It looks like the Occupy protests in Hong Kong are winding down. I had the chance to see what was actually happening on the ground last week and to talk with some people there. A few take-aways from my point of view:
The majority of Hong-Kongers probably don’t support continued occupation of city streets. I think recent polls have it at somewhere around 60-80% wanting the protesters to leave. I would further guess that overall support varies drastically based on age and how often they drive.
The challenge for pro-democracy activists is to figure out how to turn this into a long-run movement. Opposition to Occupy isn’t based so much on opposition to universal suffrage as a belief that direct confrontation with mainland China is a losing proposition.
Despite some initial violence, both the police and protesters have shown a surprising amount of restraint, at least relative to the Occupy protests in America (or, more timely, Ferguson). The number of anarchists among the protesters is fairly low. The tent sites are orderly (complete with assigned addresses), there are dedicated quiet spaces for students to do homework, and, despite being engaged in an act of civil disobedience, the protesters are still fairly supportive of the general rule of law — e.g. at least one of the protest leaders believes it’s important for him to serve jail time when all is said and done.
The pro-Beijing camp view the protests less as pro-democracy and more as anti-China. There’s a ring of truth to that, especially if you conflate “love of country” with “support the Communist Party”. It is, any rate, not hip for a young student to go wave the Chinese flag in Hong Kong. The bigger issue though is that the concept of federalism (or state or local rights) doesn’t exist in China. In the U.S., it’s possible for you to wave the American flag all day, yet still take offense to Congress vetoing who gets elected as mayor of San Francisco (DC residents, feel free to make a snide remark). In Hong Kong, opposition to the central government, for many, is equivalent to opposing to the state altogether (which seems ironic to me given how *not* anarchistic the protesters are).
A related disconnect is that of outcome vs. process. My sense is that most of the protesters probably wouldn’t change all that much of the overall direction of Hong Kong (the trains do run on time). And while Beijing has a vested interest in making sure each of its localities swear fealty to the central government, it otherwise could care less about the minutiae of Hong Kong’s local politics.
Many Hong Kongers take this as proof that the protesters are just troublemakers — i.e. why protest the government if you wouldn’t do anything differently? For the protesters, the issue is really about process — i.e. there’s a world of difference between disallowing someone from running for office because an independent judicial process found that person guilty of treason and disallowing someone from running because a committee of unelected bureaucrats decided he or she sang the national anthem wrong. We take the importance of process as a given in the U.S. — e.g. our leaders swear allegiance not to a piece of geography or a group of people or even an ideal, but to the Constitution, which, at its core, is really a 227-year-old how-to guide. Which isn’t exactly intuitive to a lot of folks in China.