Barricades should go down without a fight.

Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning of the End in Hong Kong

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Tuesday morning saw the beginning of the end of the pro-democracy protests that have wracked Hong Kong for nearly two months. Armed with a court order to clear part of the main protest site in the city's Admiralty district, bailiffs dismantled and removed barricades with little opposition. Several protesters vowed to continue occupying the streets until Beijing meets their demands for open nominations for Hong Kong's next leader. Their numbers are dwindling fast, though, and Hong Kong authorities are understandably confident that the remaining sites can be cleared in coming days.

It's time to admit the obvious: The protests have run their course. The Hong Kong government, which had once sat down across from idealistic student leaders, now declines to meet with them. Over the weekend, a poll revealed that almost 70 percent of Hong Kong’s public want the protesters to go home. Clinging to their few tent encampments would only further undermine the movement's credibility -- as ultimately happened with the listless and unpopular Occupy Wall Street.

Hong Kong's Autonomy

That's a pity, because unlike Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Central actually has a definable and sympathetic goal: holding China to its promises of full suffrage for Hong Kong. What it needs is a strategy for keeping up that fight over years, not weeks. Here's where protest leaders might start:

First, send everyone home. Clear the sites in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and the gritty Mong Kok neighborhood, and do so peacefully. The protesters need a break, and so does Hong Kong. Nobody will look askance if Occupy leaders simply announce that their message has gotten out, and that it’s now time to stop inconveniencing fellow citizens.

Next, figure out who is actually in charge of the movement. Is it the students? Is it the professors and professional legislators? Which students? Which professors? In late October, in one of the Occupy movement’s most embarrassing episodes, the various pro-democracy groups supporting the protests canceled a vote on how to take the movement forward. Why? Because they couldn’t agree on how to phrase the poll questions. If the various protest groups can’t even coalesce around an informal vote, what makes them think Hong Kong citizens should embrace their pro-democracy message?

Third, the movement needs to revise its goals downward, at least in the near-term. Stunts, such as last weekend’s failed attempt by three student leaders to fly to Beijing and demand a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang, should be abandoned -- as should unrealistic demands. Beijing is not about to reverse its decision that candidates be vetted by a nominating committee. While truly open nominations can remain an ultimate ambition, protest organizers should be much more focused on wresting what influence they can now and using that as a foundation to push for more changes in the future.

To that end, protesters should take up pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip’s suggestion that the students be given seats on the nominating committee. That might seem like selling out, and indeed, China's Communist Party has a long and infamous history of coopting onetime opponents. But what better way to highlight all that’s wrong with the committee than by revealing its flaws from within? As long as they hold true to their convictions, protest leaders can work to open up the system bit by bit.

And finally, they should remember that they always have the option of returning to the streets. The point is to avoid making protests an irritating chronic feature of the Hong Kong landscape (much like Occupy Wall Street). Instead demonstrations should be rare, well-organized, timed for maximum turnout and -- above all -- concise in their aims.

Certainly it will not be easy to draw tens of thousands of average citizens into the streets again. But if pro-democracy leaders can show themselves to be effective representatives for ordinary Hong Kongers, both within and without the system, they can credibly project an important message: There’s a generation in Hong Kong that doesn't feel a part of what their city is becoming, and they need to be heard and respected.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net