New hope for Hong Kong's victorious youth

With the 'Occupy Central' movement starting to disperse it would be easy to think Beijing has 'won'. In reality, the protesters have achieved much.

On Saturday evening, at the end of the seventh day of ‘Occupy Central’ protests that had paralysed the city, Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung issued a strongly-worded statement to the public. The roads should no longer be blocked, he said, so that schools and workplaces could resume on Monday:

"The Government and the Police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order, so that the government and some seven million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life."

It seemed to be an unambiguous indication that the authorities would take action to remove all road blockades and end the protests before Monday morning. Protesters and observers widely expected the crackdown to come on Sunday night, and the atmosphere on the various ‘front line’ barricades protesters had set up on all the main arterial roads was tense.

Students on footbridges at key locations gazed out into the empty streets, walkie-talkies ready to radio back to base when the anticipated rows of police vehicles and riot police began their approach.

The scale of any operation to clear the roads is going to be large and complex, requiring many hours' work. As well as arresting any remaining protesters, the authorities will have to remove numerous road blocks which the students have had over a week to reinforce; they are now complex constructions of steel barriers, plastic road dividers, rubbish bins and assorted pieces of junk all strapped together with cling film and zip ties.

Then there are the numerous supply station marquees and first aid tents, piled high with supplies. And of course all those umbrellas. Given that the protesters have established bases at Mong Kok in Kowloon and the Causeway Bay shopping district as well as in Central, police resources would be thinly spread across multiple locations if they wanted to clear all sites in one evening.

By around 3am Monday morning, it became clear that the authorities would not be coming; they simply could not get the job done in time.

The administration later back-pedaled and claimed that the Saturday night statement was "not an ultimatum".  However Leung had clearly lost face and significant authority in failing to get the job done.

By Monday evening, the government and the protesters, represented by the Hong Kong Federation of Students were - finally - in discussions after over a week of intransigence by the government who refused to engage the protesters beyond issuing paternalistic edicts.

The two sides have now agreed on a framework for open dialogue as "equals", and the HKFS has vowed to continue their occupation until the government makes tangible concessions.

In the meantime, during Monday the Occupy crowds were dwindling, and by late Monday afternoon only a few hundred protesters remained of what had previously been thousands filling a three kilometre stretch of highway through the middle of downtown Hong Kong.

Although crowds grew again in the evening as work/classes ended, and the resolve of those who were out listening to speeches in the mild and pleasant Hong Kong autumn night seemed as strong as ever, they were nowhere near the numbers of the previous week.

If the administration sticks to what was rumored to be their original approach of sitting the protests out, it seems likely to be an ultimately successful strategy, and police can come in to sweep up any stragglers.

So whether through negotiated resolution, fatigue or creeping lack of interest, it seems likely there will be a peaceful resolution.

The remaining question is what will be the legacy of the Umbrella Revolution for Hong Kong?

There seems little chance of any compromise from Beijing on the protesters' key demands. CY Leung will not resign – after the resignation of inaugural chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa in 2005 following similar popular protests, losing a second chief executive in ten years in similar circumstances would be unacceptable to Beijing.

Nor will Beijing make any concessions on the chief executive election process. So it seems unlikely the movement will produce any real political change.

The events of the past week have also significantly undermined confidence in the government and law enforcement institutions of Hong Kong, with allegations of selective policing, police collusion with organised crime, and interference by mainland interests including by allegedly paying for and organising anti-Occupy activities.

There must be a public enquiry to address these and other questions. This is important not only to assist with the community healing process after what have undoubtedly been divisive and traumatic events, but also to restore confidence in Hong Kong's government and justice system.

At the same time, the Umbrella Revolution will clearly have some positive influences. The protests have fostered a remarkable sense of community in this fast-paced and often isolating city.

A spontaneous utopian society has sprung up in the tent cities around the protest sites, as young people organise rubbish collection and recycling, distribute free food, water and supplies, provide first aid, establish lending libraries, and host public lectures and nightly "sharing sessions" where people gather in groups to discuss their thoughts and feelings on the day's events. It is a degree of humanism many thought Hong Kong incapable of.

Finally, in the face of inevitable disappointment at the political outcome, one can only hope that the legacy the youth of Hong Kong are left with from the past two weeks is not one of cynicism, despair or resentment, but one of hope.

The movement has awakened in an entire generation of Hong Kong youth – a group many dismissed as being politically apathetic – and given them an awareness of and keen interest in their political process and fundamental rights.

When 2047 comes around, this will be the generation who are in charge in Hong Kong, when Beijing's promise of "50 years no change" after the 1997 handover comes up for consideration. It seems the future of Hong Kong is in safe hands.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based international lawyer.