In the heated debate over democracy in Hong Kong, the city’s movement in favor of giving ordinary voters a greater say in choosing their government has enjoyed an important advantage. While the leaders of Occupy Central With Love and Peace, the group threatening to stage a massive civil disobedience campaign in the city’s financial district, seemed calm and reasonable, their opponents resorted to name calling and scare mongering. One such group released a widely mocked video with the frightening English title “They can kill this city!” complete with ominous music and animation of a knife stabbing at the heart of Hong Kong.
Suddenly, though, the pro-Beijing forces’ arguments don’t seem so ridiculously hyperbolic—and for that, they can thank Benny Tai, the leader of Occupy Central. In July, his pro-democracy forces took to the streets, with the University of Hong Kong estimating between 154,000 and 172,000 people marching to support their call for universal suffrage in the 2017 election for chief executive, with candidates not having first to receive approval from a small committee stacked with Beijing loyalists. This month, pro-China marchers staged a counterdemonstration that attracted a smaller crowd. The University of Hong Kong put the number at 88,000. And at least some of those pro-China demonstrators may have been there in part for the free lunch that organizers offered.
So, in the battle of the summer demonstrations, it should have been advantage, Team Democracy. But with September approaching and the Hong Kong government due to announce its plans for the 2017 election procedure, Hong Kong is moving closer to what could be a violent showdown.
And, strangely enough, that’s just what one of the leaders of the pro-democracy groups says he wants. Tai, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, is the founder of Occupy Central, which may stage civil disobedience events in the city’s financial district if it deems unsatisfactory the government’s proposed method for choosing Hong Kong’s next chief executive. Despite the “Love and Peace” in the group’s name, Tai has now said he welcomes a nasty confrontation with the police.
“We want them to use tear gas and water cannon,” he told Bloomberg News in an interview. That would improve Occupy Central’s chances of winning “the sympathy of the whole community.”
That may turn out to be one of the most tone-deaf statements a Hong Kong activist has made in a long time. Tai may be able to point to other popular movements that have gained from excessive police reactions. But Hong Kong isn’t Ferguson, Mo., let alone Cairo, Kiev, or other cities where harsh antigovernment protests gained ground after violence with security forces. Earlier this summer, Tai seemed to get that. Before the big July 1 demonstration, for instance, he emphasized how Occupy Central wasn’t going to rush into any civil disobedience campaign that could paralyze the city. Rather, he said, the group was going to be patient, waiting to see what the government proposed and then possibly staging a second referendum so people could speak.
Now, however, he’s talking about confrontations with the police—and saying he looks forward to them. By saying he wants the police to fire tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators, Tai may have provided Beijing’s supporters with just the evidence they need to convince undecided Hong Kong people that Occupy Central really is dominated by radicals looking for trouble.