¡No Pasarán! Hong Kong's Democrats Stay in the Streets

Pro-democracy demonstrators carry bamboo poles towards a barricade in Hong Kong on Oct. 13 Photograph by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

In the weeks since the police fired tear gas at protesters on Sept. 28, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been largely peaceful, helping the students and their supporters win admiration around the world. Closer to home, though, the Umbrella Revolution has also angered a good number of Hong Kong’s citizens. Frustrated by road closures, huge traffic jams, and lost business, the movement’s critics are threatening to take matters into their own hands if the government doesn’t clear the blockades soon.

The two sides came closer to a violent confrontation today. Hundreds of anti-Occupy Central people took to the streets of Central themselves, confronting pro-democracy protesters at barricades near the Bank of China’s Hong Kong headquarters. Among the anti-Occupy crowd were taxi drivers angry about the road closures. They had banners on their cabs declaring “Enough is Enough.”

Police had to intervene to keep the two sides apart, and by late afternoon, the anti-Occupy people were gone and the young people in the streets were reinforcing their barricades. The occupation of the heart of Hong Kong continues for now. But that also means the government can continue to blame the students for blocking the roads and costing many working-class Hong Kong people their livelihoods.

Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of men attempted to break through barricades erected by Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters near the city’s business district, as a third week of rallies tried the patience of truck and cab drivers. Police lined streets as roads remained blocked by barricades. David Tweed reports from Hong Kong with Anna Edwards on Bloomberg Television's "Countdown." (Source: Bloomberg)

That may be just what Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wants. The longer the students stay in the streets, the easier it is for his government to paint them as out-of-touch radicals unconcerned about the impact of their actions on their fellow Hong Kongers.

Some of the movement’s leaders seem to recognize the need to shift the subject away from traffic jams and back to universal suffrage. Cheng Chung-Tai, a teaching fellow at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a member of Civic Passion, a protest group taking part in the demonstrations, told Bloomberg News today of a proposal by some of the leaders to move some of the protests off the road, allowing some traffic to flow again. However, “the front-line protesters, it seems they are not in line with the Alliance,” said Cheng. As a result, the roads will remain closed until government officials “come to the street and reply [to] our demands.”

Determined to preserve even unmanned barricades, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is in danger of getting stuck. The students and their supporters took to the streets without a clear plan should the government refuse to budge—and sure enough, Leung now refuses to make any concessions, counting on the ensuing traffic chaos to weaken support for his critics. The demand for the National People’s Congress to withdraw its decision regulating Hong Kong’s election is “impossible,” he told an interviewer from a local TV station yesterday.

By moving their protests to a nearby park and allowing traffic to flow again in Central, the pro-democracy forces could quickly regain control of the narrative from Leung. They would lose some of the ¡No Pasarán! allure of the Umbrella Revolution. But the city’s young idealists would be better off talking with their fellow Hong Kong citizens about freedom and democracy, not squabbling with cab drivers about traffic jams and lost taxi rides.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.