Until recently, the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong had a lot to boast about. The pro-democracy movement grew out of the legitimate desire of residents to push back against Beijing’s attempts to renege on a promise to introduce universal suffrage to Hong Kong by 2017 – part of its agreement with Britain at the time of handover.
Beijing has said only candidates that “love China” should be eligible to run in the election of the city’s next leader. It will control who gets to run. Occupy Central wants the nomination process to be open, and has launched a series of actions to get their point across: Last month they held an unofficial referendum where 780,000 voters – more than one in five eligible voters – cast their ballots in support. This week, they held a pro-democracy march attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The peaceful protests sent a clear message that Hong Kongers’ democratic aspirations must be taken seriously.
However, part of the movement now appears to be veering off course, promising to stage mass sit-ins across Hong Kong’s financial district to paralyze it. The point of these protests is apparently to apply pressure on Beijing to meet its democratic commitments. But it’s hard to understand how targeting Hong Kong’s financial district will succeed in anything more than antagonizing the city’s business leaders, dividing the city’s population and giving Beijing an excuse to either ignore the protesters or crack down on them.
Occupy Central’s laudable goal is democracy and universal suffrage. It doesn’t make sense to target the big banks and businesses that fuel Hong Kong’s economy: They aren’t blocking democracy. Beijing is. Moreover, such a strategy could cost Occupy valuable allies. This week, the Big Four accounting firms took out local newspapers ads urging against attempts to shut down the city: “We are worried that foreign multinationals and investors will leave their Hong Kong headquarters because of this,” it read. Such a worry may sound slightly hysterical, but other organizations, including the Canadian, Indian and Italian Chambers of Commerce have also expressed concern.
If Occupy Central hopes to succeed, it must build on its record of peaceful protest. Sowing chaos in Hong Kong’s financial district would be a gift to Beijing.