By Leung Man-tao, published: October 26, 2014
While riding a minibus in Taipo to the MTR station the other day, I overheard a man sitting in front of me talking loudly about the current events in Hong Kong. It seems he had already seen through the situation as he confidently declared: “These are all the conspiracies of the pan-democratic camp and their intentions are too sinister. . . ” Because his traveling companion gave him a dubious look, the man more stridently and forcefully emphasized: “What, you haven’t heard yet? Actually, there is a good deal of evidence pointing to the fact that behind the scenes the Americans are supporting Occupy Central. Even the students are incited by the Americans and the British.”
After I got off the minibus, I walked into the MTR station lobby where I was met by girls wearing black who were passing out leaflets. By their looks, I guessed they were college students. I took a leaflet and, moving to the side, read it carefully. At the top of the leaflet were printed the reasons that the students were striking and their appeals for support from the city’s inhabitants. After I read it, I walked over to the girl who had handed me the leaflet and addressed her saying “Miss,” but by so doing I startled her. I then remembered that this generation of college students are more accustomed to being addressed as “fellow student.” I then spoke to her in a reassuring tone telling her that, even though the contents of the leaflet were clear and powerful, the leaflet did not have the names of the printers and publishers, and that it seemed inappropriate to leave the origins of the leaflet unclear. This small, skinny “fellow student” laughed embarrassingly and, gentle and polite to a fault, replied: “You are quite right. I’m so sorry. I will report this to my classmates. Thank you, Sir.”
After I walked away, I couldn’t resist turning around for another look. I saw her and two other girls with their heads buried in the leaflet, the stuffed animal doll ‘Soft Bear’ on her backpack swaying left and right. Just then, the emotions that I had been holding in for several days burst forth, and the usually imperturbable me wound up weeping at that most ordinary moment. So these are students instigated and mobilized by the “hidden American and British forces”?
How have we come to this today? Society is so polarized that we can find no way to sit together and discuss matters. When did this start? We have lost the capacity to discuss the facts and reason for right and wrong. Everything is seen as “intentions,” “ulterior motives,” and “forces behind the scenes.” In this hot weather, we have so many juveniles wearing black and marching in the streets doing all they can to fulfill the dream that people have had for more than thirty years. Is this not my fault, my generation’s dereliction of duty? In order to account for things I should have done but did not do, and in order to understand the ins and outs of the current situation, I must put in order my observations and thinking over the more than two years past, and say a few things that are perhaps inopportune (and are being said too late).
I don’t have a crystal ball, and at the very moment that I am writing this, I have no way of knowing how this massive Occupation Movement will end. As with so many historical events of great significance, however, it is easier to infer the movement’s long term effects than its specific short term direction. Let’s discuss the destructive aspects of Occupy Central. A great many commentators, when they discuss Occupy Central, only pay attention to the movement’s ability to inconvenience daily life. They fear the movement will disrupt traffic, and strike a blow to the economy. If, however, we compare it with the forces it will gradually exert after the movement ends, then the effects that the movement produces at its inception are really insignificant.
Based on the original estimates of the three initiators of Occupy Central, there would only be about 5,000 people participating in the whole operation, and if 10,000 participated, that would exceed expectations. These 10,000 were expected to sit obediently on the ground, not charging at anything, and not destroying anything, just sitting there waiting for the police to take them away one at a time when the police came to clear the area. Based on how well Hong Kong police cleared demonstrators in previous protests, it wouldn’t take too long to clear away the “occupiers” – at most two or three weeks. The real problems would start after these 5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators were brought back to the police stations.
Authorities Wanted to Stop Occupy Central from Happening as Planned
On the surface, the operations of the Hong Kong police on the evening of September 28 were incredibly stupid. We should not, however, when explaining these events, think that the police were so stupid. Just using “mental deficiency” and other such explanations to muddle by when in fact they do not clarify the rational for the operations. On the contrary, we should, as much as possible, think of the situation from the ‘rationale’ of the decision makers. There were rumors that the protest site had to be cleared before the 1 October National Day; there is the so-called “hawks syndrome” that I will elaborate later. But the explanation I can think of for the police’s action was that the authorities did not want to see Occupy Central start at all. Strictly speaking, they did not want Occupy Central to unfold according to the movement’s original plans. Including the decision makers in the security agencies and the attorney general’s office, all the authorities certainly knew the plans of Occupy Central’s chief promoter, Mr. Benny Tai (because he had written in detail about them), so they were willing to use tear gas and brute force to drive out quickly the majority of the people, or as Mr. Chow Yung (Robert Chow) has said, even let those among the people who oppose Occupy Central to take it upon themselves to clear the area. (Did Mr. Chow mean the violence perpetrated by thugs over the past two days?) As much as possible, the authorities did not want to allow the movement to continue too long and, as much as possible, they wanted to avoid arresting too many people.
