21 Nov 2014

What's a political awakening worth? #OccupyCentral protests near end

As the protest numbers dwindle, it’s time to take stock. If the demonstrators decide to pack up their tents, what will they have to show for their efforts?

The single biggest problem pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong have is that they can’t vote out the people who govern in their name.

That’s why so many people have sought alternative ways to change the system – a form of government controlled by a small number of hand-picked, Beijing-approved individuals.

Over the last two months we have watched as citizen activists and student groups tried to crank up the pressure on the territory’s leaders by occupying – and defending – three sites in the heart of the city. The idea is simple: go about disrupting economic activity in one of the world’s top financial centres until the authorities agree to hold open, western-style, leadership elections.

hong kong campers

However, after 54 dogged days of street-camping, many demonstrators think they are running in a marathon with no finish line. In a recent poll conducted by student protesters, half of those questioned said they were prepared to pack it in if directed by the leaders of the Occupy movement.

Numbers dwindling

A certain weariness hangs over the main “Admiralty” protest. I had a candid chat by the first aid stand with an organiser called Gary, and he admitted that they were “leaking” participants.

“We just don’t have enough protesters,” he said. “We used to have thousands but we’re down to about 600 now.”

Gary had a confession to make as well. “I ducked back home last night and my bed was so comfortable,” he said. “A lot of people here are thinking about Christmas. I mean, are we really going to decorate this place with Christmas lights?”

One man with a tent at “Admiralty” is media mogul – and long-time pro-democracy supporter – Jimmy Lai. In an interview with Channel 4 News, he said it was time to pursue a new a strategy.

“The protesters need to save their energy. The struggle for greater democracy is going to take time,” Lai said. The billionaire businessman said he was worried the public were losing their patience with the occupation – but he acknowledged the decision to retreat is not his to make.

“I am not in control of this movement. I’m not the boss. Everyone (here) has got a say.”

The Hong Kong leader CY Leung will be delighted to hear that key figures in the protest movement are advocating a tactical withdrawal. If the students leave of their own accord, it would save him – and his political masters in China – from having to use force to clear them off the streets. What’s more, the much-derided Mr Leung will emerge from this sizable rebellion as the victor – the strong man who saw off the protesters while offering nothing in return.

Has it been worth it?

So, down at the protest sites, it’s time to take stock. If the demonstrators decide to pack up their tents and their study centres – if they agree to cart off the art and raze the allotment – what will they have to show for their efforts?

The answer to that question is anything but clear. Hong Kong’s deputy leader, Carrie Lam, says there’s no point having discussions with protester leaders – and when they tried to fly to Beijing last week to talk directly to the Chinese prime minister, the border guards wouldn’t let them in.

Still, one thing’s for certain. Many people in this city have experienced a political awakening – and everyone here has been exposed to the political ideas advocated by #OccupyCentral. There is something about its physicality, its determined presence in Hong Kong that cannot be switched off or avoided.

But what is an awakening worth? It may take months or even years to know the answer.

Follow @c4sparks on Twitter

What is urban camping like?

Life as a pro-democracy protester is not as grim as the above passage suggests. In fact, “activist camping” in downtown Hong Kong comes with a number of little-known comforts.

Demonstrators are assigned tents and given a freshly laundered sleeping bags by protest organisers. They also receive one-month sim cards for their phones and meals supplied by volunteers.

There is a beautifully kept public toilet underneath a concrete staircase in the middle of the Admiralty protest site. Inside the gents, I found toothpaste and toothbrushes, razors and shave cream and cleansers with essential “skin-whitening” agents.

And for those who need a hot shower, word is you can turn up at the local squash club and they’ll let you in.