Students Struggle to Control Hong Kong Democracy Protests

The core group of students leading the 10-day occupation of central Hong Kong are wary of police violence and waiting for any serious proposal from the government that would help defuse the situation, one of their leaders says.

Isolated in an office building and increasingly concerned about discord among their ranks, and whether their supporters fully understand their plans, the pro-democracy protesters are preparing to deal with the possibility of the police using rubber bullets or tear gas to disperse crowds before a morning deadline set by the city, said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the group representing the largest number of demonstrators.

“We don’t mind what kind of procedure the government would take; we hope that the government can offer something that the people of Hong Kong can trust,” said Chow last evening, before a late night press conference announcing that deliberations for talks with the government had begun. “For the people here, what they want is an authentic democratic reform to be detailed, or examined in a precise way.”

First Talks

Chow’s language suggested a possibility that the protesters might disperse even without the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a demand the city has strongly rejected. Chances to avoid more clashes may have increased after representatives of the students held their first direct talks with government representatives last night. Joshua Wong, Chow’s 17-year-old counterpart at a second student group called Scholarism couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The students first took to the streets on Sept. 26 in a protest against the Chinese government’s plan to influence the election for Leung’s successor in 2017 by vetting candidates for the vote. The scale of the protests mushroomed after police used pepper spray and tear gas on the demonstrators on Sept. 28, with crowds swelling to as many as 200,000 people at the three main protest points, choking city streets, hurting retailers and closing some schools.

As Chow spoke, police officers started moving barriers erected by students to one of the entrances to a block of government offices that officials vowed to keep open for business later this morning, when 3,000 people will try to return to work at the site.

Vehicle Access

While supply and medical vans were allowed to drive in and out of the area leading toward the chief executive’s office, signaling that vehicular access was possible, dozens still remained sat on the access road leading to the compound at 1 a.m.

“I will sit here until morning,” said Andy Law, 19, a first year university student. “The student leaders said it is my choice whether to stay or to go,” referring to an announcement made at the scene after police started moving barricades. “I will keep peaceful, I just want to show C.Y. what I think of him by staying here and tell him what I think when he comes to work.” Leung is commonly referred to by his initials.

Plotting Strategy

Chow, wearing a black t-shirt that read “Freedom Now,” his hair unkempt and his fingernails grimy, kept glancing out the window from the ninth floor of the Legislative Council building, where more than a dozen students have been holed up for days, plotting strategy and attempting to keep control of a mass movement that drew drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets over the past week.

Outside, Yiu Wai, who said he is a film director, had proved a distraction at yesterday’s protest by climbing onto a highway overpass and threatening to jump off if the students didn’t free up the road.

Rescuers inflated a giant cushion, which they kept moving to keep up with the director’s rambling walks along the ledge, as dozens of TV cameras waited for the denouement. After a four-hour performance on his megaphone, the director finally climbed down and was taken off in an ambulance.

In other parts of the city, including the Mong Kok district across the harbor in Kowloon where protesters were assaulted by unidentified men on Friday night, hundreds of students still milled around, sitting under tents and watched over by about 120 officers from a police tactical unit led by Commander Paul Edmiston, who said his job was “to keep a lid on things.”

Open Corridor

With the city and the protesters at a stalemate -- with no date for a follow up meeting set, nor any clarity on whether police would be asked to clear out the students in advance of the morning rush hour, Chow repeated a promise to open a corridor that would allow the government workers to enter and leave their offices peacefully and unharassed.

“I trust the occupiers -- they will not yell at ordinary people,” he said.

Still, Chow said he didn’t have full control of all the protesters in the square. Many have come there independently of the student leadership that’s been guiding the movement, and act on their own.

“We have only partial influence, to be frank,” he said. “But there are radicals, they are more autonomous, and of course some of the people in the movement, they don’t wish for a leadership.”

Matthew Lam, 30, a social worker, is one. Lying on the ground under the bridge of one of the main occupied roads, Lam has been protesting for the fifth day, he said.

Decipher, Analyze

“I will see what the government offers -- the students may be facilitating the process now but it doesn’t mean I will leave if they ask me to,” said Lam, clad in a black singlet and lying on a black mat, with snacks around him. “I need to decipher and analyze the details of the proposal and see if it’s good for Hong Kong. That’s what a Hong Konger should do. The responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the students.”

Within the movement itself, which has been opaque in its internal discussions so far, discord is a worry, said Chow.

These young men and women in charge of the movement spend more and more of their time separated from the crowds they’ve attracted. Chow acknowledged a lack of transparency in how they operate. Currently, the leadership, who are mostly the winners of local elections in the university’s unions, meet in private, and takes decisions that are then told to the protesters outside.

Core Group

“It was a pity that we did not have sufficient people having deliberations out there,” said Chow, blaming the issue on a lack of manpower. While the leaders have tried to meet with the protesters as often as they can, “it’s not perfect -- but since this is about government and policy, we must have deliberations. There must be a core group to maintain the momentum of the movement.”

How united that core group remains after 10 days of stop-and-start deliberations with the government, is unclear. The leaders rarely communicate their thinking or deliberations before posting their decisions on Facebook, and mostly give prepared speeches from a stage. Chow said the problem was more about communicating their work, rather than actual discord.

“I will say that it’s a very reasonable concern, because the flow of information is not transparent enough,” he said. “They must be worried. When the students are here, can they really get in touch with the students out there, so that those ideas out there can get turned into decisions in here?”

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