OCCUPY CENTRAL - DAY 74
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Occupy Central

The game changes: as Occupy sites are cleared, Hong Kong's democracy protesters go 'shopping'

As the clearance of Occupy sites at Admiralty begins, new forms of spontaneous and leaderless protest are starting to emerge

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 December, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 December, 2014, 9:37pm

The "shopping tour" protest in Mong Kok on Tuesday night appeared at first as if it had lost steam. Only a tiny crowd showed up at the usual starting point, outside the Broadway Cinema on Sai Yeung Choi Street South.

Most of the younger "shoppers", whose numbers could grow to 200 each night, were nowhere in sight. Instead, a counter-protest group lurked nearby.

But then the "shoppers" popped up suddenly, right behind the counter-protesters and hurled sarcasm-laced chants at them.

Each night, the protesters turn on its head a call by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for the public to shop more in Mong Kok, after the two-month-long street occupation was cleared on November 26. They show up to do just that - except that they only buy a few, inexpensive items and mostly walk up and down the pavements, singing and shouting slogans.

Sarcasm infuses the "shopping tour" as protesters shout "gau wu", a Cantonese transliteration of Putonghua's gou wu or "to shop". The expression became popular after a mainland tourist who joined an early anti-Occupy rally told a reporter she was there to shop.

This new form of demonstrating may just be the beginning of more to come as pro-democracy activists experiment with new ways to continue their fight after Occupy. The key features of the "shopping tour" protest - spontaneous, leaderless, sporadic and possibly skating on thin legal ice - give a hint of the emerging forms of social activism in post-Occupy Hong Kong.

The shops appear wary. Most put up their shutters when the protesters appear, their business disrupted. But among those that responded to the Post's queries, jewellery chain Chow Tai Fook said it saw no impact on its daily operations or revenue, while Tse Suen Luen Jewellery reported a "drop in foot traffic" at its two stores in the area.

Watch: Scenes from "shopping tour" protests in Mong Kok 

The core group of "shoppers" - most of whom spent their days in October and November camping in Mong Kok - stressed they came of their own accord and not at anyone's bidding.

"If you ask me who the organiser is, I can think of nobody but 689," said protester Man Ip, using a popular nickname for CY Leung that refers to the 689 votes he received from the 1,200-member election committee in 2012.

"Not a single group now has that much influence and power that they can order others around," said the 23-year-old fresh graduate who has been at Mong Kok every night since September 28, when police used tear gas on protesters.

"It started out as an attempt to try to reoccupy Nathan Road on the night after it was cleared, but we were very much outnumbered by the cops," Man said.

"Soon, there were people chanting ' gau wu, gau wu', telling others to follow 689's appeal to shop and that's how it started."

But Man conceded that protesters had not yet thought of ways to go further with the "shopping tour".

Most die-hard Occupy protesters, he said, were exhausted by the toll their two-month strike had taken.

Another "shopping tour" protester, Sam Ho, 36, was equally candid. He said they might not be able to "come up with brilliant ideas" on how to move forward, but "as long as police are beating people up for no reason, we will be wherever we are needed." He himself belonged to a small group of musicians and other artists who got involved in several aspects of the protest and did not rule out regrouping later.

Whichever action they choose, the protesters will have to think carefully about their legal implications.

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said there was every chance that even if what the "shoppers" did appeared above board, the courts might not be persuaded if the police pressed charges. Possible offences, among other things, could include unlawful assembly or loitering.

As pro-democracy activists mull over their post-Occupy strategies, a scholar who studies public opinion told the Post that the movement would likely intensify if the government offered no compromise that at least the majority would accept.

"Hong Kong over the past 10-odd years has been undergoing a slow process of radicalisation," said Professor Francis Lee Lap-fung, a journalism scholar at Chinese University who conducts regular public opinion polls - including a recent survey which charted the public support for the Occupy protests.

"You can find a moderate and a radical faction in every social movement," Lee said.

In the "umbrella movement", he believed the moderates would continue to take charge if those in power were willing to engage in negotiations and if the outcome satisfied the majority. That would then leave less room for the radicals to gain ground.

But if the deadlock continues, Lee said the ensuing protests would likely get increasingly more radical as frustration grew.

"The Occupy Central co-founders [Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Dr Chan Kin-man and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming] have already said Hong Kong has entered the era of civil disobedience," Lee added. "Different forms of non-cooperation will certainly appear, but the formats they will take are hard to guess at the moment."

He expects though that many smaller protests or actions at different locations may be the thrust of a looser, wider movement.

Ip Iam-chong, assistant cultural studies professor at Lingnan University, said the groups could work separately as long as they shared the same goals and "a movement with a wider spectrum will be harder for those in power to handle".

On their "leaderless" structure, he said: "If you are committed to a cause instead of just taking part in flash mob actions, you have to figure out how to organise the like-minded into something bigger."