Occupy "circus" cries out for ringmaster

A fractured leadership leaves people on the ground managing their own protest. It is comforting, at least, that they are hugely efficient.
Tent city, Admiralty
Tent city, Admiralty

The Occupy protests that have crippled parts of Hong Kong and damaged business entered a new stage at the weekend, with a tent city springing up outside government headquarters.

While this atmosphere of permanency will do little to assuage the annoyance felt by an increasingly vocal opposition, it also adds to a more fundamental issue: if Occupy is a circus, as some opponents have claimed, what it really needs is a ringmaster.

There are three groups behind the protest movement: Scholarism, representing secondary school pupils, led by 18-year-old Joshua Wong; the Federation of Students (HKFS), representing university students; and the Occupy Central movement, backed by media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

But only some Hong Kong legislative council members support them and their power is limited, compounding the leadership vacuum.

Facing the pro-democracy movement is the Hong Kong government, led by chief executive CY Leung, and its point person for so-called talks Carrie Lam.


And this is even before you factor in China’s government – the immovable object and ultimate target of the unrest – and its supporters in Hong Kong, such as the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, which opposes the protests.

On Friday “dialogue” between the government and HKFS was cancelled because other students called for a ramping up of protests, including the pitching of tents.

Meanwhile, Agnes Chow, one of Scholarism’s leaders, stood down from her “post” on Saturday because – at 17 years of age – she said there was too much pressure on her.

This is entirely understandable and reasonable but the protest movement's fractured leadership leaves those on the ground managing their own protest.

It is good, therefore, that they are hugely efficient. Student calls for tents resulted in dozens of camps being set up, checked only by a lack of availability that protesters insisted would soon be relieved by the arrival of yet more tents.

Makeshift classrooms have been built in Admiralty and Causeway Bay (CWB), offering lessons on maths, physics, chemistry and English – complete with whiteboards.

A “study corner” has also been set up in the middle of Harcourt Road, Admiralty, for students to continue their homework.

Tents, recycling posts and supply stations are a feature of all three sites, while wooden steps are being fixed at Harcourt Road to allow easier road crossings.

If only the protest leaders were this organised because none of this tent pitching is doing much to win over disgruntled locals, many of whom are becoming increasingly activist in their disdain.

On Saturday night in CWB, a small group of protesters created a peace sign in the main street out of cardboard umbrella-holding figures. They hadn’t even finished when a couple gatecrashed (pictured below), tearing up their work, wearing expressions of determined glee. Rather than confront the couple, the artists merely applauded mockingly before the couple stormed off, leaving the artists to start again, which they did.

On the surface this is nothing new.

In Mong Kok tensions have been high from the outset as the protests have posed more of a threat to retail outlets. The protesters there have also tended to be made up of fewer students and more spit-and-sawdust locals.

But the longer Occupy has gone on, the more divisive it has become in different ways.

No incentive to talk

When asked by FinanceAsia at the weekend whether the HKFS would have spoken for all protesters if government dialogue had taken place, many said no.

One protester, who also happens to work for the government, told FinanceAsia that those on the streets would most probably not heed calls for a withdrawal if protest leaders called for it. “The movement has a life of its own,” he said. Meanwhile, Gary Chan, spokesman for the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, told FinanceAsia that the protesters were "all leaders", which he said was causing chaos.

Admirable maybe but this is also bad news for everybody.

While the government has largely buried its head in the sand throughout the stand-off, what incentive does it have to engage if it is not even clear whether spokespeople actually speak for the people.

Although this is an obvious tactic to delay talks and hope the movement blows itself out, it may create a bigger problem if the result is bloodshed.

For the protesters, the situation is equally confusing. With no one talking to the government and clear demands not being crystallised they are left writing messages on Post-it notes, not knowing if anyone is actually paying attention.

Some leaders in the movement have called for protesters to leave the CWB and Mong Kok sites and bulk up at Admiralty, partly following heightened tensions in the shopping areas.

The theory goes that any kind of violent confrontation would give the Hong Kong police an excuse to clamp down brutally again, like they did with the tear gas that kick-started the protest.

More practically, such a move might go some way to giving residents a few more of their streets back, winning a bit more sympathy and solidifying the argument.

Typically, these calls have gone unheeded.

One of the features of the Admiralty protest is its civility, humanity and peaceful nature, with the police effectively having nothing to do in spite of earlier fears of a violent crackdown.

Who leads the protest? Who opposes the protest? Maybe that isn’t the real issue but if people don’t start talking soon we may end up with that violent last-resort scenario after all.


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