurred.
Mongkok was to prove particularly problematic. An intoxicating mix of triads, violent protesters and disgruntled local citizens faced off. Known triad members came out on both sides. In some ways, the occupation was a proxy for their usual disputes. A few pro-democracy politicians asserted the Police should act against the triad involvement. The same people never acknowledged the triads in their ranks.
From 5th October onwards, the numbers in the occupied zones started to drop. The initial euphoria of the event waned as the less dedicated protesters left. Others come and went. Whilst the numbers are down, permanent structures appeared with orderly rows of tents. These camps were well organised as the occupiers appointed marshals. The Police remained were passive.
On 13th October, citizens started removing barriers from Queensway. Fed up with the disruption to traffic flows and their businesses they acted. Scuffles took place with three arrests. With no sense of irony, the students called upon the Police to enforce the law.
Phase 3: Removal and Game-over
The next day Police moved against the obstructions on Queensway and cleared the road. At the same time, the occupied area in Causeway Bay was pushed back. These moves met with no resistance. On 15th October footage emerges of plainclothes officers allegedly beating an arrested person. This incident followed protracted clashes on Lung Wu Road. Swift condemnation from pro-democrat groups rallied protesters to surround Police Headquarters.
The Police also moved against part of the occupied zone in Mongkok. Later that evening the ground is re-occupied following protracted clashes. Trouble continued overnight in Mongkok. Police resorted to batons to contain the situation.
Starting on 20th October, Court orders sought by private groups came into effect. At Citic Tower, the obstruction of fire exits and emergency vehicle access prompted the court orders.
On 28th October, a rally to mark the one month anniversary of the occupation took place in Central. Both Benny Tai and CHAN Kin-man announced they are returning to their jobs. They are to leave the occupied zones. They asserted this is not a retreat, although it looks like a surrender. Further, the pro-democratic politicians in LegCo reject a proposal for a mass resignation. Their support for OCM is now lukewarm.
As a gesture of goodwill, some barriers get removed by protesters at Citic Tower. There are growing signs the movement is fragmenting. No one appears to be able to coordinate action. In the occupied zones endless debates ramble on expending energy and resolve.
A few clashes continue between Police and protesters in Mongkok. The students appear to be struggling for ideas to maintain any momentum. A plan to go to Beijing is debated. This fanciful idea collapses under the weight of its own inanity.
On 10th November, the Court affirms the injunction orders for the various zones to be cleared. Bailiffs have the right to seek Police help if obstructed. Acting under the injunctions bailiffs clear the area near Citic Tower. There is only token resistance.
Overnight on 18th /19th November, members of Civic Passion smashed their way into the LegCo building. Using mills barriers as battering rams they do extensive damage. Arrests are made. Images of this violence are broadcast live. Universal condemnation of these actions, including from the pro-democrat politicians is forthcoming. The moderates now seek to distance themselves from these radical actions. Public sentiment is now turning against the occupiers. With the peaceful credentials of the movement undermined, the instigators are on the defensive.
The Police start their clearance of Mongkok on 25th November. A section along Argyle Street is first taken back with little resistance. The next day the Nathan Road section is opened with resistance leading to 107 arrests. By lunchtime, Nathan Road is clear to traffic. That night and every night up to 29th November attempts are made to reoccupy the Mongkok zone. Clashes between the Police and protesters occur. Police use batons and pepper spray to contain the situation. The protesters adopt wildcat tactics. They block a section of road. Then retreat. The whole things lead to traffic snarls. These tactics further erode support for the movement.
On 30th November the students call their supporters to Central. It looks like the final battle is about to occur. The plan is to surround CGO. Armed with home-made shields, the protesters charge the Police lines. Batons and pepper spray drive them back, as a series of running skirmishes develop on Lung Wo Road. Early in the morning, a swift action by Police clears the remaining protesters to reopen the road. Arrests result and a number on each side are injured. A last futile attempt is made to blockade the CGO, with fire hoses used to dampen the crowd. The students admit defeat. They make a crestfallen retreat.
