I was rather bemused by the fizzling of the student ultimatum calling for C.Y. Leung’s resignation by midnight Thursday, October 2. Leung said he wasn’t resigning but was designating a senior government official, Carrie Lam, to engage in dialogue with the students.
And the students were, like, whatever. So, despite the fact that Leung didn’t take them up on their generous offer, no storming, no throwing stuff, no chanting, no shouting, no crying, at least in the video I saw.
The unexpected element in the midnight “confrontation” was the appearance of two honchos from the Hong Kong university system, Joseph Sung, president of Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Peter Mathieson, the vice chancellor of University of Hong Kong.
They didn’t rile up the crowd, nor did they need to calm it down. Instead, Sung and Mathieson delivered soothing messages about avoiding confrontation and the students taking care of themselves.
As for the students, very little defiance/disappointment/relief in the video I saw. The educators were greeted with respectful formal applause and seen off after their remarks with obsequious handshaking and genuflecting.
And I was advised by a knowledgeable observer that my initial impression—that the worthies had gone down to the government offices to dissuade the students from storming the place—was incorrect. Joshua Wang, the student leader (sometimes described in the Chinese press as the student “marshaller” or “convener” to dodge the “leader” label) had previously announced there would be no storming.
So it looks like refusing to resign was a low-cost/low-risk maneuver for C.Y. Leung.
In fact, it makes one wonder if a deal had already been cut, and what we were seeing was a performance of midnight kabuki where Leung kept his job, the students saved face, and observers outside the loop were basically in WTF? mode. I was personally rather mortified, because I’m on record expecting big things from the Hong Kong democracy movement.
Immense feats of mobilization and organization, all that planning, all that effort, all those umbrellas, all that lettuce thrown at the movement by Jimmy Lai, the NED, and who knows who else, cultivation of a global media firestorm, and the takeaway is (excuse my vulgarity) the prospect of a h*ndj*b from Carrie Lam?
Are we really talking amateur hour here?
Maybe not. Maybe what we are seeing is the result of student improvisation and the imposition of adult supervision.
The university president angle is the most interesting. Apple Daily, whose owner, Jimmy Lai, is a major funder of the democracy movement (as was revealed a few months ago by the leaking of documents showing the rather hefty financial support he provided to a variety of pro-democracy organizations and politicians; see end of post), reported that Joseph Sung wanted to act as a bridge between “the students, Occupy Hong Kong, and the government.”
After the midnight meet, Sung issued an open letter to students, faculty, and alumni of CUHK, I’m assuming accurately paraphrased by a local media outlet, in which he characterized the student protesters in a way that I found rather peculiar. In fact, I’m posting the Chinese text as well as my English translation because I really wonder what’s going on here, and if I’m missing something:
“Although they can’t grasp the full complexity of the situation, they have innocent hearts…and should be given the utmost toleration and compassion.”
Certainly an implication that the students were not ready for prime time.
Further enlightenment comes from the pages of University World News, in an excellent article by Yojana Sharma:
The week-long university strike that started on 22 September with rallies around the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, before spreading to central Hong Kong was to have ended on Friday 26 September with school-age students led by the campaign group Scholarism joining the strike for its final day.
Instead, huge crowds surged onto the streets at the weekend and into Monday, blocking major roads. The students and public were angry about police tactics and dozens of arrests made outside Hong Kong government headquarters, where students broke through the police cordon to occupy the area late on Friday night.…The pro-democracy group Occupy Central, which had been planning a civil disobedience campaign and sit-in in Hong Kong’s central business district, abandoned its separate campaign and joined the student protests at the weekend.
“The Occupy movement has become fully fledged with tens of hundreds of citizens taking to the streets fighting for genuine universal suffrage and supporting the students,” the group said in a statement on Monday.
Co-founder of Occupy Central, Benny Tai, a law professor, conceded the students had taken the lead. “It’s important for us to join with the students, and we will stay until the last minute with the movement.”
Occupy Central had been expected to start their sit-in on 1 October – a public holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Communist takeover in China.
If you’re inclined to read between the lines, as I am, it seems that the students, instead of sticking to the on-campus boycott, went downtown to mix it up with The Man, thereby queering the pitch for the plan by the adults (Occupy Hong Kong, led by University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai) to take over the movement and conduct a downtown sit-in starting on National Day.
