The professors and the pastor said they were ready to fight for a right to vote, and spent months preparing to lead protests that threatened to bring Asia’s financial centre to its knees.
But Occupy Central with Peace and Love, the movement to secure an openly democratic system to elect Hong Kong’s powerful chief executive, now faces the grim likelihood that it will get none of what it sought, a realization so dispiriting that the promised mass disruption of the city may now never happen.
This week, China’s National People’s Congress deliberated on the process for the 2017 chief executive election and, in a draft leaked to some Hong Kong media, decided it would bend to virtually none of critics’ demands.
Candidates for chief executive will continue to be nominated by a small and secretive committee, but only two or three will be allowed to stand for elections. Hong Kong residents will get to vote for their chief executive in a change promised years ago. But their ballots will be filled with candidates vetted, approved and, in many ways, selected by Beijing, which is expected to announce its final decision on Sunday.
It is a stark repudiation of Occupy Central demands for a free nomination system that would allow anyone with enough support to stand for election. Failure to achieve that goal, Occupy has for months said, would drive 10,000 people to the streets of Hong Kong’s Central district, enough to shut the area down and cause losses estimated at some $233-million a day.
But with that goal increasingly impossible, even those in Occupy’s leadership ranks have begun to lose some of their ardour. Promises of 10,000 protesters blocking important streets are made no more. “Last count is we have 2,500 people who have signed the commitment letter,” for civil disobedience, said Edward Chin, who has led a financial group behind Occupy.
There might still be 10,000 on the streets, but most will be spectators, as the push to obtain elections free of Beijing’s manipulations faces dimmed prospects of success. Hong Kong is part of China, and China has said its leadership must be “patriotic,” owing allegiance to Beijing.
“I’m very pessimistic that we can fight for real democracy in Hong Kong,” said Chan Kin-man, a professor of civil society studies who is one of Occupy’s founding trio, along with a law professor and a preacher. And, he added in an interview this week, the point “of civil disobedience is not just to paralyze everything.”
It’s a muted tone from a few months ago, when Prof. Chan told The Globe and Mail he was inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to “fight for justice,” and said: “We believe we have a legitimate reason to occupy the legislature, or even the headquarters of the government.”
Now, Prof. Chan said, it will be days after the National People’s Congress decision before a protest is staged. According to Mr. Chin, Occupy might not even mount “a final showdown.” Instead, there could a “series of events” much smaller in scale. “It will be totally legal – let’s say suddenly 30 or 40 people go to a mall and then they sing songs,” he said.
It is a significant comedown for a movement that sought to bring a functional democratic system to a part of China, in hopes the city could one day be used as a model for electoral rights to spread across the mainland.
Now, the bid for democracy in Hong Kong doesn’t look like it “is going to be sustained. It could well be all over within this year,” said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
He gave Occupy “credit for what it’s achieved so far. It certainly brought a lot of public attention and debate on these important issues.”
And it remains possible that a heavy-handed Chinese response will raise a tide of sympathy for protesters, one that could awaken a threat to Beijing’s authority. Allowing only a “birdcage democracy” – one that is highly constrained, as China is set to do – could provoke “two or three years of trouble in Hong Kong,” said a Peking University professor who asked not to be named because of the repercussions for publicly questioning Chinese leadership.
Not only could that “cost a lot of political capital for Xi Jinping in Beijing and China in the international arena,” but it would be impossible to hide.
“If there are large-scale protests in Hong Kong in any form, people in mainland China will see it and that will give them a new moment to reconsider the general relationship between power and society,” the professor said.
But even if several thousand people take to the streets, “my personal judgment is that at most it will not take longer than 48 hours for the police to physically, one by one, remove them,” said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Indeed, Occupy Central leaders expect to be arrested before they can mount a large protest.
Authorities have already moved against Jimmy Lai, a billionaire media mogul whose newspapers are among the few left to actively criticize Beijing, whose money has supported pro-democracy legislators and whose employees have helped to organize Occupy events. This week, anti-corruption agents raided Mr. Lai’s home.
“I don’t think Beijing is necessarily nervous about Occupy Central,” Prof. Lam said.
Beijing has already altered its definition of its relationship with Hong Kong in a June white paper that reiterated China’s political control and called judges “administrators” who owed China patriotic fealty.
That paper “spelled the end of one country, two systems as we knew it,” Prof. Lam said. “Beijing wants full control over Hong Kong.”