A leader of the pro-democracy group that threatened to occupy Hong Kong’s financial district said its strategy to win concessions from China on election reform had failed and that support for the sit-in was waning.
China’s uncompromising stance means “the number of people joining us will not be as big as we expect, because of the very pragmatic thinking of Hong Kong people,” an Occupy Central with Love and Peace founder, Benny Tai Yiu-Ting, said in an interview. China ruled Aug. 31 that candidates for the city’s first planned popular election must be screened, dashing demands for free elections from the activist group.
Tai, who had previously said he was confident it could mobilize at least 10,000 protesters, described mustering that number now as a “maybe.” Occupy Central will choose a date to minimize possible economic damage to the city, he said.
Tai’s comments may reassure business leaders who have warned that a sit-in would bring chaos to one of the world’s financial capitals, scare away tourists and threaten jobs. It also shifts the focus from popular protests to opposition lawmakers, who plan to defeat the proposed bill.
“It is interesting how quickly they have backed down,” said David Zweig, professor of political science at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. “If this was a game of chicken, the mainland said: ‘We’ll drive straight through this’ and Occupy Central has pulled aside and said: ‘We aren’t willing to destroy Hong Kong.’”
The threat to occupy Hong Kong’s Central district has divided the city, with mass events being held for and against its demands for a genuine choice of candidates in the city’s 2017 leadership election.
The Hong Kong police said 22 people were arrested yesterday at protests during the visit of Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress, who was in the city to explain its plans and seek support.
Activists should overcome their “prejudices” and see that China’s proposal is the most concrete step toward implementing the election, Li said.
While Occupy Central plans to proceed with its protest, Tai said he doesn’t expect that the movement will be able to change the “political reality” made clear by China’s ruling.
When business executives “know the details of when we will organize this event, they will know we have no intention to damage the economy of Hong Kong,” Tai said. “Even though I cannot mention the date, but if you look at the calendar, you would know which date would cause the minimal damage to Hong Kong’s economy.”
Hong Kong has public holidays on Sept. 9, and Oct. 1 and 2.
Political unrest and a slowing economy may lead to a “perfect financial storm,” Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang wrote on Aug. 10. The city last month cut its economic growth forecast as a slowdown in China crimped the purchases of luxury items and weighed on local sentiment.
The benchmark Hang Seng Index fell as much as 0.7 percent before Tai’s remarks to close little changed at 24,749.02.
Hours after the Aug. 31 ruling, Tai told supporters at a rally outside the office of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that it marked the start of an era of civil disobedience. The evening demonstration drew 5,000 people, according to organizers. Police put the number at 2,640 at its peak.
The limited turnout is an indication of popular sentiment, said Robert Chow, a spokesman for the Alliance for Peace and Democracy group that opposes Occupy Central.
“Society’s mood is turning toward having one-man one-vote democracy first instead of clinging to the democracy that the pan-democratic people want,” Chow said.
Some pan-democrats including Emily Lau, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, had vowed to join in Occupy Central’s action. Several lawmakers have said they will block the election changes, which require a two-third majority in the Hong Kong legislature.
If the legislation fails to pass, the current system where the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member election committee will remain in place for the 2017 elections.
“There might be people who gave up because the hope of a truly democratic election is gone,” Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of the movement and an associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a phone interview today. “We wish that people will be touched by our actions and be awakened to the importance of genuine democracy.”
Chan later told the South China Morning Post that Tai’s comments were not “not an accurate” description and that Beijing’s decision was creating new supporters for the movement.
“So while there are some people leaving there are more angry people joining,” he told the newspaper. “I would not expect there’s a big change in the number of our supporters.”
Some students have vowed to skip school from mid-September in protest.
“We need mass movement to ensure that we have enough bargaining power,” Alex Chow, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said today in an interview.
Asked whether its strategic aim of getting China to permit universal suffrage that meets international standards had failed, Tai said: “Up to this point, we failed. What we planned is that we use the threat of the action to create the tension.”
Tai, who is a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said Occupy Central had set an extreme baseline, hoping that China would discuss moderate demands for democracy.
“Beijing refused to back down,” he said. “So the strategic part should end. Now the thing we want to achieve is more about the civil awakening.”