by Yang Su
The Hong Kong Occupy did not end without its share of drama. It started with tear-gas, proceeded with a full course of street scuffs, and concluded with multiple arrests. But it was a far cry from those tragic endings in the past, which still haunt the nation’s memory and stain the regime’s legitimacy. During this 11-week confrontation, while the government gave in no ground to the protestor’s main demand, it instructed its police to use restraints, and it waited until the protest’s low points to clear the protest site. The result is a double victory in the short run: a political status quo and a diffusion of a crisis without bloodied hands. It is a strategy of waiting out.
The muted reaction by the local government of Hong Kong was an echo of the patient approach of the central government in Beijing. Not only did it not deploy heavy force to intimidate, it also refrained from inflammatory accusations in its official pronouncements. This was a sharp departure from its high-pitched approach to the Tiananmen protest in 1989, when the marshal law was declared, troops sent in, and thousands killed.
What contributed to the change? First, although the wisdom of waiting out was not readily apparent to the authoritarian regime, the cost of doing otherwise must have sunk in and had to be reckoned with. The government hardly came out as a winner from the aftermath of 1989 crackdown. Its legitimacy was shaken, as evidenced by the still on-going 25-year taboo in public discussion and by international fallout. Second, the strategy of waiting out could not win the day in a divided government. Scholars of the Tiananmen Movement have amply documented the two warring factions in the Beijing government in 1989—both had vested interest to inflame the protest to make political points. In contrast, this time there was no apparent division from Xi Jinping’s central government on the Hong Kong issue.
For the local government of Hong Kong, waiting out did not seem to be the strategic choice from the outset. Reacting to the first large wave of protest, the police used tear gas, which only worked to shock and anger the population. So, instead of subduing the protest, the heavy-handed approach helped create the largest turnout of the demonstrators, exceeding 100,000 by the end of the September.
Fortunately, the Hong Kong government learned the lesson and changed its way of handling the protest. It waited for the public to cool down. Indeed, the weeks of protest inevitably caused problems for traffic and business, and the public opinion did begin to swing in the government’s favor. Even after the police secured court injunctions to clear the occupied sites, they did not rush to action. Interviewed at the high point of the movement, an official told New York Times that the police would not rush to completely clear the three occupied areas, although the closure of major avenues had caused traffic jams and hurt sales in stores. “The government is in no hurry to end the whole thing because public opinion is growing on our side,” he said. “It will be guerrilla warfare — we will clear it, they will regroup, we will clear it again, they will regroup, but eventually, they will dissipate.”
When it comes to state response to crisis created by a large-scale protest, the wisdom of waiting out is rooted in a simple fact: protest is difficult to mobilize, and it is equally difficult to maintain. One of the clearest messages discovered by empirical research on social protest is the collective action problem. That is, protest, particularly large-scale protest, is mostly an accident, a convergence of multiple factors that otherwise may not converge. Little wonder theorists use phrases such as “episodic” and “emergent” to describe collective action.
It is hard, if not harder, to maintain the turnout once it is staged. After initial excitement, fatigue will set in, infighting will start, and attendance will sag, unless the victory is in sight or some crisis is in the making. Mundane but true, participants have their routine business to attend to. Doug McAdam aptly describes this typical trajectory and warns that protest would slip into a “lull,” if no constant tactical innovation comes along.
Although “waiting out” is a better and practical strategy, governments do not use it as commonly as we may expect. As alluded to above, one reason may be that the wisdom is not as easily recognized by an authoritarian government. With a habit of repression, or even a habit of brutality, harsh repression is often the first resort instead of the last. Another reason is that internal division decapitates the government so the fighting factions all have a stake in escalating the protest to defeat each other. In that case, its response could be radicalized to an extreme.