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Is Occupy Hong Kong Coming to an End?

If somebody doesn't step up to readjust Occupy Hong Kong's paradigm—and soon—the movement will surely flatline.
December 2, 2014, 10:45pm
Photos by the author

On October 15, six Hong Kong police officers carried a social worker named Ken Tsang to a dark corner, tossed him to the ground, and proceeded to beat him up. His hands were tied behind his back. They kicked him as he rolled on the ground; in totla, the beating lasting around four minutes.

That location is now ​legendary, sort of a monument to police brutality in Hong Kong that—at least in recent memory—has not made for much in the way of public spectacle. Occupy protests against Beijing's refusal to grant locals a real choice in future elections are waning, but the reputation of local police won't emerge unscathed.

When footage of October 15 incident surfaced, there was a tremendous public outcry. The police and triad gangs worship the same warrior god, offering easy comparisons between the two. Even though the police officers involved in the beating could easily be identified, the investigation moved slowly and it wasn't until last week that seven police officers were ​arrested and accused of beating Tsang. They were charged with "assault occasioning actual bodily harm," which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years. It should be noted that, as police officers, they could have been charged with a different crime, one that punishes public servants who commit assault during the execution of their duties and carries a life sentence.

In Hong Kong, just like everywhere else, the system protects its own.

And just like seemingly every other police department in the world, Hong Kong's police force has a major public relations problem. Once a trusted entity, now anyone who wears a police uniform is smeared. They're compared to dogs and accused of colluding with gangsters. Everything they do comes under intense scrutiny. When they show up at protest sites with bailiffs to execute court orders, tempers flare.

At the peak of the demonstrations, there were three active protest sites in Hong Kong. The first, a camp in the Admiralty district, is near government buildings and the People's Liberation Army barracks. Then there's Causeway Bay, in the heart of a popular shopping area. The last neighborhood the protesters are active in, Mong Kok, is also popular with shoppers but has a decidedly rugged touch, and has been the roughest in terms of showdowns between protesters and police and between protesters and anti-Occupy elements.

Last Tuesday, police ​cleared a small patch of the occupied area in Mong Kok, though there were more reporters and spectators than actual protesters. Bailiffs and police officers appeared at the site in the morning, but it wasn't until about 4 PM that vehicles could use the street again.

That was likely a test to see how protesters and spectators would react, as the police ​returned the next day to clear out the rest of the tents, artwork, and all other Occupy materials in Mong Kok. More than 100 protesters were arrested. Those who wanted to retrieve artwork from the trash heaps confronted the police and were finally able to do so before everything was taken to a landfill. Afterward, fresh paint was slathered over walls to cover all traces of subversion.

Many who sympathized with the demands of the protesters were actually glad to see them gone. One business owner in Mong Kok told me, "I spent 20 years building my [home renovation] business here. These kids talk about democracy and everyone having a say, but they never asked any of us who are actually from here before they took up our roads. Rent for my business is about $15,500 a month. I understand what they're doing, but they've slit my throat by blocking my business, and they're bleeding me dry."

For him, getting the protesters to go home isn't just about refilling his bank account. It's about maintaining his livelihood and the livelihoods of his staff, and making sure that something he built doesn't wither and die. We saw this with Occupy Wall Street in the United States, when local business owners and residents were irked by loud drumming circles and unorthodox tactics of the activists, who failed to win the allegiance of the average guy on the street.

Two months into Occupy Hong Kong, everyone is a little tired. It's only getting colder and rainier, and conditions aren't ideal for a long-haul sit-in. After Mong Kok went down, cops and protesters alike were on edge. Would the police continue their sweep at the other camps? Would the clearing of Mong Kok reenergize a stalling protest movement?

On Sunday, some protesters ​launched from the Admiralty camp and attempted to encircle the government headquarters. The police rushed in with batons and ​CS spray to stop them. It was the most violent episode in the past few weeks, with riot police beating protesters to disperse them. At least 18 people were arrested.

Dawn cracked and eventually everyone cooled down. By 11 AM Monday, the Admiralty was quiet again. Students sprawled on the road and fell asleep. Some retreated into their tents. A girl was cutting foam pads and tying them to her arm with twine. She told me that she needed body armor if she wanted to face the cops again.

At this point, Occupy Hong Kong has clearly lost steam. The political leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing aren't budging. They don't see a reason to. In their eyes, the pro-democracy protesters are only lawless hooligans. Continued agitation is only turning public opinion against the pro-democracy activists, at least when it comes to occupying public spaces and roads.

Sensing that their actions have been ineffective, one of the student leaders, Joshua Wong (who happens to be a candidate for TIME's Person of the Year), announced Monday that he will be going on an indefinite hunger strike. Two other members of his student group, Scholarism, will be joining him. The three teenagers said that they will only drink water during the strike.

One of the masterminds behind the Occupy Movement, Benny Tai, also went on hunger strike in October. That didn't achieve much, and it's unclear if Wong's action will either.

If somebody doesn't step up to readjust Occupy Hong Kong's paradigm, the movement will surely flatline soon. In fact, the three founders of the movement just ​announced that they will surrender Wednesday. They say they want the protestors to take the spirit of the Umbrella Movement back to the community.

Translation: It's time to go home.