30 Sep 2014

Hong Kong protests continue – but where are the police?

Hong Kong’s police force fired tear gas and pepper spray at demonstrators on Sunday. But officers have now withdrawn from the city centre, in a move that has disconcerted protesters.

There’s a lot about of speculation on the streets of Hong Kong this morning about the intentions of the police. “They’re never usually this quiet,” said one.

The territory’s police force has a reputation for getting on top of things quickly. On Sunday night they fired tear gas and pepper spray at thousands of students and other protesters, intent on seizing the centre of Hong Kong. Demonstrators here are motivated by a number of issues but one stands out in particular – the decision of the territory’s ultimate ruler, China, not to allow open elections for the leadership.

However, in a move that surprised many, police officers have withdrawn from the city centre, effectively handing it over to tens of thousands of protesters who are now embarking on day three of their occupation.

Hong Kong’s government explained the move like this: “As those people gathering on these roads have generally calmed down, the police have stood down the anti-riot deployment.”

That explanation has been received with a certain amount of cynicism here.  Some think the police simply do not have the numbers to control and disperse the crowds; others argue that the authorities don’t want to risk further alienating the public.

In a televised statement delivered on Tuesday morning, the territory’s Chief Executive C Y Leung seemed to accept that the “Occupy Central” movement was going to “last for quite a long period of time”.

“They have set up a lot of resource centres and even first aid points, so we know that Occupy Central … is not a matter of days, but it will last for a relatively long time. Its [impact] on the people’s daily lives, their personal safety in the event of emergencies, the city’s economic development, as well as the cost on international image, will also grow bigger and bigger. I hope we can think about these issues,” he said.

The question then about the police’s intentions, becomes a question about China’s intentions. How long is ruling communist party willing to sit on the sidelines while its cherished principles of stability and order are flouted?

Everyone in Hong Kong is aware that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has little time for dissidents and political reformers.

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