Despite the tension in Hong Kong, both sides have exercised tremendous self-restraint, which must be unusual, if not unprecedented, when seen through Western eyes.
THERE has been plenty of restraint by both the protest movement and the authorities in Hong Kong. The threat by some student leaders to storm government buildings did not take place after the midnight deadline on Thursday.
If the international media still expect to see a serious clash between the protesters and the police, then I believe they will be disappointed.
Beijing must surely be aware that the world is watching. They would never want a repeat of the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 where many protesters, mostly students, were reportedly killed. Until today, no one knows exactly the actual number of casualties.
The Chinese government has also not used harsh or emotive language except to say that the gathering is illegal and the crowd should disperse. The protesters are angry at China’s plan to vet election candidates for the first direct election of the chief executive in 2017.
Beijing had ruled at the end of August that while Hong Kong residents would have a vote, their choice of candidates would be restricted by a committee. The protest began on Sept 22 when student groups launched a week-long boycott of classes.
On Sept 28, Occupy Central and student protests joined forces and took over central Hong Kong in what is now dubbed as the “umbrella revolution”.
Despite the tension, both sides have exercised tremendous self-restraint, which must be unusual, if not unprecedented, when seen through Western eyes.
The protest was orderly, and quite extraordinary, based on the news reports which showed how protesters collected garbage and separated them into recycling bins and how the police held up placards warning of impending tear gas action. And there was even a poignant picture of a policeman helping a protester hit by tear gas.
There are good reasons – the people of Hong Kong are fully aware that nothing that they demand, at least for now, will be fulfilled immediately. They are practical people but they want their voices to be heard by Beijing.
The people have also accepted the fact that Hong Kong is part of China. The British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 and nothing is going to change that. The future of Hong Kong is in the hands of China – not the United Kingdom or the United States.
But the locals are also angry at the huge number of mainlanders crowding into tiny Hong Kong. The pressure on the housing, health and education sectors has led to great resentment.
There are plenty of video clips on YouTube posted by Hong Kong people on what they see as the crass and rude behaviour of the less-polished mainlanders, which ranges from eating in the underground train to defecating in the streets to loud chattering. These have led to scuffles between Hong Kong people and mainland tourists and these are well documented.
There has been retaliation, in the apparent clash of cultures, except for the fact that both are ethnically Chinese. One professor appeared on Chinese TV and called the people of Hong Kong names while claiming that they were paying homage to London. He also hammered the Hong Kong people for preferring to speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin.
On the other hand, advertisements have appeared in Hong Kong newspapers, referring to the mainlanders as locusts who hog the resources of Hong Kong.
As far back as January, the South China Morning Post had reported on protesters who marched along Canton Road, a luxury shopping street that is a popular destination for mainland tourists, holding up signs that read “Go Back to China” and “Reclaim Hong Kong”.
Xenophobia seems like an oxymoron because the Hong Kong residents and the mainlanders are all Chinese and belong to the same country.
Ironically, Hong Kong’s retail sector is crying at the missed business opportunities of the Oct 1 China national day. This is when mainlanders flock to Hong Kong for long holidays and, of course, to dine and shop. This time they have stayed away as a result of the protests and it is Hong Kong that is paying the price. Shops have been forced to shut because of the protests and businessmen are blaming the student leaders.
In fact, Beijing does not have to do anything against the protesters. The central government can afford to sit it out because the students will eventually have to go back to classes, the protesters need to report for work, and businesses must go on.
This is Hong Kong after all, where the cost of living is among the highest in the world. Sitting on the road will not last long when there are hefty bills to be paid.
A middle-ground solution to allow both sides to back down without losing face looked possible, but the plan for the students to talk with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam appears to have been scuttled by the clashes in Mongkok.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said he would not negotiate with the student leaders, nor would he resign.
Now, the students have called off the talks with Lam, claiming that the police had allowed “triad” gangsters to infiltrate their protest camps.
But the talks will have to eventually be held because it is the right thing to do. Any dialogue between them will reflect the genuine desire of both sides to end the impasse. It will also show that Beijing is prepared to hear and respect the voices of the young people in Hong Kong, which is an autonomous territory.
This is an opportunity for the students to put on record that they accept Beijing. The reality is that their anti-communist China slogans, which may be morale-boosting during their protests, won’t change a thing. It is better that these students be practical instead of being too idealistic.
Business Hong Kong will not allow students to lead at the expense of Hong Kong and China, it is as simple as that. The clashes between the students and the traders in Mongkok on Friday are a sign that patience is wearing thin for those who need to earn a living.
Interestingly enough, most of the student leaders in the Tiananmen protest are now growing old in exile in the US, UK and France. Unable to return home, they could never have imagined how Beijing has embraced capitalism and the speed of economic progress as China’s middle class expands.
As academics Chen Dingding and Wang Jianwei of the University of Macau correctly pointed out in an article, “The English word ‘crisis’ in Chinese actually consists of two words: danger and opportunity. A crisis itself is not necessarily a bad thing – it also presents an opportunity to solve the problem.”
I agree. In the case of Hong Kong, it is better that Beijing let Hong Kong grow at its own pace and in its own way. And the people of Hong Kong can protest, but they should not go overboard.