"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
I was recently asked, “Who were the winners and losers in Occupy?” That question came from a young man in the UK, who takes his information from the Guardian website. Thus his limited-frame of information distorts his perceptions. That’s not a partisan statement or being pompous, but a mere fact. This blog is an attempt to respond to that valid question.
The causes and machinations of Occupy got scant regard in the overseas media. It's portrayed as a simple confrontation between freedom-loving types and China. In reality, most people are coming to the subject with a half understanding a best. Occupy was a complex beast and rendering all its dynamics takes time.
I had an encounter with a British reporter that summed up the attitude. "If you guys don't do something soon, I'm heading back to London." They wanted another Tian A Men. They wanted heavy-handed police action to fulfil their repression narrative. In his boredom, the Sky News's reporter ran around rehashing stories about the red light district. With no massacre to report on, then at least let's have faux disgust at hookers and their punters.
Getting back to the subject. At first, I was thinking “that’s a naive question.” To some extent, the ball is still in play with the full impact of Occupy impossible to discern. Court cases are ongoing, appeals underway and policy responses evolving. In that sense, any judgment is a snap-shot. Also, I’m tempted to assert nobody won, and most players lost (something). But again, it’s a position that doesn’t address the nuances of the fall-out, as the ripples spread forth. Anyway, let's give this a try because the question deserves an answer.
If the Occupy leaders are honest, they'd admit gaining nothing beyond brief world-wide publicity. Their aim to force Beijing into granting concessions is further away. In that sense Occupy back-fired. Alas, Benny Tai and his cohort, appear incapable of stepping back to take a rational view. In any case, Tai abandoned the field of play in the first half to rush back to his office at Hong Kong University. Hardly the actions of a robust leader. A full timeline of events is here.
With brave Benny running away, a motley crew of students and activists stepped forward. Any cohesion in this cluster of groups soon fell apart. The usual group tensions surfaced, as each jockeyed for control.
For the occupiers, they had their moment. Then overstaying a welcome, public support drained away. As predicted, violence crept in, and the whole show collapsed as the momentum ran out after 75 days. By that time, only a few remained on the streets.
Several of the activists are now either in jail, facing a sentence or awaiting trials and appeals. Distracted by prolonged legal cases, some are running out of money. Others have surrendered to disengage from political activity. The reality of making a living is now the focus of their energies.
Campuses are much quieter these days. Student bodies are disentangling from politics as the tide of activities recedes. Student Unions have distanced themselves from the traditional protests groups. For example, they no longer support the June 4th movement. This change of focus is a complicated dynamic. At the core, the students have no affinity for the old guard, plus local identity politics is a factor. On that, the old guard and the new boys differ.
Thus, the base of support is weakening. Meanwhile, the government is stepping with care, so as not to inflame sentiments.
Times have also changed. Trump is transforming the landscape of international relations. It’s unlikely he will tackle China on Hong Kong issues unless it touches on trade. In the past, local pro-democrats relied on US support to get their message to the broader world. They held the USA up as a beacon of freedom. Surprisingly, that show has left town. With Trump busy rolling back on human rights, the US has forfeited the moral high-ground.
The police force came through Occupy institutionally bruised and role-confused. It pains me to this day to reflect on how events unfolded. Under common law, the police have a ‘duty’ to preserve the peace. It’s not an option or a choice that they may act on. It’s a duty. That’s something my tutors drilled into me. As a young inspector, I'm told to get control of a situation, restore order and then investigate. Many felt that ‘duty’ fell away.
To some extent, the police were prisoners of their own success. Their measured and proportionate public-order tactics evolved over the decades. These are well-taught and executed with restraint. In the context of disorder through the 1960s to 1990s, these tactics worked. Also, they enjoyed general public support. Plus, few objected when Vietnamese refugees or protesting Korean farmers were on the receiving end. That's another story.
There is no doubt the police could have cleared the occupiers. But that’s not the point. In 2014, the public wasn’t willing to see its police officers firing tear smoke on young protesters.
The evidence of the threat to public order was not in the public eye, and thereby many people perceived the police as over-reacting. Thus the firing of tear smoke in Central produced an immediate adverse reaction. The police action stopped. Rumours abound about who and why the police sweep halted. The truth remains elusive.
In the end, the Occupy movement drifted away. A series of civil legal-actions hastened its departure. It’s arguable that the outcome was satisfactory as the occupiers departed. A hard-core resisted, as a few staged stunts to gain the last sliver of publicity. Included in that where old-time pro-democrats. They'd stayed away for much of the time, but couldn't resist a bit of media coverage. In early December, the police were able to resume control by opening roads, with token resistance at most. By the 15th December, it was over.
CY Leung had a win of sorts. Occupy went away. No one died, plus the mayhem and violence were contained. Yet, it’s a pyrrhic victory. He’s now out of office. Besides, his family paid the price. The media spotlight fell on the antics of one daughter. Her clueless social media comments opened her to abuse. The pro-democracy media was willing to forego ethical standards to attack CY, including hounding his kids.
To many, the government looked weak. While front-line police officers bore the brunt of the protests, the rest of the administration sat back.
There is no purpose or merit in declaring a winner. Occupy remains part of an evolving situation. That includes Beijing's response. In that sense, Benny Tai misjudged the likely outcome. The rule of 'unintended consequences' is something Tai would do well to study.
Tai deserves the most significant criticism. His naive and child-like plan for the Occupation was destined to fail. As an academic, he'd failed to study similar protests, and he ignored the history. His fancy words and clever plots can't hide the fact the man is delusional. It's irresponsible that he led the students to the streets, then abandoned them to suffer the consequences. That he remains on the staff at Hong Kong University is a disgrace.
So, in the end, the disobliging result of Occupy is a divided society. It also birthed radical minority groups, such as the farcical independence movement.
Meanwhile, I reckon these days indifference hangs over a majority of the population. They’d rather forget Occupy. Who can blame them?
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.