Occupy Central

Violence a real worry during Occupy Central

Sonny Lo maps out the scenarios that could see the democracy movement descend into chaos

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 1:51am

Few local commentators have examined how the Occupy Central movement next year may result in violence, but there are several scenarios that could lead to such a conclusion.

The pan-democrats, including the moderates spearheading the movement and those cross-party actors in the Alliance for Universal Suffrage, hope to use the movement as a bargaining chip to exert pressure on the Hong Kong government and Beijing to make concessions on electoral reforms for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections, in 2017 and 2020 respectively.

It is possible the Hong Kong government and Beijing will make minimal concessions, such as increasing the number of directly elected elements in the legislature while retaining the 50:50 split between members returned via geographical constituencies and functional constituencies.

Furthermore, whatever the eventual plan put forward by the government, it is also possible that the lawmakers may reject it. Any proposal would require a two-thirds majority vote in Legco for passage.

Either of these outcomes would be seen as a setback, and may well trigger violence. How?

First, the radical democrats, especially those with a very strong local identity but relatively weak Chinese identity, would probably remain in Central to protest until the police were deployed to remove them, thus leading to scuffles and confrontations. Such clashes could occur as a result of the increasingly strong local Hong Kong identity and the pro-establishment identity of the police force.

Another possible spark is the serious split between the moderate and radical democrats on the one hand, and the pro-establishment and pro-Beijing groups on the other.

The shouting matches between the two camps are all too obvious in public forums; these are very likely to intensify in June and July next year, when the Occupy Central movement reaches its climax. Tensions will no doubt rise with the government's publication of its consultative document on political reform, which will lead to fierce debates on all sides.

To some radical democrats, the moderates just want to occupy the moral high ground of the democracy movement. As such, the radicals are likely to choose a hardline stance on political reform, and to take a tough line on how long democrats should stay in Central.

The debate on how long the Occupy Central movement will last and how it should end will probably trigger serious internal squabbles between the radical and moderate democrats, and among the moderates themselves.

This scenario would be like a repeat of how mainland democrats struggled to agree on their strategies during the Tiananmen protests in May and early June of 1989.

The situation would also present a golden opportunity for the police to break up the movement, possibly leading to a situation with vague echoes of Tiananmen developments, albeit without the bloodshed.

In any case, violence could still erupt if some diehard demonstrators refuse to leave Central, due to any perceived lack of real reform. In this case, it would be a challenge for the police to maintain law and order.

In addition, we should consider the repercussions of any possible mass resignation of pro-democracy legislators, similar to the situation before the 2010 compromise between the moderate democrats and the central government's liaison office on Hong Kong's political reform.

Under these circumstances, we could see clashes between pro-Beijing diehards and campaign workers of pro-democracy legislators running in a by-election.

Finally, if after negotiations, all sides cannot agree on a model for political reform, moderate democrats could galvanise their supporters to protest against the government, thus paralysing Central and necessitating police intervention.

Even if a political compromise was reached between the government and moderate democrats, radicals would see it as a "betrayal" of Hong Kong's democratic development, and this could lead to confrontations with the police - a symbol of the administration.

The mouthpieces of the central government in Hong Kong have recently levelled serious criticism at the moderate democrats for initiating Occupy Central. Clearly, Beijing is adopting a hardline.

And Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said the movement could not possibly be lawful or peaceful.

Given the above scenarios, his pessimism is not without foundation. The dynamic nativism of the radical democrats; the radicals' perception of the moderates as opportunists; the determination of the police to maintain law and order; and the hardline stance of Beijing - all these factors do not bode well.

Sonny Lo is head of and professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education