It is now clear that the movement has lost public support, whilst it has also spun out of control. The worst fears of some are voiced that continued action will only lead to more violence. By the 1st December, pro-democratic politicians are calling for calm. They scramble to distance themselves from the violence. The students candidly admit defeat in trying to surround CGO. Joshua WONG goes on a faux hunger strike. Benny Tai emerges to call for withdrawal, as he fears further violence.
Finally, between 11th and 15th December, all the occupied zones are cleared. The Police move in to remove the barricades without resistance. In Central, in a symbolic and inane action, pro-democrat politicians sit-in. Arrested for obstruction they get face time in the media.
The students announce a moratorium on further actions. Citing fatigue they need to consider what comes next. Some openly acknowledge that they have lost public support. Various ideas are banded around to continue the civil disobedience. These include delays in paying government rents and tax. Derided as futile gestures and wishful thinking, the lack of public support is telling for such a risible idea. The writing is on the wall that the occupiers have misjudged the situation.
Observations and Comments.
The trajectory of OCM followed the path of other occupy movements. It came on strong at the start; gained a lot of publicity, rumbled along, fragmented and waned. And then it died without much resistance. Moreover, if it’s principle aim was to sway Beijing, then it failed.
With no unity or common agreement on action, the movement was bound to fail. No single strong leader emerged, who could carry the whole movement. The nominal leader, Benny TAI didn't stay the course. The ethos of the movement, that of consensus and consultation, was the seed of its own defeat. Everyone wanted a voice and be in charge.
The majority of the initial participants had no stamina for the long-haul. Derided by some as strawberries, soft and easy to bruise, they soon withdrew. Ultimately, the violence undermined public support.
On the whole, the Police remained stoic in the face of repeated provocations. The deplorable conduct of seven officers detracted from the overwhelming professionalism displayed. The vast majority remained professional in the face of extreme provocation. They worked long hours under trying circumstances. Nonetheless, the damage done to the Police’s reputation is significant. On the one hand, cited for being too forceful and on the other derided for failing to enforce the law. They could please neither side.
On a more positive note, the Police learnt to change and adjust their approach. Whilst the initial use of CS was well justified on operational grounds, it was a PR failure. Later Police action displayed more finesse. Although, the reliance on close quarter methods may have resulted in more injuries. Making officers get close to a hostile crowd creates the potential for serious injuries. Control can be harder. With tempers flaring, both officers and protesters can be tempted to lash out. On a tactical level, the Police were able to pick off the various zones as and when they liked. As such, they had the final advantage once support for OCM waned.
Both the Hong Kong Government and Beijing opted to play a waiting game. This left the Police to law and order issues, with a clear mandate not inflame the situation. They waited for the movement to self-destruct. It's a strategy that worked.
The occupiers can argue that the movement was a success. It drew international attention to the issue of democracy in Hong Kong. It also politicised a new generation; whilst encouraging public debate. To an extent, this may be true. It is also arguable that the movement set back democracy. It made Beijing less trusting of Hong Kong.
The jury may still be out on the long-term consequences of OCM. The debate will no doubt continue for years to come. What is certain is Beijing did not blink. CY Leung remained steadfast and the Police gave him a win. More fundamental, the movement polarised Hong Kong society. Deep wounds resulted that are unlikely to heal soon.
It is unwise and unjustified to declare a winner, but Beijing gained the upper hand. OCM dissipated without bloodshed. The international media soon left town when they realised this was not going to be another Tiananmen.
In the final reckoning, the Police proved resolute. Yes, they learnt and re-learnt lessons. But in the process, a new generation of officers gained experience. On the other side, Benny Tai and his partners are now marginal figures. His repeated attempts to influence the outcome of the democratic debate look hopeless. The student groups have fragmented as they engaged in internal quarrels.
Joshua Wong continues to garner international attention as the face of the protests. Yet, he admits that street protests have failed. Whether he can galvanise any future mass actions is doubtful in the current climate. Something will need to change for him or any leader to surface as a unifying force.
The one tangible product of OCM is the extremist independence movement. This loosely knit group seeks to challenge China's sovereignty over Hong Kong. These people are the delusional remains of Occupy, clinging to non-starter agenda.
As predicted OCM was a high-risk strategy that was to have unforeseen consequences. And so it proved.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.