Hong Kong Protests Started With a Roar End With a Whisper

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that started with a 100,000-strong roar in September ended with a whisper yesterday after weeks of occupying the city’s streets failed to accomplish any of the demonstrators’ goals.

Police yesterday removed the last of the roadblocks at the main Admiralty district protest site near the government offices with little interference. They made 209 arrests on charges including unlawful assembly and obstructing police and allowed 909 people to leave the area after recording their identities, Assistant Commissioner of Police Cheung Tak-keung said, according to remarks posted on the government’s website.

Ending the street protests brings to a close the biggest challenge to China’s rule over Hong Kong since it regained sovereignty from Britain in 1997, and leaves the students pondering their next moves. The focus will shift to the Legislative Council, where pro-democracy lawmakers have pledged to block passage of a bill that will set procedures for the city’s 2017 leadership unless substantial changes are made.

“We want to tell the government we will increase in strength and with each protest we will get more Hong Kong people involved,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. “Today the government is clearing the protest sites, but they can’t clear the problems.”

The movement’s student leaders had demanded China reverse a decision to screen candidates for Hong Kong’s first leadership election in 2017 and that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resign. When it became clear that neither demand would be met, they sought talks with Leung. He refused.

About 100 protesters, including pro-democracy lawmakers, staged a nonviolent sit-in and were arrested one at a time. Those arrested include legislators Emily Lau, Albert Ho and Alan Leong, Next Media Ltd. Chairman Jimmy Lai, and the founding chairman of the Democratic Party Martin Lee.

Waning Support

The protests were kick-started on Sept. 26 when student leaders stormed the premise of the government headquarters. Two days later, the police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the demonstrators, an act that sparked public outrage and drew as many as 100,000 people to the streets.

The demonstrations began to dwindle as public support waned after weeks of traffic and business disruption, as hundreds of arrests and injuries occurred during clashes with police and disagreements over tactics grew among the protest leaders.

About 68 percent of 513 people surveyed by the University of Hong Kong said the government should act to end the protests, according to a poll conducted Nov. 17-18.

Leung repeatedly said that the protesters’ demands run against the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution, which calls for candidates to be vetted by a broadly representative committee. Discussions on the composition of the committee are possible, he said.

Xi, Obama

The protests led to an exchange between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping last month during their summit meeting in Beijing. As Obama called for fair elections in Hong Kong, Xi said the protesters were breaking the law and that China won’t brook any interference in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the demonstrations divided families and schools, eroded the public’s trust of the police and political parties. The Hong Kong Federation of Students became the city’s most popular political group, according to a poll in October.

Calls to end the movement increased after violent clashes broke out on the night of Nov. 30 as the police beat back an attempt by protesters to surround the government offices to put pressure on Leung.

Political Consciousness

While public support for the movement has waned, the protests have raised the political consciousness of younger people, said lawmaker Claudia Mo, before she was arrested at the site .

“You may find that sounds a bit romantic,” said Mo. “It’s a real political awakening among the Hong Kong people, especially the younger generation. They really see no way out on all kind of fronts -- political, social and job wise.”

Workers cleared parts of the blocked roads under a court injunction yesterday morning. The police took over after that, closing in on the center of the protest site section by section, while making regular announcements for people to leave. There was minimal interference.

As the police marched toward the protesters, the student federation’s Chow led those remaining in chants demanding “true democracy” and the resignation of Leung.

“I will stay behind till the end to express our determination for true democracy,” said CY Chow, a social worker. “I have never imagined I might be arrested. If you look at the results, it is a failure because the government didn’t respond to us. But we are at the same time successful because we have awakened many Hong Kong people.”

‘Totally Illegal’

Most other demonstrators left after the police gave a final warning yesterday afternoon.

“I was politically apathetic until I saw how the government dealt with the protesters using tear gas,” said Carol Leung, a social worker, who was in tears. “I do feel guilty as I won’t stay till the end. They are sacrificing for us but I have no guts.”

The street occupations are “totally illegal,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “The Hong Kong government has the right to deal with the issue with law, to maintain social order and stability.”

Student leaders said on Dec. 10 they plan to broaden the struggle for free elections, and may seek to pressure government officials during public consultation meetings for the electoral reforms. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who earlier rejected talks with the students, said she will be willing to meet representatives during planned public consultation.

“The movement is successful in a sense that it has made people realize the importance of democracy,” said Tommy Yau, a 19-year-old student. “It created channels for people to express what they want from the government. I hope one day I could achieve more to make an influence, to change the system.”

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