Analytic Guidance: What to watch for in the Hong Kong protests

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First of two parts

Editor’s Note: The following is an internal Stratfor document produced to provide high-level guidance regarding the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. This document is not a forecast but rather a series of guidelines for understanding and evaluating events, as well as suggestions for areas of focus.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced Oct. 2 that he had refused an ultimatum by student protesters to resign his post. Leaders of the protest movement had issued the demand Oct.1 threatening to take over government buildings. Though it was expected, Leung’s refusal could signal that the ongoing demonstration movement, known as Occupy Central, may be poised to enter its next phase.

Since the protests in Hong Kong began Sept. 22, student activists have demonstrated in several areas of the city. Their official demands include Leung’s resignation and, more important, that Beijing allow wider political reform and public nomination of candidates for the chief executive post. At the moment, Beijing plans to implement a system ahead of the 2017 elections in which a nomination committee would need to approve a list of candidates.


Beijing has made it clear that it does not plan to yield to any of these demands — at least not in a way that could be perceived as making a concession. For this reason, the movement will likely turn its strategy toward sustaining momentum and building long-term pressure on the government. The key for Occupy Central will be preserving internal coherence, accessing steady supplies for protesters and managing demonstrations in a way that does not alienate the public. Protest leaders have an interest in maintaining peace and order — any use of violent tactics could quickly undermine the movement’s legitimacy. Depending on how long the protests continue, Beijing will have limited options. It must choose between waiting to see if the movement disperses, providing limited political concessions, or cracking down. Each of these has its own drawbacks.

The Occupy Central movement consists primarily of young people from Hong Kong, and it is dominated by student groups. In Asia, students have often been major catalysts in political movements because of their perceived elite status in society, as well as their ability to mobilize members of other social classes. The movement in Hong Kong has presented a challenge for Beijing not because of its size or scope, or even its origins in Hong Kong, but rather because its aim is to achieve a progressive political transformation that Beijing cannot currently afford. A key question for Beijing now is whether the movement has the potential to inspire mainland pro-democracy campaigns or encourage foreign interference challenging Beijing’s political authority.

With these overarching factors in mind, Stratfor has identified a few key factors in each side’s calculations that will be useful in assessing the movement going forward.

Organization and tactics

Three core groups have been largely responsible for organizing the Occupy Central movement. Two of these groups — Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism — have relatively coherent internal structures and extensive protest experience. The current round of protests officially began on Sept. 22, when the Hong Kong Federation of Students led thousands of university students in a weeklong class boycott that involved a peaceful parade past government buildings. Around 1,500 secondary school students mobilized by Scholarism joined the movement Sept. 26. On Sept. 28, the student-led movement gained strength as activists with the Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a broader pro-democracy group, officially joined the protests, which at their peak reached 190,000 participants. A police crackdown that day transformed the movement, drawing in social classes including workers, professors, public figures and some bureaucrats from Hong Kong’s pan-democratic political factions.

The movement has thus far shown a high degree of self-discipline in adhering to non-violent tactics. While it does not appear to have a sophisticated organizational structure spanning the different groups, the movement has managed to coordinate protest tactics, logistics, supplies and sanitation. Because protests are likely to continue, it is important to better assess the level of coordination among the different groups moving forward. Also key will be the level of popular support the groups receive from different social classes and more important, the non-student pro-democracy groups, in order to analyze whether organizers can maintain their current leadership role over the crowds. Because neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government will likely grant political concessions in the near-term, the likelihood of internal fragmentation in the movement will grow, with different factions likely advocating different tactics. We are watching for any signs of splits within the movement or a shift in tactics that could weaken the movement’s coherence.

Mainland spillover

To prevent the pro-democracy campaign from spreading to mainland China, Beijing has maintained tight Internet censorship and blocked media coverage of Occupy Central. It also banned tourists from entering Hong Kong from the mainland. These measures have worked so far, primarily because the mainland public generally has less sympathy for Hong Kong.

Many even view the public resistance in Hong Kong as disobedience to a central government that has provided the city-state with favorable treatment for several decades. However, the potential that democratic ideas will spread through non-censored media, social networks and pro-democratic groups inside China cannot be underestimated. Stratfor will continue to watch for the spread of pro-democracy ideology in the mainland, particularly in areas bordering Hong Kong and in other coastal regions.– © 2014 By Stratfor

Publishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of Stratfor.

(Concluded tomorrow)

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