And maybe somebody in the student movement thought the students could bring down C.Y. Leung by themselves. But this was supposed to be job for the adults—for OHK—and I think the consensus was that the students had overreached.
Although Hong Kong is chockablock with sympathizers for the democracy movement, I found it striking that I saw few local worthies come out to support the calls for Leung’s ouster. I found this odd because I think the democracy movement has done a lot of advance planning and scenario gaming—some of it undoubtedly in discussions with the movement’s good buddies at the NED—and I was expected escalating action pushing a polarization dynamic that would be extremely unfavorable to the Hong Kong government and the PRC and serve as catnip to the international media: continued street demonstrations, maybe some kind of spectacular provocation on the PRC’s National Day, perhaps the announcement of high profile support from sympathetic celebrities and/or business and/or political worthies at opportune moments; so on and so forth, all in support of non-negotiable pro-democracy demands.
In other words, a determined political action inspired by the colored revolution strategy that the US has promoted rather successfully in eastern Europe, and which gives the collywobbles to the CCP leadership in Beijing.
Didn’t happen. Not even the university chiefs supported this particular student demand, as far as I can tell. Maybe there’s enough of that old school hierarchy that it’s beneath university administrators to actively support students, and will hold off until the profs—like Dr. Benny Tai—get into the field.
Maybe it was decided that the students had gotten waaaaaaaaaaaay over their skis, their demands were not tactically optimized, and the movement’s student, adult, and local sympathizer elements weren’t sufficiently organized and integrated to coordinate the street actions and handle the inevitable pushback by the Hong Kong government and the PRC.
My speculation: the adults break the news to the students that it’s time for them to step back (gently, though; the student presence is a vital PR and organizational element), forget about forcing Leung out on their lonesome, and let OHK run the show from now on.
To save face—and to confirm for the student demonstrators below the leader level that this is the line to be pursued—the university chiefs show up downtown and state their desire that the students back off.
And there is a flurry of stories in the international press along the lines of “the students have shot their bolt” and the US consulate posts a message on its Facebook page urging dialogue.
I expect that OHK, for its part, has to do some hurried improvising now that the October 1 window has passed, and deal with the fact that the Admiralty area has now been largely cleared of students and re-occupation will be a difficult and confrontational chore, but I expect they’ll come up with some stratagem that enables them to capitalize on the outpouring of attention and sympathy elicited by the students.
If OHK lays low, on the other hand, it lays the democracy movement open to the charge of disorganization and incompetence, attributes that are not useful for a movement that needs activists ready to suffer tear gas or worse in pursuit of an agenda many people think is unachievable.
And the CCP apparently demonstrated some of its trademark 秋后算账goonishness (“settling accounts after the autumn harvest” i.e. meting out punishment at an opportune moment instead of in the heat of battle), with local triads organizing some violent encounters with the retreating students.
Predictably, the useless student discussions with Carrie Lam broke down before they even started in response to the ugly triad headknocking against students in Mong Kok. The outrage machine can immediately start re-cranking as if the conciliatory talk of the last few hours never happened, and the field is clear for renewed agitation, this time, I think, more firmly under the direction of Occupy Hong Kong.
How much headway OHK can make against an aroused and irate CCP remains to be seen.
P.S. For easy reference, here’s an excerpt from the Hong Kong Standard story from this summer about Jimmy Lai’s largesse:
[L]eaked documents showed Lai has donated more than HK$40 million to the pan- democratic camp and legislators since 2012, of which HK$9.5 million was made to four political parties in April 2012.
Lai also gave the Democratic Party HK$10 million in two payments – HK$5 million in October 2013 and HK$5 million in June 2014.
The Civic Party also got an additional of HK$6 million during the period.
Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng Yue-shek and Occupy Central organizer Reverend Chu Yiu-ming received HK$300,000 in June 2013 and HK$400,000 in April 2013 and April 2014, respectively.
Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang got HK$3.5 million – more than twice the HK$1.3 million she received from Lai between 2007 and 2009.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun received HK$6 million and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming got HK$300,000.
League of Social Democrats lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung received HK$1 million.
Former Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan Suk-chong and five incumbent pan-democratic lawmakers – Democratic Party’s James To Kun-sun, Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan, Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit and the party’s lawmaker Claudia Mo Man- ching and Leung – received donations between April 2012 and April 2014.