This time it could be for real. The Hong Kong High Court ruling Monday authorizing bailiffs to remove barricades in the city’s protest areas, combined with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public endorsement of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, may finally put spine into Leung to end the six-week occupation of key roads in the city. The police have the power to arrest those who resist. Acting chief executive Carrie Lam has warned protestors to “leave quickly and peacefully.”
Public losing patience
Support has been waning for the protests and public annoyance is growing. The movement has degenerated into a gathering of drifting crowds with no particular agenda and no leaders really in charge. The encampments continue only because they have not been removed by the authorities. The people in it are also puzzled why the circus big top is not folded.
Leung’s administration opted out after bungling the initial response with tear gas and pepper spray, which outraged the community and brought even more people onto the streets. After six weeks, society at large is beginning to blame government indecision for prolonging the problem. If Leung fails to act now he truly needs to be removed from office for incompetence.
Arrest the leaders?
If the administration uses this break to arrest and charge the student leaders and the original Occupy trio for starting it all and defying court orders, they would be risk alienating society needlessly.
The original Occupy trio were already rendered irrelevant when students took the lead end September. Students succeeded in forcing the Hong Kong government to meet them in front of TV cameras where they looked earnest and sincere while the administration looked tired, parroting the party line. The students could have called off the occupation at that point and earned considerable public goodwill. They misjudged their moment and carried on pointlessly.
The Federation of Students sought the help of local deputies to the National People’s Consultative Congress to arrange a meeting with president Xi Jinping. That has been rejected. Xi pointedly met with Leung at the APEC conclave in Beijing instead and was photographed shaking hands with the chief executive.
The Hong Kong administration has declined further talks as student demands for the NPC Standing Committee ruling on the 2017 CE election to be rescinded and for Leung to resign, were deemed unreasonable. Now the students stand isolated without an end game.
The best course for the administration now is to systematically enforce court rulings with measured use of force if necessary, free the roads, end traffic chaos and bring relief to everyone. By resisting the temptation for revenge, the administration can pacify the situation with the minimum of drama.
What are the risk scenarios?
SVA Associates, headed by longtime risk assessment consultant Steve Vickers, predicted that at some point, with the letter of the law behind them, “bailiffs will be dispatched to remove the offending barricades. If the bailiffs meet opposition while attempting to remove the barricades, the police will be expected and required to step in. A confrontation – one requiring a firm police response – could follow.”
That, according to SVA, means that there is now a “relatively high chance of overt action following court orders… and of this action escalating (intentionally or otherwise) into a territory-wide operation, to clear the three primary occupation zones.”
In addition, as SVA noted, the mainland public relations apparatus has continued to vilify the Occupy Central movement. A number of Beijing or Moscow-oriented publications are quoted, using columns by Nile Bowie, Tony Cartalucci and others, accusing the United States of being behind the Occupy movement and the student protest through the National Endowment for Democracy, a Congress-funded organization that provides money for democratic movements overseas.
Most recently, SVA said, two mainland academics, who advise Beijing on Hong Kong affairs “added their voices to the chorus, warning that the Occupy Central protests have threatened ‘Hong Kong’s security,’ which, inturn presented a crucial risk to PRC national security.”
The two raised concerns that Occupy Central might evolve into a “color revolution” in Hong Kong, which SVA views as code for a justification, if necessary, for a forceful intervention to end the movement.
Given the handshake in Beijing, “We assess that CY Leung now has the required political support from Beijing and, if court rulings are favorable, he will have legal top-cover in Hong Kong,” SVA said. “This legal cover may be sufficient to insulate him from blame should overt steps that he orders to end the occupation go awry.
Given that situation, once the high-profile APEC conference is out of the way in Beijing, and with the high court’s ruling providing the legal support, “CY Leung may soon order the Hong Kong Police to clear out the occupation zones – or more likely for the police to support bailiffs in this exercise, which would have the same effect.
But as other observers told Asia Sentinel, Leung, as he has so far, may simply be so indecisive that he is incapable of making a decision. Given the limited decision to clear certain streets and not others, the bailiffs have been given a difficult task. As one observer said, either they have to clear them all, which could cause wide disapproval from Hong Kong residents, or they have to leave them in place.
“SVA assesses that such an outcome would only stoke the growing anger within the anti-occupy groups. This ire might well increase the chances of violent civilian on civilian clashes as public frustration mounts over the stalemate and of government’s perceived unwillingness to act.”
Triad strategy could backfire
The situation continues, growing more precarious, with deep concern that employing the triads to knock heads will only turn more people against the government.
SVA “has consistently warned that there would be a very high price for government to pay if it allows or acquiesces in such non-governmental actors assuming a critical role in the current vacuum, which itself has been created by a lack of government response to date. Under such unfortunate circumstances, the full burden would be borne by the Hong Kong Police, who would likely be caught in the middle, dealing with violence from multiple angles when they do finally move to clear the occupation zones.”