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A cleaner cleaning up the protest site in Causeway Bay. Photo: AFP

Leung Chun-ying's game of patience was the right strategy against Occupy

Michael Wong credits the government for limiting any economic fallout


One enduring question about the Occupy movement concerns how it was handled. Many fault the government for not listening to or misjudging public sentiment, but the reality shows that the administration should be credited for a job well done.

The fact we have just enjoyed a relatively peaceful Christmas, with our economy intact, employment stable, and with tourists still flowing in, shows what a close shave it was. Had the situation been bungled, it would have definitely been "the nightmare before Christmas".

Probably the most difficult part in handling Occupy was that it was a headless monster. There was no visible leadership, nor was there a focused demand. Was it about a retraction of the National People's Congress decision on the 2017 chief executive election or the downfall of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying? Was it about real universal suffrage, or even independence?

Matters were complicated by the unexpected outpouring of support for protesters, plus a vocal and largely anti-government media. Worse, the public reaction to standard procedures to prevent rioting led to an explosive backlash against the administration.

One more wrong move could have led to a massive blowout, a Frankenstein monster no longer in the control of its own creator - or, worse still, intervention by the People's Liberation Army.

During the prolonged stand-off, nobody really knew what to do. Nothing seemed to work: the dialogue between the administration and student leaders started well and then fizzled out; Robert Chow Yung's anti-Occupy signature campaign of 1.8 million got nowhere; fightbacks by anti-Occupy demonstrators were met with a media backlash. When several policemen seemingly took matters into their own hands, it seemed that we'd hit rock bottom.


It would have been tempting for Leung to give in, as with the national education crisis, and hope for a quick resolution. Thus he deserves kudos this time for holding his ground. Chaos calls for emergent, untested answers. The administration gambled on the right one.

When there is no clarity about public support, it is best to use Sun Tzu's "borrowed knife". In this case, letting civic groups take matters into their own hands through the law courts was the right move.

It was, of course, unusual that civil lawsuits were used to settle social unrest. Some say the government was shirking its duties, but at the end of the day, it worked out well. Hats off to Leung for enabling a creative solution to emerge.

Patience turned out to be the biggest virtue. The Occupy situation could have dragged on for many more months. Every day that the arteries of the city were clogged, pressure was building. Waiting for public sentiment to shift against the Occupy protests was nerve-racking, as any misstep by the authorities could have triggered an avalanche of support for Occupy. The protesters knew this, and wasted no opportunity to provoke.


You have to credit the administration for stoically ploughing on. The chief executive, in particular, kept graciously quiet, at a time when the pressure was on him to speak up. Even the police chief stayed out of the picture until the end of the movement.

All in all, the protesters did not overturn the electoral framework, nobody died, things quickly returned to normal, and the students are back in school. Some say political awareness among youth has been heightened. And everybody learnt something new about democracy.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: In hindsight, Leung was right to wait out Occupy