Why? First of all, the police force does not have the capability to fight a protracted war of attrition. More than 10,000 police officers worked overtime every day, and leave was cancelled for several months. This was not just a simple matter of diverting normal distribution of the police force, but rather real problems of police morale and resources. We should not forget that canceling leave and adding overtime means expending a large amount of money, and perhaps the Pan-Democratic City Council members might want in the future to grab a copy of the government’s budget that shows security expenditures and cry foul. A rational decision maker would not overlook that possibility.
Secondly, while the occupation of Central is formidable, an even bigger problem is the scene after those several thousands of defendants enter judicial prosecution procedures. According to the analysis of legal scholar Mr. Max Wong (王慧麟), based on Hong Kong law, the ten thousand cannot be interrogated via collective representation, but rather, they must be interrogated in batches based on the specific crimes or they even have to make individual appearances in court. Just imagine, a single defendant, when giving an oral statement for the record to the police, can play all kinds of tricks (just as many lawyers have said, a college student of history, when recounting the way he remembers the events, could talk about the books he was reading at the time and relate historical events from the Goddess Nu Wa patching the sky to the establishment of the Communist government in 1949, and the police officer must wearily record every word without error). Afterwards, the Department of Justice must review every single case before it goes to trial in the court. With ten thousands of defendants, for the entire judicial process to be completed (not counting the time required for appeals), several years probably are not time enough. When that time comes, it will not be traffic on the Hong Kong inland that will be paralyzed but Hong Kong’s entire judicial system. (Unless of course the Chief Executive decrees a state of emergency and allows a simpler procedure to take effect, but that would raise even bigger issues).
Anyone with some knowledge of the history of civil disobedience knows that its main stage is not the [protest] site but the court, especially where there is an independent judiciary system. Each and every trial of the 10,000 people will be an opportunity for making eloquent speeches and appealing to the public. How many times will these trials rouse feelings and inspire? For example, when a certain 70-year-old “Uncle Fung” is on trial today, wouldn’t supporters flock outside the court to “support Uncle Fung,” thus mobilizing a small-scale occupation? The authorities can’t detain thousands of people for a long time without releasing them on bail; while waiting for trial, they will go back into the fray like many activists do now as a contingent of combatants, repeatedly committing civil disobedience and repeatedly being charged. The entire process, under close attention of the media and popular opinion, could ferment larger civil disobedience movements as a result of moral inspiration. Take tax resistance for another example. It is also an unlawful act that will be tried, but because the judicial system is slowed down by the sheer number of cases, throngs of defendants will be on streets, not in prison, and they will surely turn it into another low-cost but highly attractive act of conscience. When various acts of civil disobedience, such as tax resistance, erupt one after another, it will be an endless cycle with a possible ripple effect. By comparison, a few weeks of traffic inconvenience and stock market fluctuation that we are currently experiencing is nothing. When last month Mr. Benny Tai proposed not to launch Occupy Central on a workday so as not to affect the financial market, many people criticized him for being diffident, but these folks, for the moment at least, probably forgot what Occupy Central is all about.
A Moral Movement Regardless of Costs
It is true that the occupation movement has already exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s unlikely that thousands sitting on the streets will be cleared out. But unless all occupiers disperse peacefully and of their own accord (we all know this is unlikely either), there will be a clear-out operation sooner or later. Can the police simply drag protesters away without arresting and charging them? Even if this absurd development would turn out to be the case, or if the police only detain a few hundred, how can they stop those determined protesters from surrendering themselves? How can they stop small civil disobedience actions from “blossoming everywhere”? (Don’t forget that, if over 100,000 or even 200,000 Hong Kongers who are taking part in the occupation movement suffer no consequences, then it would encourage more civil disobedience acts in the future.) Therefore, the aforementioned scenario will arrive eventually. The police’s actions on September 28th perhaps were meant to prevent such a scenario but, instead, they ended up bringing it about sooner and to wider international attention. (International attention should have been in the script of the Occupy Central anyway, but it might not have come so soon and so overwhelmingly.)
Over the last few days, friends who are supporters of the occupation movement have been discussing how the whole thing will end, especially what its short-term goals and appeals are, and what to do if none of these goals and appeals materialize. The answer is very simple: do nothing; just sit. As Mr. Benny Tai said before, this movement was heading to a “defeat” even before the NPCSC decision was issued, given that its purpose is to force the Central Government to make concessions and allow universal suffrage in the election of chief executive without constraining the nomination process. Since that point, it has become a moral movement regardless of costs. But on the other hand, it is also creating a crisis for the government in Hong Kong and Beijing that will not be resolved for years to come.
(Translated by Ai Ru and Yaxue Cao)