By the time you read this, the three founders of Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement are likely to have turned themsleves over to police. Professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming planned to walk in to a police station and surrender at 3pm on Wednesday, Hong Kong time – early Wednesday morning in North America. There may be wisdom in their move.
The democratic protest movement cannot defeat Beijing or its handpicked Hong Kong officials by force. The idea of physically "occupying" parts of downtown Hong Kong or storming government buildings, as some protestors tried, is a dead end. Beijing will always win contests of force and violence.
But acts of non-violent civil disobedience, which the movement's founders agree on, are a whole other story. It's not a bad idea to dare authorities to arrest, charge and try them. Beijing will not win many battles of ideas and ideals. In that arena, the popular movement is the better armed party.
The unwillingness of Beijing to engage with calls for greater democracy – promised as part of the agreement with Britain that handed over control of Hong Kong in 1997 – is having an impact. At the time of the handover, one-third of Hongkongers identified themselves as solely "Chinese," in a poll conducted by a Hong Kong university. The same poll questions have been asked every year since and today, only 1 in 10 Hongkongers say they are Chinese. (Most Hongkongers identify as some mix of China and Hong Kong). At the same time, more than one quarter see themselves as solely Hongkongers, with no connection to China – the highest level since 1998.
The Occupy movement, and Beijing's response to it, are having an effect. Most Hong Kong residents want to be largely independent from Beijing, under the promised "One Country, Two Systems." Some want to be even more independent than that. Instead, the future China is offering looks ever more like One Country, One System. For most residents of Hong Kong, particulary younger people who have spent their entire lives living under rule of law and civil liberties, the Beijing model holds little appeal.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that his weapons were "truth, soul force, non-injury and courage." Hong Kong's democratic movement's only hope is to use those, patiently and persistently. It can't win a pitched battle. It may win a battle of hearts and minds.