Anxious friends called me last night in Wanchai, at the edges of the Occupy Central protest. The police had baton-charged at the crowd and fired tear gas, and people were streaming away from the event, crying and wailing. Yes, tear gas really works. No, Hong Kong is not afire, and life goes on this morning in the downtown business district (the stock market is down 1.7%).
Still, as I've said before, street protests are bad news for Hong Kong and it's hard to discern any winners from this event.
The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times Asian edition front pages both headlined last night's confrontation as a 'harsh crackdown.' The police will be criticized for their heavy-handed tactics, even though the boys in blue are just doing their job. The Hong Kong Government will be mocked as feckless lackeys and puppets, acting only for the interests of tycoons and on Beijing's commands. There was a telling scene a week ago when Xi Jinping summoned these businessmen, the emperor and his vassals.
Beijing itself is rebuked for dissembling on its Basic Law commitments and thereby provoking this civic response. The Occupy Central organizers who claim to lead a campaign for 'love and peace' have already lost control of affairs. The students (some as young as 13) tear-gassed last night will be described as naïve, led astray by troublemakers. The silent majority who just want to carry on with business will be condemned for being craven and apolitical.
How did we get here? To recap, Beijing has offered a restricted form of universal suffrage in which a 1200 person nomination committee (mainly loyal to mainland interests) must pre-approve candidates. Hong Kong's legislature can now choose either to accept or veto this arrangement. Actually, these choices are pretty good. If Hong Kong declines Beijing's formula, on the principled basis that it is a 'fake democracy' like Iran's, we will revert to the old-style (2002) system where voters get only a limited say in Hong Kong's governance, which is still more inclusive than the rule of British colonial administration.
If Hong Kong abides by Beijing's recommendation, the territory must elect candidates acceptable to China, hardly unreasonable, many may think. Although domestically Beijing insists that loving the country equates to loving the Communist Party, it has clarified rather awkwardly that its definition of Hong Kong patriotism merely requires not to oppose China's one-party rule. Besides, the democrats utterly lack an electable candidate in any case. So for all the much-ridiculed crocodile tears about the loss of freedom, one must question what better governance alternatives exist.
How bad could it get? Very bad. Twenty five years ago, we saw what happened when a threatened Beijing is backed into an existential confrontation. Today, China is a country with a triumphal sense of infallibility. It is so resolute and confident of its sovereign power that it can deliberately taunt large neighbors like Vietnam and India as a matter of routine. Hong Kong is a mere flyspeck by comparison, and a domestic concern at that. Of course, this is not June 1989, and Hong Kong is not the capital. But the protesters need to realize what they're dealing with here: a state that will use lethal force if it deems it necessary. Then there'll be real tears.