This guest essay is written by Dr. Doron Shultziner, an interdisciplinary scholar who studies non-violent struggles for democratic progress, and Kirby Hung, a participant in the umbrella movement in Hong Kong.
Since late September, a historic movement is taking place in Hong Kong which became part of China in 1997. Following a long-awaited period and delays, the Chinese government announced its political reform to allow universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens but only for 2-3 candidates who will be selected by a pro-Beijing council of 1,200 members. Angry students started a class boycott, which culminated in the storming of the main government building in downtown Hong Kong. Police use of teargas and pepper spray against students who used umbrellas to protect themselves backfired into a huge demonstration of about 100,000 citizens. Several weeks have passed since that event climax and the umbrella movement maintains its momentum.
In this context, a battle of great significance has been taking place in Monk Kok, the second largest protest site of the umbrella movement for democracy in Hong Kong. In a surprise move between 5-9am on Friday (October 17) morning, police forces cleared protesters, tents, and barricades from the busy intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street, in what seemed a major setback to the movement. Yet, since Friday evening protesters regained parts of the street in what appears to be a major watershed of the struggle.
The battle over Monk Kok is important in several respects. First, Mong Kok is seen as a stronghold for the main protest site in Admiralty. As movement leader Joshua Wong said in Mong Kok, “If we lose any of our three battlegrounds—Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok—the whole movement will suffer a blow.” The ability to regain this lost stronghold is now considered a major victory to the protesters. Spirits are now high again and the protesters feel a new sense of confidence in their struggle, after the relative decline in numbers and setbacks against police actions in the recent week. The victory shows that the protesters cannot easily be moved away. The police move them from one spot; they return in larger numbers.
Second, Mong Kok is a special protest site in terms of its participant composition. Protesters there are older in age and more diversified in background. In Admiralty, the majority are students; in Mong Kok, the ratio is 6:4 in terms of students to working people. The struggle in Mong Kok represents working class people, from shop owners to salespeople, and even involves retired people. The people who participated in the clashes with police were also not solely students. This shows that the umbrella movement has widespread support and a strong backbone.
Third, the police suffered major blows in the past few days. Pictures of seven plainclothes cops beating Ken Tsang, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, harmed the name of the police. More important, the police force looks exhausted and discouraged by their inability to regain control over Mong Kok. There are reports of strain and psychological stress among the police force, especially those in the front line. While many police officers oppose the movement, at least some of them support it and others are not that harsh on the protesters. Those internal strains in the police are likely to translate into pressures on power holders who erode the police capacities and mentality by continuing to send them to confront peaceful, yet highly determined, protesters in the streets.
Fourth, the battle over Mong Kok sends a strong and clear signal to the government that its ability to force the hand of the movement by force is limited. If the government cannot win on a small scale in Mong Kok, how could they take on the main site in Admiralty? The government’s inability to win Mong Kok means that power holders will realize that life will not go back to normal anytime soon. They do not have other legal means to disperse protesters nor will they call on the Chinese army across the Hong Kong border to intervene as this will completely blow up in their face. In other words, the battle over Mong Kok shows to the government that it is out of force options.
Finally, lacking the ability to bring life back to normal in Mong Kok and seeing the determination of the protesters, the power holders are likely to be under even more pressure. In situations like these, differences in opinion and splits among power holders come to the surface. It is possible that the protesters victory in Mong Kok will speed up negotiations (which began on October 21) and the search for creative political solutions.